The Djembe is an African drum with a goblet shape and distinct sound. It is a membranophone instrument with huge popularity across Africa and the world at large. Absolutely, it is the most well-known among the Africa percussion instruments.
The djembe drum is of different shapes and also sizes. Specifically, the djembe’s size range from 55cm to around 100cm in height and 30 to 38 cm in diameter for the drumhead. The shape and design of djembe are majorly for its sound production and ability to resonate not for aesthetics as some people may think.
In addition, the popularity of the djembe has made the making of the djembe drum available in the Western world in different styles. However, most African djembes are hand-carved from one wood log. Anyone that plays djembe, either skilled or not skilled is called djembefola. In addition, the different locality has different approaches to playing this rhythmic drum. The size of the drum actually has a great effect on its pitch and the smaller the drum, the higher is its pitch. In summary, the smaller djembe produced sound with a higher pitch compared to the bigger one.
Origin of Djembe
The Djembe is absolutely originating from West Africa. However, no one has come out to claim the actual origin of this wonderful percussive instrument. And till now, we have different stories about the actual origin of this peculiar drum.
One of the lore has it that one of the village wives pounded grain through the bottom of a mortar. Immediately, her husband came with the skin goat in his hand to cover the hole of the mortar and make the first djembe. In truth, the goblet shape of the djembe resembles the shape of the Africa mortar use in pounding yam or grains.
There is another narration by the Mandinka legend. The legend said that the djembe making is a skill set taught Mandinka blacksmith by genie also known as a djinn. It was said that Genie (supernatural creatures) gave the tree to the Mandinka blacksmith and reveal to him how to carve and use it to make the djembe.
Perhaps, the stories above are true about the drum but the narration of the Mandinka legend is widely accepted. Likewise, there is prevailing compliance that the Mandinka tribe of the great Mali empire is an inventor of djembe. Besides, the djembe is connected with the Mandinka caste of blacksmiths, widely known as Numu and this was dated back to 1230AD. Also, people also believe that the movement of Numu people from one place to another across the west African make djembe to spread. The instrument can now be found in Mali, Gambia, Ivory Coast, Guinea, Senegal, and Ghana.
Construction of the Djembe
The djembe drum is basically made from wood, rawhide, rings, and ropes. These four materials constitute what we call the djembe. A typical djembe will have a hollow wood shell or body with a goatskin fasten with aid of rope and rings over the top of the hollow wood.
The wood is used to make the body or shell of the drum. Traditionally, it is carved from one piece of Africa hardwood like lenge, iroko, and others. The shell has two parts for different functions. The upper part like a bowl is the hub for the lower tone of the drum. The lower part like a duct is the hub for higher tone and volume of the drum. The inside part of traditional djembe is ideally carved roughly in a spiral pattern. It is done that way to improve the tonal quality of the drum and also reduce unnecessary overtones.
The rawhide is used for the drumhead and traditionally it is from female goatskin. However, some still substitute cow, antelope, horse, deer, and synthetic leather for it. The thickness of the skin has an effect on the sound of djembe. The thinner skin creates a very sharp sound with a minute overtone when the player stroke for a higher tone. The thicker skin has more overtones in the higher tone and difficult to play a sharp high tone on it. Nevertheless, the thicker hide lasts better than the thinner one and produces less quality sound.
3. Rope or Cord
Basically, the major use of a rope is to stretch and tighten the rawhide used for the drumhead so that the drum can be playable. In order to have a harmonious sound, every loop of the rope need to be tightened with an even tension all around the drum.
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Before now, djembe rope used to be twisted strips made from the thick hide, for example, the cowhide. However, the common rope use nowadays is majorly kernmantle build low-stretch synthetic rope. This rope has a different fiber core that reinforced it and an outer sheath that protects the core. The major factor for rope selection in djembe making is its stretch level. The rope should be strong, able to withstand stress with low stretch.
The rings are usually made of structural steel and partly wrapped in colored cloth for aesthetic purposes and also to restrain the rusting flaked. The rings are also an essential part of the djembe because it contributes so much in stretching and tightening of the drumhead which makes the drum suitable for playing.
Normally, two rings are used on the upper part of the drum to properly secure the hide. The first ring known as the flesh ring is used to spread the hide and the second ring known as the crown ring is used to trapped and secure the hide as a drumhead over the hollow surface. The third ring also known as the bottom ring is between the lower and upper parts of the drum. The ropes are attached in form of loops to join both the crown and bottom ring together and also to tension the drumhead and secure it in place.
Interestingly, you can read Construction of the Djembe to learn more about the art of making the djembe.
Playing the Djembe
The djembe is playing by hands and not with sticks like other drums. The drum player can sit or stand to play the drum. However, sitting is more comfortable compare to standing. And while sitting, your hand should get to the drum back and forth easily.
Moreover, there is a need for a good posture to play djembe comfortably. Of course, the posture should give you all freedom in your body and arms in relation to the drum. In addition, the hand should be posed in such a way that will make hitting the drum easy and smooth. The best hand positioning and placement on the djembe drumhead is to have your hands in a triangular shape. Also, your hands need to be relaxed so that you can produce the best sound out of the drum.
To produce sound from the djembe, you have to strike the palm of your hands on the surface of the drumhead. This will set the air around the skin into vibration and the vibration will resonate through the shell. Specifically, hitting the drumhead will actually produce three distinct tones on the djembe. Those basic tones you can produce on the djembe are bass tone, open tone, and slap tone. The drummers combine those three tones together in an artistic way to produce a melodious rhythm.
The three tones, bass, open, and slap, symbolized low, medium, and high tone respectively. However, there is a particular way you will hit or stroke the djembe to bring those tones alive. If you want to learn more about playing the djembe, and how to create those tone on it, try and read How to play the Djembe (The art of playing the djembe). The article gives more insight on how to hit the drum and play all its three tones.
Tuning of Djembe
Tuning of the djembe is just an activity to bring back its tonal qualities into life. This is necessary because djembe devalue in tonal qualities and become flabby when its drumhead is not sufficiently stretched and tighten. Therefore, there is a need to tune the drum when some of the tones have decay in their qualities. For instance, when the higher tone also known as the slap is dry and not crisp. As well as when you notice that the response of the lower tone known as the bass is significantly wobbly or not even alive. Another condition that calls for tuning of the drum is when the tension is not evenly distributed around the drumhead. Definitely, this situation we throw the sound quality of the drum off the balance and make it sound nasty. Any of the situations stated calls for the tuning of the drum.
In order to tune the drum, you must know what to do and how to do it. Actually, the traditional djembe tuning is done by adjusting the tension on the drumhead by tightening or losing the loop of rope that hook it. This is done by pulling the rope with a shirt and thick stick designed for that purpose. Though people are applying some technical method to do that nowadays. The task is to pull and tighten the rope in order to stretch and tighten the drumhead evenly at every side.
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