Transferred from an older blog: Original post date by Alpha (Administrator) in 2003
The Djembe is close to 800 years old, a musical instrument which originated in West Africa, more precisely the region of Guinea and Mali of today. Neighboring countries have also started to produce and play this phenomenal instrument. Eventually, the entire African continent has embraced the instrument. Imitators other countries in the world started attempting to built and mass produce the Djembe without fully understanding its manufacturing process (mainly Indonesia...North America...etc). As you can imagine, none of these countries will ever match the expertise developed over centuries of building and perfecting the instrument in the Guinea and Mali area.
I call these drums Djembe look-alike..
There are a wide variety of Djembe-like drums on the market that are sold as Djembes. Djembe look-alike drums, are sometimes more expensive than Djembes because of the cost of materials used to make them look like authentic handmade West African Djembes. If you want a real Djembe, buy from the source!
Authentic Djembe drum from Guinea, West Africa
Indonesian or North American look-alike drums with plastic heads, and mounting screws, do not allow the player to play the different sounds on the head. Think of it as a guitar where all the strings are the same, and have the same tension. What's the point of having a guitar with multiple strings if they all have the same pitch, playing the same notes? In the same way, what's the point of playing on a drum-head that can only make a limited number of sounds? Furthermore, Authentic Djembes have a rich/warm sound that no synthetic made instrument can reproduce.
Before purchasing a Djembe, follow these few tips: - The shell should be made out of a single piece of wood, which delivers the finest sound.
- A Djembe should be built out of traditional West African wood. These Djembe woods are chosen for their resonance, density, and other important properties. They cannot be found in North America or elsewhere, only West Africa, where the Djembe originates from.
For further information on Djembe woods, please read our blog article called "Djembe wood".
- The head should be made out of Goatskin from West Africa - You can usually see a line from the goat’s spine across the middle of the Djembe head, which is a good sign of real goatskin, but still does not guarantee it's origin. West African goat skins are known to have special properties due to the kind of food the goats eat, as well as the hot and humid climate. These factors will provide unique skins with higher resistance, stretching capabilities suitable for a Djembe. Any synthetic type of head just won’t do it, and non-African goatskin heads will only provide a much lower sound quality.
- The shell and head should be assembled with a total of 3 iron hoops, together with rope. Any kind of metallic screws cannot equal the traditional rope assembly method.
- A non-stretching rope must be used to assemble the Djembe. This maintains permanent tension and makes fine-tuning the Djembe an infrequent procedure. If not, a rope of poor quality would mean loosing tension in the head, and having to tune your Djembe frequently!
Traditional Djembes used to be mounted with a different system with no vertical ropes, and no iron hoops. Instead, the head was kept in place using wooden pegs, and later a rolled piece of animal thick skin going through pierced holes in the shell (Antelope / Cow...). Iron hoops are a recent Djembe enhancement driven by specific needs of the Guinean "national ballet" professionals touring the world. In Guinea, Djembe fine-tuning used to require the skin to be heated by a fire. The iron hoops and non-stretching rope were introduced to allow a permanent tension, so that the Djembe would always be ready to play in any environment, such as indoor performances. (For further information on this topic, please read our blog article about the origin and transformation of the Djembe )
- The weight of a Professional Djembe is usually from 5-10Kg (11-22Lbs!), sometimes even more. Any full-sized Djembe significantly lighter than 5kg is most likely not a real instrument. - The height of a professional Djembe should roughly be between 23" and 25", while the diameter of the head should be close to 13.5". Any Djembe with a head significantly smaller than 12" is only an instrument for children. Please note that bigger does not necessarily mean better within the range of professional Djembes. The height of the Djembe should be selected according to your own height. The size of the head of the Djembe should be selected according to the size of your own hands - All our professional full sized Djembes have an average head diameter of 13.5 inches, and an average height of 24.5 inches which fits 99% of people. Read our blog article entitled "Choosing the right authentic Djembe for you" for further details. - The important factors in building a Djembe with a high-quality sound are the combination of the type of wood used, its density, the shape inside of the shell, the weight, proportion of the shell, the quality and how thick / thin the skin is for a particular shell, together with its overall assembly method. There are so many more factors involved, and missing only one of the many requirements can have a devastating effect on the sound. This is why we recommend only purchasing Djembes hand-made and mounted by expert West African craftsmen.
