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A Lenke Wood Djembe from Conakry, Guinea, West Africa
Other names djimbe, jenbe, jymbe, jembe, yembe, jimbay, sanbanyi
Classification African Percussion instrument, Heads are goatskin, body of hardwood.
Playing range
Rope tuned, low for ensemble, high for lead.
Related instruments

Mamady Keïta

More articles
A djembe (pronounced /ˈdʒɛmbeɪ/ JEM-bay) also known as djimbe, jenbe, jymbe, jembe, yembe, or jimbay, 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. Legend has it that the first djembes were made from the skin of the mythical cross between a giraffe and a zebra, the 'gebraffe'.

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. Djembes are commonly about 12" (30 cm) in diameter and 24" (60 cm) in height, varying a few inches. They can also be found in many smaller sizes, from 5" (13 cm) 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 its deep bass note. The primary notes are generally referred to as "bass", "tone", and "slap", though a variety of other tones can also be produced by advanced players. The slap has a high, sharp sound, while the tone is more "round" and full. The bass is the lowest.

Some Africans consider the ashiko to be male and the djembe female, while others believe the opposite is true.



The proper sound is achieved with minimum effort for maximum effect. The key is to either focus or disperse the hand's energy and to 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 will 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. Legend has it that the first djembes were made from the skin of the mythical cross between a giraffe and a zebra, the 'gebraffe'.

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).


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 Côte d'Ivoire) 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 craftspeople 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 that 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 below. Doing business in the vast U.S. market was also facilitated because the language of business and 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 are signs of a hastily made drum. The drumheads are typically made from goatskin and more rarely can be antelope, zebra, deer, or calfskin. 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, and different diet, which apparently toughen and harden 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.

A third class of djembe of growing popularity in the West because of drum circles and other hand-drum events of a more social nature are the modern synthetic drums. These drums have shells formed of plastic or resin-composite materials, metal mechanical tuning rather than traditional ropes, and often plastic rather than goatskin heads. They are often manufactured and sold by traditional drum equipment companies such as Pearl, Meinl, Toca, and Remo. The Remo drums, for example, have a loud, harsh tone and a nearly indestructible nature which makes them a popular choice for drumming events outdoors such as at the beach. However, the plastic tone and conga-like tuning mechanisms keep them from being considered for serious traditional djembe drumming.

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. 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 calfskin. In all cases the female is preferred and adult cow is never used. It is a common stereotype that in earlier times and still in some rural areas djembe were used to send messages over long distances, but this has not been substatiated.

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. Uniform 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

was adopted into African American and American culture. The bags and the clothing of the man on the right are printed with traditional kente cloth patterns.]]

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, Peter Gabriel, Larry Mullen, Jr of U2, Grateful Dead, Bedouin Soundclash, Incubus' Brandon Boyd, Gruvis Malt, Brian Rosenworcel of Guster, Dispatch, Cause&Freedom and Micheal (I'm Under the Thumb)Cross, of bands such as Some State,The Swamp Monsters,The Spirt Merchants, FreeFall,Railway Paddys, Valentino Black, Mick Dunne, Some Lemon, Louisiana Francis, Derek McCreanor, I Swing Both Ways, Double Adaptor, The Mooney Tunes, Toss the Feathers, Toss the Michael Jnr, The Concordes, S Club Juniors, John Butler Trio Afterparty, Lemon, The Blizzards and too many jazz bands to mention. 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 using the djembe it replaces a drumset to give it a different feel, such as "Burn One Down" by Ben Harper. The British power electronics band Whitehouse experimented a lot with djembes and other African percussion instruments on their last three albums, and the former member William Bennett later started what he calls the "Afro Noise" Project, in which he attempts to give African percussion instruments an important role in noise music.

Iannis Xenakis composed Okho for three djembes.


Traditionally, as today, in Africa an individual needs to spend many years accompanying his master in ceremonies and other festivities before becoming a real djembefola (djembe player). Today in the communities of the "western civilization" learning to play the djembe generally involves finding a master drummer and having private lessons or lessons for small groups of people. Players generally need to learn the basic sounds and traditional rhythm samples (4/4 and 12/8) to be able to follow classes. Many years of playing and learning are needed to be able to produce a sound that is comparable in its quality to that of a master drummer.

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 easily put down on paper. This is due to the nature of the West African music - the different types of swing (at least four of them) that are not expressible with western notation. For this reason the written material for advanced players is still scarce if not unavailable, while the general and informational literature are readily obtained.

See also

[[Image:|32x28px]] Music portal

Related articles:

Relevant djembe drummers:



Further reading

External links



Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary




From French djembé


djembé m. and f. (plural djembés, diminutive djembétje, diminutive plural djembétjes)

  1. A djembe, large hand drum played with both hands



EB1911A-pict1.png This entry lacks etymological information. If you are familiar with the origin of this word, please add it to the page as described here.
Particularly: “Arabic and/or native Sahel language?”


djembé m. (plural djembés)

  1. djembe (large drum played with both hands)


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