The Djembe has exploded in popularity across the world. How do you choose? What type is best for you? Can you find the drum online? This page contains my personal ideas based on 30 years of building and playing drums. As with any instrument it's quality will be determined by three main factors:
This djembe drum from Mali is an instrument of beauty and grace. As a craftsman I can only work with, and appreciate what is real. Hand carved from a single log, with no production lathe work. Gorgeous heart wood carefully selected, dried and finished. Master craftsman working in the home of djembe drum music, Bamako, Mali, use European rope and ancient skills to produce a classic instrument to honor their ancestors .... These are what I play. Frankly the best djembe is often the last well crafted and tuned up West African made Djembe I have played, whether from Mali, Guinea, or the Ivory Coast.
Any goblet shaped drum will have a range of tones similar to a djembe. If what you are looking for is the sound of the traditional West African Djembe, then look for the design forms of the three main countries holding that classic tradition; Guinea, Mali, Ivory Coast. Other regional countries produce djembes (From Senegal to Nigeria) but few use or understand the traditional design principals. Since the djembe has grown in popularity, nearly any country from Pakistan to Indonesia which has skilled wood carvers now produce djembes. These countries carvers don't come from the same culture as djembe music does, and hence are often improperly designed as an instrument for West African Music. If you want the sound heard on master recordings first practice! ...then look to the source.
Mali djembes tend to have a rounder bottomed bowl, still often half the height of the drum. The bowl usually rounds completely to horizontal inside the bowl profile. Most have a more flaring trumpet, often carved with a banded pattern divided by horizontal lines with carved decoration. Trumpet opening is about a third of playing surface diameter. Traditionally they are headed with a flush cut skin, but as the popularity of hair on the edge, and skin wrap over the rings mounting has grown, they have included these features. The rounded bowl to me seems to emphasize clear tones, and a more balanced sound.
Guinea produces some of the worlds finest djembes. Guinea djembes are known for their deep bowl, often half the height of the drum or more. The bowl has a fairly vertical side until rapidly curving in to meet the trumpet or stem. Looking inside the bowl, the contour sharply at bottom curves to make a nearly horizontal shelf at the trumpet. The opening is fairly wide, between 1/3 and 1/2 of the playing surface diameter. The trumpet is fairly straight but widening slightly to the base. The djembe shape and goat skins from the area tend to emphasize a very sharp slap that soloists often look for.
Ivory Coast djembes are most often carved of less dense Iroko wood. They have a deep tapering bowl and a characteristic ledge where the bottom rope ring seats. I have seen widely varying inside bowl profiles but most often they curve gently as a funnel to the trumpet opening. Opening may vary from 1/3 playing diameter to slightly less. The trumpets flare to a wide base, often with two or three stepped "lobes". They often contain narrow angle chiseled bands. Ivory Coast skins tend to be a little oilier and produce a "dryer" sound with less ring that some drummers prefer.
Djembe design has been scientifically studied but is still very subjective. In my experience the essentials are a deep bowl, with a defined angular transition to the trumpet. An opening where the trumpet meets the bowl of about 1/3 the playing surface is important, with a slightly larger one favoring clear tones and slaps, and a smaller one emphasizing bass notes. I don't think the flare of the trumpet makes too much difference alone but may be significant combined with overall design. Remember in West Africa many carvers have been regionally displaced, and the styles are no longer as well defined. A carver from Mali may end up in Senegal carving a Ivory Coast style drum!
Material Selection: African Woods (Khari wood above)
Most favor hard woods: Lenke, Doukie, Djala, Khadi are favorites. Drums can be carved of stumps and logging scraps of whatever is available, with preferred characteristics of density, carvability, finish characteristics, and ease of drying. Drums are carved on green wood and then often the ends are dipped in glue or sealer to prevent cracking. Inspect the drum shell thoroughly. Knots are often beautiful but can contain weak spots or holes. Small surface cracks won't effect the sound or stability of the wood. Splits that span the drum thickness may open if not repaired. You should be judging the value and quality of the shell, and like a car, who wants one already needing repair?
Drum Shell Design Considerations
If you look inside a well carved drum trumpet you'll see a spiral of even gouge marks and an even thickness. Hardwoods are usually less than an inch thick, softer woods between 1-2inches. Theory has is that a too smooth inside is inferior in sound production than the gentle spiral of hand carved tool marks. The bottom edge should be beveled so it doesn't chip, and the playing edge is best with the tapered roundness of your thumb end in profile. I believe the density of hard wood more often offers superior sound, yet many Ivory Coast drums of Iroko sound great. I will haul a heavy drum anywhere if I love it, but commonly advise people that if weight is an issue get a light drum of African Melina wood! Better you have it along than leave it home!
Rope and Rings
Rings are usually of either light weight rebar, or 1/4 steel rod. A snug fit at the head makes for easier tuning, reduces possibility of head slippage or damage, and secures maximum head life. There is a "rope" ring and a "hide" ring at top. A three ring system with a blank ring between to more securely grab the hide is touted as superior. It does work well but no better than a well built two top ring system.
Insist on a double weave polyester rope from 4-5.5mm thick for djembes. Avoid polypropylene or nylon ropes. Many production drums from Africa come with inferior rope.You can identify it as it tends to flatten out from round under tension. It can cut easy and should most often be replaced if you change heads.
Skin or Head
A good quality goat skin head is critical. Defects like bot marks (scars or thin spots from insect bites) or whip marks (line scars) should be avoided.Common wisdom is a female goat is best, but the main issue is that the skin be of relatively consistent thickness across the spine. A Pakistani or domestic goat skin is likely chemically treated and as such the hair folicles have been burned out leaving a microscopic, "sponge like" surface. I believe the density of an African shaved, untreated head is best.
Look for a skin that is without nicks or scar flaws, or any weak spots. It should not have any folds where it passes through the rings, when installed. Whether it is hair, on or off, or wrapped over the rings, or cut flush is all personal preference. A very heavy skin will give you a very dry slap with little over tones but it is very hard to fully tune and it is like hitting a board to play.
~ Is the wood sound and free of major cracks and blemishes?
(Remember this you cannot change! )
~ Is the overall design and shape appropriate?
(A tiny bowl on a big stem, a sharp playing edge, or a severely restricted trumpet opening will never allow proper djembe sound.)
~ Is the head assembled with care and craftsmanship?
(Are the rings snug? Is the skin wrapped smoothly and not pulled over an inch down or unevenly?)
~ Is the skin of good quality and free of defects?
~ Who is selling it? Do you trust what they tell you about the drum?
~ Is the drum carved thin enough to be light weight and easily transported?
~ Is the rope of adequate size and quality?
(Is it frayed or cut? Rope can be easily replaced)
~ How does the drum feel and sound to you?
~ (Can this drum be your music buddy for some time to come?)
~ Does the drum give you the sense of overall craftsmanship?