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Playing the Djembe

Updated on October 15, 2014
robertzimmerman2 profile image

Robert is from south-east Florida and serves the world as a reference librarian. Also a musician, Bob plays bass in a Indie cover band.

Traditional Djembe
Traditional Djembe | Source

Playing the What?

The Djembe, that's what! Pronounced "Jem - be" (short e). The name of this drum comes from the Bamana (Mali) language and means "to gather in peace". Now THAT sounds like something we all need to do! Just think what a better world we can live in if we all could just play drums together.

Originating in Africa, the country of Mali, and is a carved wood "goblet" style drum with natural animal skin stretched over the top which is attached to the body of the drum by ropes or leather cords which tighten the drum head. The Djembe is a very versatile instrument and is popular around the World, but especially in today's community Drum Circles.

Djembe Construction
Djembe Construction | Source

Traditional Construction

Being a goblet shaped drum, Djembes feature a wide top for the skin head. The body then tapers like a goblet to a narrow waist, then flares out again more vertically to the bottom which is about half the size of the top.

Djembes are carved from hardwoods and the average size is about 25 inches tall with the top being about 13 inches across. The body of the Djembe is known as the shell. The shell starts out as a recently cut down hardwood tree and is carved out using simple hand tools. The inside of the shell is not smooth but has spiraling cuts or scallops where the craftsman carved out the final shape. This scalloping helps give the Djembe it's unique sound.

The drum head is made of untreated animal skin, usually goat, but other animal skins are used to get different sounds. Thicker skin makes the drum sound more warm and thinner skin results in a sharper sound. The skin is mounted on the shell with the area of the animal's spine down the middle. Since the skin is thicker down the spine, the player places the djembe with this spine going straight away from them so they can slap the drum head on either side of the spine where the skin is thinner.

Traditionally, a wet skin head with a leather ring sewn around the edge, was stretched onto the top of the shell. Other rings of leather go around the shell and strips of leather tie the rings together. Wooden pegs are put into the straps and twisted to further tighten the drum head. The pegs then are held to the body by the straps. After mounting the drum head is put close to flame to dry out the skin.

In the end the traditional Djembe is considered to be a pre-tuned drum but modern Djembes do offer adjustable tunning using screws to tighten the head around the drum.

Had you ever heard of the Djembe Drum before reading this?

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Djembe Construction
Djembe Construction | Source

Modern Construction

Modern Djembes are made a little differently. Two or three metal rings are placed around the skin head so the skin wraps around the rings and as tension is applied the skin grips the rings. Another metal ring goes around the waist of the shell and polyester rope is threaded between the head rings and the waist ring and tightened. The tension on a modern djembe can reach 1,000 pounds of force!

Like many other items in our modern world, Djembes are also constructed of synthetic materials. The shell cal be made of fiberglass, the head made of synthetic skin and instead of rope, standard drum lugs and hoops hold down the head. Advantages of this modern construction are ease of tunning, standardization of replacement heads and less changes in sound from weather conditions.

Playing the Djembe
Playing the Djembe | Source

Basic Playing Skills

There are many ways to produce sound from a Djembe but three basic types of strikes need to be mastered for standard rhythms. Each time the player strikes the head they quickly bounce their hand off the skin.

The first basic strike is the "slap", which makes a high pitched sound. The slap is made using the fingers tips and edge of the palm - hitting the head near the edge. The second strike is called the "tone", a medium pitched sound. The tone strike is made using almost all of the fingers plus the edge of the palm, again near the edge of the drum head. The other basic sound is the "bass" and that is played with the palm plus all the fingers flat near the center of the drum head.

By combining the slap, the tone, and the bass - even a new Djembe player can make interesting rhythms . Just like any other musical instrument, the key to success is to learn the basics and play slow at first. As you progress, increase the speed and complexity of your playing.

You can play the Djembe sitting down but make sure the drum is tipped slightly to let the sound exit the bottom of the drum. Since the average Djembe weighs only 20 lbs, many players wear the drum hanging on a strap that wraps around their shoulder. Wearing the Djembe also lets the player join the dancing that results from happy people and drums!

Djembe Instructional DVD's

Playing Djembe is Fun at Any Age!

Djembe Player
Djembe Player | Source

A Great Way to Start Drumming!

Since Djembe drums are often less expensive that other hand drums, many people start their exploration of hand drumming with a traditional rope and skin Djembe. Check out the links in this Lens for opportunities to purchase quality instruments and educational DVD's!

All children should learn a musical instrument (or several) as part of their education and hand drums, like the Djembe, can be a great way to start. Kids love to make noise anyway so hand drums are great musical instruments for kids.

Go ahead and invest in a strap and protective bag as well. That way you can carry your new Djembe easily and safely. Remember that skin drum heads do not like extremes of hot and cold or direct sun or rain. Even a simple nylon case will protect your Djembe from these hazards.

Happy Hand Drumming!

Hand Drums For Kids!

Include your children in the musical fun! Kids love to play the drums, and hand drums are a great way to get them started playing a musical instrument!

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    • ladyguitarpicker profile image

      stella vadakin 2 years ago from 3460NW 50 St Bell, Fl32619

      A very interesting instrument, and I probably would enjoy the drums. I like that the drums are a good start for checking out rhythms and see what you can do.

    • profile image

      MemoryMistress 4 years ago

      Yes I sure will. I have a djembe and absolutely love creating new new rhythms. Great page!

    • Nightcat profile image

      Nightcat 4 years ago

      I love the vido, hand drumming is becoming a lost art. Blessed! :)

    • robertzimmerman2 profile image

      Robert Zimmerman 5 years ago from SE Florida, USA

      @ruth-williams lm: Thanks, Ruth, glad that you enjoyed it. They are very expressive instruments "in the right hands!"

    • ruth-williams lm profile image

      ruth-williams lm 5 years ago

      Great lens, I love djembe drums - I think they're beautiful instruments and sound beautiful. Great overview of three of the notes too :)

    • profile image

      djembe-indonesia 5 years ago

      wonderfull, visit our website

    • profile image

      djembe-indonesia 5 years ago

      wonderfull, visit our website

    • robertzimmerman2 profile image

      Robert Zimmerman 5 years ago from SE Florida, USA

      @TonyPayne: That's a great idea! I do remember a Chinese saying that goes "If a man wrongs you, buy his son a drum!"

    • TonyPayne profile image

      Tony Payne 5 years ago from Southampton, UK

      I used to love drumming. Unfortunately my Mum didn't enjoy my drumming the kitchen counter top, doors, drawers, pots and pans etc quite as much as I did, and I was ALWAYS doing it! Great information, I think communal drumming sessions would help bring peace (but maybe not quiet) to a lot of neighborhoods.

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      anonymous 5 years ago

      A fantastic instrument. My neighbor has them from Senegal and that four different types of.