The Many Benefits of Djembe Drumming : Alpha Rhythm Roots - Djembe Drumming Blog
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The Many Benefits of Djembe Drumming

by Alpha (Administrator) on 08/07/10

            Djembe drumming has been around for centuries and originated roughly in the area between today’s West African countries of Guinea and Mali. In this region, the people have been playing this percussive music for all daily life events for so long that eventually the music blended into the culture and traditions, and has been such ever since.  A Guinean traditional orchestra is composed of eight percussive instruments or more; the Djembe being one of them. The base drums of the orchestra are called Doundoumba drums, and are mandatory instruments in the orchestra. Each instrument of the orchestra plays a different percussive pattern, and when all play together, it becomes a rhythm. 

Most people playing the Djembe outside of West Africa today have deviated so much from the West African orchestra model that they are missing the many benefits of Djembe drumming.

Beyond the obvious stress relief and community benefits of getting together to celebrate various events of the daily life, what are the benefits of being immersed in this percussive tradition?

If you are totally novice to the Guinean orchestra concept, and depending on the context in which you play Djembe, you may have no idea about the many benefits of traditional Djembe drumming. Among the many benefits of Djembe drumming played in a Guinean-style orchestra, we observe the following from the players:

- Improve listening skills and develop multitasking abilities:

 Listening to different repetitive musical patterns from 8 or more different musical instruments simultaneously is quite a challenge.

In a class environment, most students quickly realize the individual and group challenge of playing in a Guinean-style orchestra from the very first class.

Initially, you may only be able to focus on yourself and what you are playing, while listening to the rest of the orchestra might make you lose your drumming pattern. After a few classes, you will notice that you can begin to listen to other instruments of the orchestra, while continuing to play your attributed pattern.

After a few months, depending on the person, you may clearly be able to listen to multiple distinct patterns while easily playing your own.

Eventually, you will reach the point when you can hear the full orchestra and all of its percussive instruments; together with all its complexity… this is when the magic happens! . You will then hear the result of 800 years of perfected rhythms. You have to experience this to understand it, as it is very hard to describe.

In theory, all participants are part of the same orchestra and are all playing together, but at an individual level, each individual could be hearing something totally different, depending on the level that they are at.

 - Improve the way you work in a team:

Team work and synergy are important things while playing in a traditional Guinean orchestra. In a music class environment, the synergy is so high that a slight error from any of the participants can bring the entire orchestra into chaos, forcing all players to come to a halt. Players have to constantly listen to each other and cannot just focus on playing their assigned pattern. Class after class, students will improve the way they work in a team with a group of people which initially were unknown to them.  

- Improve Concentration and the Ability to Focus:

Concentration and focus is the key to playing in a Guinean-style orchestra. When playing, each individual has to hold a steady pattern matching the overall orchestra rhythm in a very precise way. Most beginner students have problems focusing. They start playing their assigned pattern, and moments later, they have to restart what they were playing, simply because they are not 100% there. The first few rhythms being played in classes are basic enough that some people may still be able to think about something else while playing, but soon enough everybody realize that they have no choice but to focus at a 100%, or they just won’t be able to play at all.  This is when you really start improving your concentration and focus dramatically.  

- Improve short term memory:

 During Guinean-style orchestra classes, students are required to remember simple to complex patterns with specific timing and melodies. These exercises can dramatically improving anyone’s short term memory.

- Improve left and right hand coordination and independence:

Playing Djembe in a Guinean-style percussion orchestra involves high coordination between right and left hands, while keeping a consistent playing motion.  

Eventually, you will achieve total right and left hand independence through regular practice, as long as you play with the proper hand technique passed along for centuries. Needless to say, someone has to teach you those techniques. Because these hand drumming techniques have been played, perfected, and passed along for centuries in West Africa, virtually no one can possibly find out these optimum techniques of playing and superimposing voices on a single instrument without being taught.  

It is not unusual for people who hear a Djembe playing to think that, 3 or 4 players are involved, while there is only a single person playing a single instrument.  

 - Communicate without words or gestures:

Communicating without words or gestures is another interesting experience of playing in a Guinean-style orchestra. Players spontaneously initiate pattern changes (call), that in turn trigger another player to change his/her pattern (response), to finally go back to the initial respective playing pattern for each of them. These self-initiated call/ responses are pre-defined complex drumming phrases that temporarily change the overall rhythm. Furthermore, a lead Djembe player plays a set of musical phrases indicating the start, the changes, and the end of a musical piece (rhythm), without any words or gestures made by anyone. Almost each musical piece of the orchestra (or Rhythm) has its own specific signaling phrase (also commonly called “break”) that is used to communicate between players. Guinea alone has over 300 Rhythms, consequently, there are almost as many unique signaling phrases.

- Develop Confidence:

Learning how to play in a Guinean-style orchestra will build up a student’s confidence in themselves. While improving drumming skills, students will learn to overcome the challenges placed in front of them by the teacher at each and every class. 