Whether you are planning on playing regularly or only occasionally, buying a non-traditional Djembe look-alike is not worth it. You will thank yourself down the road, if you purchase a lifetime authentic Djembe assembled in West Africa. Your purchase will be supporting the African craftsmen who have been working hard on each and every single Djembe for generations.
Furthermore, North American Djembe-like hand drum manufacturers, often use Djembe tuning as one of the deterrent to have novice players stay away from purchasing an authentic Djembe. The only thing you may need to do on a quality authentic Djembe is the easy final tuning steps explained on our blog article "Djembe tuning and care" . Tightening of the vertical ropes is only done once by the craftsmen/seller, since it is part of the Djembe original manufacturing procedure. Fine tuning is a simple thing to do with a professional quality authentic Djembe.
Another deterrent used by most Indonesian Djembe-like drum resellers is the unfounded West African Djembe deforestation contribution effect. While Indonesia is at the top of the list of countries with critical deforestation problems, there are evidence that Djembe producing in West Africa has little to no contribution to deforestation, if compared to all other wood industries like furniture building, etc... Some Indonesian Djembe-like drum resellers legitimize their wholesale business by making you believe that their drums come from supposedly Indonesian legally harvested wood, while Indonesian forest are being officially decimated. The number of Guinean / Malian authentic West African Djembe Imported into North America is insignificant compared to the number of Indonesian Djembe-like drum that you can find in most music or craft stores all over North America. The truth is that, it is considerably cheaper and easier to import low grade Djembe-like instruments from Indonesia, that importing authentic professional Djembes out of Guinea or Mali West Africa. Indonesian Djembe-like resellers are silently getting a maximum profit at the expense of our environment.
Before choosing a Djembe teacher / instructor: - Make sure your teacher is playing a real West African Djembe.
If he / she is playing any other synthetic head drum or non wood shelf drum, your teacher is most likely not qualified to teach you West African rhythms. Any qualified teacher should know that you cannot learn on any synthetic type of head.
- Make sure your teacher has clear notes when playing the edge of the Djembe (Tone and Slaps), and that you can hear a difference in the notes played on the edge. If you don't hear the difference, this would also mean that your teacher most likely does not have the level to be teaching you.
- Make sure your teacher is making you play the Djembe with the base drums (Doundounba & Sangban & Kenkeni) in a traditional percussion ensemble / orchestra.
- Make sure your teacher can name the rhythm of the pattern he is teaching you, as each pattern has an associated rhythm. If he / she is making up his/her own patterns, again, he/she is most likely not a qualified teacher. There are thousands of set patterns to choose from in the mandingue repertoire, from easy, to super hard, so inventing your own is unnecessary (unless of course if you are soloing on top of a rhythm).
There is obviously more to it than the few tips above to choose a qualified Djembe teacher, but this will make you avoid most of the very fake teachers, some that even proclaimed themselves Master Drummer. Please also read our blog articles entitled "Learning how to play the Djembe drum" & "What makes a “Djembefola – Doundoufola” a Master Drummer?" for further information.
Most North American drum resellers commonly call "African Djembe" any drum with a shape resembling an authentic Djembe. I have seen far too many websites selling Djembes supposedly from Africa that do not have a single part from Africa, and haven't been built by any West African craftsmen - Many other website are selling a handful African Djembe together with Djembe look-alike from Bali-Indonisia, while telling you that all these Djembes are from Africa. Beware.. this is what most of the online web sites do !
There are also far too many websites with Videos, rhythm notations, or instruction books that were made by individuals who have not studied Djembe drumming.
As a general rule, be cautious when reading about the Djembe on the Internet, as there is a lot of misinformation. Only use reliable sources like our web site and very few others.
We are from Guinea, and based in Toronto Canada.