The origin and transformation of the Djembe drum – [The short story] : Alpha Rhythm Roots - Djembe Drumming Blog
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The origin and transformation of the Djembe drum – [The short story]

by Alpha (Administrator) on 06/12/13

The Djembe drum was invented over a millennia ago in West Africa by the blacksmiths (Numu people), in a region close to the north east border of modern day Guinea and Mali. The blacksmiths make all the wooden and iron based tools such as the Wooden Mortar and farming tools.

The original Djembe was the mortar. Have you ever seen a group of women using a mortar all at once, pounding the grain in a regular cycle, so well done that you can hear repetitive pattern?. No wonder this inspired the creation of a musical instrument.

The mortar was transformed into a Djembe by piercing a hole at the bottom, and covering it with a stretched animal skin. Initially, Djembes were not sold. They were played by Blacksmiths to accompany and enhance ceremonies and popular events. Before the Djembe, celebration was done by singing and clapping.

The first Djembe skins were attached to the wooden shells with wooden pegs inserted through pierced holes on the edge of the skins. The skin was stretched as much as physically possible, then heated with fire just before playing. Eventually, the tension would cause the skin to tear. It wasn’t long before the pegs were replaced by animal skins rolled into a rope. This helped prolonging the life of the drum head. This new system proved to be very efficient and was adopted by everyone across the mandingue. Meanwhile, the Djembe was being played by people that were no longer Blacksmiths. Soon,   playing the Djembe became a profession with a number of people playing remaining small.

In the early 1950’s, the Guinean national ensemble (also called balai), went on its first world tour. They represented the best percussionist, musicians, singers, and dancers on a national scale. Their main problem was that, unlike in Guinea where the climate is hot and most of the shows are outdoors, it was not easy to have access to a live fire to tune up their Djembes while on tour and playing indoors. They were on the hunt for something that would transform their instrument and allow them to show the full potential of this phenomenal instrument without the need of a fire.

In the 1970’s, while the Guinean national ensemble was on a world tour, they came across a very strong rope (Mountain climbing rope) that they decided to use instead of the animal skin thread, hoping that the strong rope would provide more tension in the skin, and eliminate the need of a fire. The new rope allowed the Djembe skin to be tighter and provided the desired pitch, just like when the skinhead was heated with a fire. However, the skin was now so permanently stretched that it started breaking, forcing the national ensemble musicians to change the head frequently while on tour.

About 10 year later, the same national ensemble members came across an interesting Djembe evolution while on tour in West Africa. Someone had used a thin metallic wire to reinforce the point where the animal skin thread and the skinhead jointed, by wrapping the wire around the top edge of the shell. The basic idea of the “iron rings system/vertical ropes” was born.

The evolution to the three iron rings system and vertical ropes that we know today happened through common work of ancestral blacksmiths drum makers, and the top national percussionist in Guinea and Mali. However, because of the unavailability of climbing rope in West Africa, and the fact that only National balai members really needed to be able to play without using fire, this new system was used exclusively by the balai members for some time. Eventually, Drum makers started to build them for any musicians, but they were still built with poor quality vertical rope, or whatever the drum maker could find. This was not a problem for West African musicians who would still use fire to further stretch the skin before playing. Eventually, imported climbing rope became available to all drum makers, and not exclusively used by national ensemble members.

Today, we can still find the old style Djembe in remote areas of the country, but the closer you get to the capital city, and the more you will find Djembes like the one played by the national ensemble.

The transformation of the Djembe was driven by the specific needs of the National ensemble members. The demand for the Djembe rose from Europe, then North America, as a result of the National ensemble world tours. Soon, craftsmen from neighbouring African countries saw a new market opportunity to mass produce and sell the instrument. Neighboring countries (mainly Ghana and Senegal), started to flood the international market with cheaply made / look-alike Djembes which unfortunately became the quality norm for a very long time, mainly because people in Europe and North America just didn’t know what a real Djembe was supposed to look and sound like. These poor quality look-alike djembes were then copied by craftsmen in other countries like Indonesia, which also saw a new market opportunity, flooded the market with look-alike djembes of even worst quality. The real ancestral Djembe instrument remained mainly not available outside of West Africa.

Today, a majority of the Djembes you find on the market in North America are only look-alike, poorly made quality, However the Ancestral Djembe makers in Guinea and Mali, and other countries with Djembe expertise from the mandingue area, have finally found their way to the international market to sell their authentic and ancestral instrument.

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