A djembe (JEM-bay) also known as djimbe, jenbe, jembe, yembe, or sanbanyi in Susu; is a skin covered hand drum, shaped like a large goblet, and meant to be played with bare hands. According to the Bamana people in Mali, the name of the djembe comes directly from the saying "Anke dje, anke be" which literally translates to "everyone gather together", and defines the drum's purpose. "Dje" is the verb for "gather" in Bamanakan, and "be" translates as "everyone" in Bamanakan. It is a member of the membranophone family of musical instruments: a frame or shell (in the djembe's case it is a shell) covered by a membrane or drumhead made of one of many products, usually rawhide. The djembe also has metal rings, rope, and skin Djembes are commonly about 12" (30 cm) in diameter and 24" (60 cm) in height, varying a few inches. They can also be found at many smaller sizes, from 5" (13 cm) up to 18" (46 cm) in diameter. As a result of the goblet shape, the density of the wood, the internal carvings, and the skin, there is a wide range of tones that can be produced by the djembe. The rounded shape with the extended tube of the djembe body forms a device known in physics as a Helmholtz resonator, giving it the deep bass note. The primary notes are generally referred to as "bass", "tone" and "slap", though a variety of other tones can be produced by advanced players. The slap has a high, sharp sound and the tone is more "round" and full. The bass is the lowest.

Some consider the ashiko to be male and the djembe female.


The proper sound is achieved with minimum effort for maximum effect. The key is to either focus or disperse the hand's energy, and position the hand in the correct place. The bass and tone notes require focused energy (a beginner will have the most success by holding their fingers firmly together), while the slap requires dispersed energy (fingers are relaxed).

Striking the skin with the palm and fingers toward the drum's centre produces a bass note; striking the skin near the rim (with the fleshy part of the palm just above the rim) produces the tone and slap. The tone must ring by striking like it's a hot pan. Beginners may think of the tone and slap as fingers "together" and "apart." Advanced players will not take the time to make that obvious physical change, but rather make a less visibly obvious change from "focused" to "dispersed."


There is general agreement that the origin of the djembe is associated with a class of Mandinka/Susu blacksmiths known as Numu. The wide dispersion of the djembe drums throughout West Africa may be due to Numu migrations dating from the first millennium A.D.

Despite the associations of the djembe with the Numu, there do not appear to be hereditary restrictions upon who can play the djembe as occurs with some other African instruments.

Spelling "jembe" with the "dj" comes from the fact that French has no hard "j" sound like that found in English. The "dj" is used to indicate the hard "j" pronunciation. The French were instrumental in studying and describing African drumming to the world. However, colonization by the French is a sore spot for many West African people, and spelling jembe with the "d" can be a painful reminder of that. Since independence (1958-1960) African governments have been working toward indigenous ways of spelling their local languages in accordance with international standards of phonetic transcription. (Charry) In the Malinke language, the word is spelled "dyìnbe" because the Malinke orthography does not include the letter "j" (cf. Marianne Friedländer, Lehrbuch des Malinke, Langenscheidt Verlag, 1992, p. 279, 159-160).

Modern usage

The djembe first made an impact outside West Africa in Paris of the 1940s and more widely in the 1950s and 1960s with the filming and world tours of Les Ballets Africains featuring a young Papa Ladji Camara and led by Fodeba Keita of Guinea. The "national ballet" movement, in which a number of drumming/dancing companies have adapted traditional African drumming/dancing events to the Western-style stage, has resulted in a surge of interest in African drumming, especially djembe drumming.

Beginning in the late 20th century, the djembe became very popular in drum circles all around the world. In proper form, however, it's played in ensemble with the "dunun" drum (dununba, sangban, kenkeni), bells, with individuals playing different parts that lace together intricately to weave a delicate rhythmic tapestry. Dancers are accompanied by djembe and dunun drummers, including a lead djembe player, or soloist, who will play rhythms which align with the dancer's movements as they make them, and whose playing will signal changes in the dance steps, as well as the beginning and end of a piece.


Traditionally crafted djembe drums are carved in one single piece from hollowed out hardwood trees. Specific types of wood depend upon the forests accessible to the drum makers. Some West African hardwoods used for musician quality instruments (carved in Guinea, Senegal, Mali, and Ivory Coast) include dimba (bush mango), lenge, bois rouge, acajou, iroko, hare or khadi, and dugura.

In the mid 1990s furniture makers in Ghana took note of the commercial success being experienced by traditional djembe drum carvers. The crafts people in Ghana, where the kpanlogo and oblenten drums are the most well known traditional drums, began to carve and sell djembes from Tweneboa, a soft wood. Using soft wood required a much thicker shell, which fails to produce the resonant and explosive sound of a hardwood djembe. The commercial savvy of the furniture importers led to a very large number of these soft wood djembes coming into the United States. These "tourist quality" softwood drums appeared in discount department stores like Marshalls and Target, priced at $100 and less. Doing business in the vast U.S. market was also facilitated because the language of business & education in Ghana is English.

