The Djembe: History and Origin of an African Hand Drum
The economy had taken a turn for the worst, as was evident by the listless spirit of Rhythm Fusion, a small but world-renown shop that specialized in percussion instruments from around the world. The Mom and Pop store had been a beehive for many years, but now our favorite neighbor's regular complaints about the noise had not been registered for weeks—maybe months.
Just as I contemplated the unnatural silence of a drum store, three local musicians strolled in. We nodded acknowledgements, and they gravitated immediately to the djembes; I don't know why—neither of the three are djembefolas—but I'm glad they did.
The djembe is a goblet-shaped, West-African hand drum from 11” to 14” in diameter and about 24” in height. Technically, it belongs to the family of musical instruments known as membranophones, because it consists of a shell covered by a membrane of rawhide, usually derived from goat or cow. Ideally, the shell is hand-carved from a single piece of hardwood that results in a Helmholtz resonator, giving it a deep-throated bass. Prior to the twentieth century, the membrane was attached to the shell with sinew, intestine or a strip of rawhide. Nowadays, stretch-resistant nylon and/or polyester rope has become the norm. Wood density, carving patterns, skin characteristics and the general shape and proportions of the shell combine to produce a unique and versatile voice.
Culturally, the djembe is an African icon infused with lore, at least some of which is probably based on fact. Since African history has not been documented in writing until recently, much of what is known about the drum has been transmitted through the oral traditions. One popular belief is that the numu, or blacksmiths, of the Malinke people of Guinea were the first to carve a djembe and originally played it only during the smelting of iron ore. Another story tells of a woman who broke through the bottom of an old mortar as she was pounding millet and had the ingenuity to mount a skin on it.
Ready to Pound Millet
The Bamana people of Mali hold that their saying Anke dje, anke be, which translates to everyone gather together in peace, serves to give the drum its name as well as define its purpose. Dje translates to gather, and be translates to peace. Djebe . . . Djembe. According to highly respected djembefola, Abdoulaye Diakite, the drum was originally called jebe barra, meaning unity drum.
Whatever the djembe's true origin may be, it is now an intrinsic part of West-African culture. The drum is used for communication between villages and to reconcile differences between the men of a community. Storytellers and healers find the instrument's brilliant and expressive voice the perfect complement to their art. It is the instrument of dance for social occasions such as births, funerals, marriages, rites of passage and the planting and harvesting of crops, all of which have their own songs, dances and rhythms.
It's typical, on these occasions, for two djembes and a djun djun to accompany the jeli, or storyteller in a communal circle. Women sing, clap and dance, taking turns, as the spirit moves them, at the center of the circle. The djembefola, or djembe master, leads the pace of the song and dance, adjusting the tempo as one dancer, or group of dancers, yields center stage to another. A single, traditional song that can last for hours is played on most of these occasions.
The Unity Drum in Action
Notice that, traditionally, the djembe is not intended to be a performance instrument played in front of an audience. It is intended to be a participant and contributor to noteworthy occasions of the village to which it belongs, just as every other member of the village will contribute and participate, each in his or her own way. It's believed that the djembe has magical qualities and is full of life, a life form that consists of three spirits: the spirit of the tree from which the shell was carved, the spirit of the animal from which the skin came from and the spirit of the drum's maker. Each drum inherits the characteristics of each particular spirit and is, therefore, unique, even to the point that the color of the skin is significant: djembes with spotted skins have a particular use, djembes with white skins have another use and djembes with dark skins have yet another use. It's not unusual for djembefolas to have particular djembes for particular occasions.
The djembe's role began to change in the 1950s, when African leaders began to worry that the influence exerted by Europe's colonization of much of the African continent had begun to undermine their culture. Government sponsored National Ballets and Ensembles were formed. Artists were paid to practice and perfect their art. The village celebration was choreographed to suit the stage, and the djembefola became a soloist.
Choreographed Version of Village Celebration
Next to the conga and the steering wheel, the djembe is the most popular hand drum of the Western World, so we had a fairly extensive selection of these drums at Rhythm Fusion. The three musicians meandered through the selection, picking one up here and there and sampling it, until one of them got his hands on a drum I had recently re-skinned. He slapped it and instantly pulled his hand away like it was a hot potato. The heads of his companions swiveled towards him as if yanked by a string, eyes wide open. The drum was screaming! They found seats and formed a mini-circle.
The person who discovered the drum was leader of the band my three visitors belonged to. He specialized in strings, but had been playing Latin music for many years, so he knew his way around rhythms and percussion. He played the drum for a bit, then passed it along as he commented on how “hot” it was. The next man up was also no percussionist, but he knew the sound of an exceptional drum and was eager to get his hands on it. Finally, it was Jose Reyes' turn. Jose is a monster conguero that I know fairly well because he had been conducting conga workshops at the store on a weekly basis. He set the drum between his knees and tilted it forward to give it full voice, then played the djembe for no more than a minute and a half, but within seconds had my hair standing on end. Thrills shot through me until he stopped his play.
There was a silence, and I realized that I had stopped breathing. I was holding my gasp.
There are drums, such as Japanese taiko drums and some Native American drums, that have the power to physically move me, that I can literally feel to the marrow, but they lack the range and vocabulary to deliver the emotional impact of a well-tuned djembe.
As my alter-ego ( The Drum Doctor, www.drumdr.com) might say, I love all drums, but none more than the djembe.