 - Discovering the world of improvisation and soloing:

The concept of soloing in a Guinean-style orchestra is really about hearing the overall rhythm, and embellishing it with an improvisation of your own. A steady rhythm is necessary to allow soloing. Without it, there is nothing to embellish. As one can imagine, the soloist needs to be very skilled.  In a Guinean-style orchestra, the foundation of a steady rhythm is provided by the base drums (Doundoumba drums).

In Guinea, and in most of West Africa, dancing is the ultimate reason the music is played, and the duo music/dance is very rarely separated.  In Guinea, most rhythms have their own specific dance choreography.

The Djembe soloist follows the dancer’s steps, while also embellishing the overall rhythm. This means that the soloist has to know the dance choreography as well as all music arrangements. Consequently, the soloist has to have mastered all of the skills previously outlined throughout this text (excellent hand coordination, multitasking skills, the ability to concentrate, etc.) and combine them all at once! This is why the soloist is often the most skilled Djembe player….

- Learn about Mandingue and Guinean culture / traditions:

Since the music is blended in the culture and traditions, it is very helpful to understand the context and origin of each Guinean rhythm in order to be able to play it properly.

As an example, one rhythm was originally played on a shaker instrument by multiple players, and over time, it became a full percussion orchestra rhythm adapted onto the Djembe and Dounoumba drums.  The rhythm has been named after the shaker instrument. When you know the origin of the rhythm it helps you play better because you know how the different patterns evolved. Each rhythm has a history and a meaning, while being played at daily life events (weddings, harvest, etc).

Rhythms are played by different ethnic groups with different cultures / traditions, and a good Djembe class should include all components.Many articles have been written about the many benefits of Djembe drumming. However, most people playing the Djembe outside of West Africa today have deviated so much from the Guinean-style orchestra model that they are missing the many benefits of Djembe drumming.

 So many countries have specific drums, with drumming as a part of their musical heritage. The only way to experience the many benefits of drumming is to play each instrument with its original context in mind. You will then be guaranteed to experience the many benefits of drumming.Beyond all the benefits described in this article about Guinean-style percussion drumming, are there any higher medical or other benefits to drumming?

The only thing I can tell you is that only the students who study and practice long enough will find out for themselves!  

Novice Djembe players often confuse a repetitive Djembe pattern and call it a rhythm. As mentioned previously, a rhythm is the music formed by multiple patterns played by multiple instruments in the orchestra.  Calling a pattern a rhythm really diminishes the size of the Guinean traditional music repertoire!

( 1 pattern for each of the  8 instruments in the basic orchestra )  X  (300 Guinean rhythms)=Thousands of distinct individual patterns

 At “Alpha Rhythm Roots” we have ongoing weekly Djembe classes in Toronto, Canada, as well as in Hamilton, Guelph and Mississauga. Visit the “drumming classes” section of our web site for further details.

Still skeptical?  Check out for yourself !  


Copyright © 2002-2015  Alpha Rhythm Roots - All Rights Reserved – Written by Alpha

Comments (4)

1. cigana said on 8/8/10 - 09:08PM
Yeah, its true, the classes really helped me to improve my listening skills and to develop "multi-tasking" at another level. I saw how challenging it was to keep playing a rhythm on the dounoumba or sangban while the rest of the instruments were also playing their parts of the rhythm...Challenging but also exhilarating to play all together..
2. Tania said on 10/2/11 - 08:29PM
I travel to Guinea a few years ago, and have been playing ever since. Can't wait to see how it will affect me in the long run. There's definitely something unbelievably magic happening when you play in the real ensemble.. drum circles don't even scratch the surface of it!
3. Zephyr said on 3/6/20 - 05:28AM
Thank you for sharing this cultural information and traditional approach! I have listened to West African music and rhythms for close to 40 years, yet have learned much from just this one post. While I approach my (Malian) djembe-playing very differently [completely improvisationally], and have never wanted to be limited to playing a particular pattern, surprisingly I still find many parallels to my own experiences and playing in your description. I have always tried to coordinate with the best players I could find on a given day, and through that have learned how to lead rhythms (songs I call them) that I compose on the spot out of the elements I find at-hand, and based upon some sort of repeating theme that blends all of the patterns around me until it has a coherent yet ever changing "groove" of it's own. These are never the same twice, yet there are always many young dancers, a good sense of community surrounding us all, and the ecstatic joy of co-creating amazing musical artworks that only happen once! Now, after nearly 20 years of playing, and at age 72, I am pulling together my first percussive ensemble to start gigging professionally in a polyrhythmic improvisational jazz-and-dance-bsnd! Life is wonderful! Thanks sgain. I think I'll be back often, even if these are old posts.
4. Alpha said on 3/7/20 - 07:26PM
Thanks for your comment Zephyr. I find it very interesting. Beside the fact that drummers in Mali tend to not use all 3 doundoun drums, and also some of the same pieces of music have different names, it is virtually the same concept of playing on the Djembe in both Guinea and Mali, and to some extend the same repertoire, as it is all part of "Mandingue music". From Guinea, to Guinea Bissau, to Senegal, to Burkina Faso, to Mali...all the same. The farther you go from the border of Guinea/Mali of today, the more you will notice slight differences..

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