Properly made drums are not smooth on the interior but have a spiral channel inside that enhances the tonal qualities. Splinters and rough carving inside is a sign of a hastily made drum. The drumheads are typically made from goatskin, and more rarely can be antelope, zebra, deer or calf. West African goat skins are known to djembe musicians as having a different sound than goats domesticated in the USA. Goats raised in West Africa experience a rougher existence, different climate feed, which apparently toughens and hardens the skins in a way that impacts their sound quality. Goat skins from animals bred and raised in the USA have been known to be softer, and tear more easily under the extreme tension required for a playable drum.

Djembe playing by non-African people has a much longer history in Europe than it does in the USA and other parts of the world, as the French speaking members of Les Ballets Africains first settled in France, Belgium, Germany, and other parts of Europe when they left the touring company to seek personal opportunities. Because of this history, and the education that Europeans received from traditional Manding teachers like Mamady Keita and Famoudou Konate, Europe has mostly avoided the large number of softwood djembes arriving in the American marketplace. While these drums may look nice, their sound leaves much to be desired for serious djembe players.

Spiritual connections

The djembe is said to contain three spirits: the spirit of the tree, the spirit of the animal of which the drum head is made, and the spirit of the instrument maker. It is legend that the djembe and/or the tree from which it is created was a gift from a Djinn or malevolent demigod, male counterpart to the more familiar Genie. Properly crafted djembe drums are carved in one single piece from hollowed out trees called Dimba, or Devil Wood. Drums made from slats or segments of wood glued together are considered by traditionalists to have no soul of the tree. Properly made drums are not smooth on the interior but have a series of teardrop shaped divots inside that enhances the tonal qualities. The drumheads are typically made from goatskin, but more rarely can be antelope, zebra, deer, camel or calf. In all cases the female is preferred and adult cow is never used. In earlier times and still in some rural areas djembe were used to send messages over long distances.

Tuning a djembe

Djembe drums are tuned by evenly pulling the vertical ropes very tightly so that a system of metal rings brings the skin down over the drum shell. These verticals are tightened all the way around, perhaps taking multiple passes, and using a lever of some sort. The next step is to use more rope to put in horizontal "twists" of the vertical ropes. It passes under two verticals, back over one, under one (making a Z or S shape), then gets pulled hard and down. Nice even and parallel rows of twists, as low as possible, is the ideal.

When a new skin is being put on a drum, this whole pulling process is preceded by soaking a skin in water until it is very pliable. That wet skin is placed on the drum with the ring system while the rope verticals gently pull the rings down a bit. Then it's left to dry completely before the vigorous pulling and twisting described above happens.

A masterful djembe player may be referred to as a "djembefola", -- "the one who makes the djembe speak."

The Djembe In Western Music

The djembe plays a key role in modern music that needs a highly percussive rhythm section. It has been used by such artists as Ben Harper, Paul Simon, Grateful Dead, Bedouin Soundclash, Incubus' Brandon Boyd, Gruvis Malt, Brian Rosenworcel of Guster, Dispatch and Micheal Cross, of bands such as Some State and The Swamp Monsters. An American manufactured version of an African djembe was played on main stage with a New Zealand Maori fire twirler in a show produced by the Canadian circus company, Cirque du Soleil, called Allegria, which was filmed in Australia in 2000. In 2008, the djembe was featured in the American film "The Visitor", directed by Thomas McCarthy, depicting a university professor's unlikely introduction to drum circles through the instruction of a young Syrian drummer. The djembe is very popular in drum circles, and in many circles is the primary instrument, most likely for its easily portable size, wide range of sounds, and its distinct tones. In certain songs that use the djembe it replaces a drumset to give it a different feel, such as "Burn One Down" by Ben Harper.

Iannis Xenakis composed Okho for three djembes.


Learning to play the djembe generally involves finding a master drummer and having a couple of private lessons or lessons for small groups of people. Players generally need no less than 2 months to achieve a meaningful sound and no less than 2 years to achieve a sound that is at least comparable to master drummers'.

Written transcriptions of rhythms tend to be imprecise. Usually only the basic idea of the rhythm is transcribed but the real feeling that it carries can't be put down on a paper very easily.

Intermediate and advanced players usually join workshops with many students (sometimes up to 15) and learn new phrases and rhythms from master drummers. Literature for these two levels of drummers is still scarce if not unavailable.

See also

Related articles:

Relevant djembe drummers:



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