of djembe styles and sizes is pictured above including one (2nd from right)
adorned with cowry shells
and another (far right) with
an accessory that adds body and accents to the music (more information below).
Djimbe, Jembe, Yembe
Origin and Spiritual
a goblet-shaped Manding drum
that has its origin in the empire of Mali, which
was founded by the Malinke (or Manding) people around the 13th century. It
was situated in parts of the present-day countries of Mali, Guinea, Burkina
Faso, Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Gambia and Senegal.
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. Properly crafted
djembe drums are carved in one single piece from hollowed out trees.
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 its tonal qualities. The drumheads are typically
made from goat skin but more rarely can be
antelope, zebra, deer or calf. In all cases the
female is preferred, and an
adult cow is never used.
In earlier times, and still in some rural areas, djembes were used to send
messages over long distances.
traditional context, the djembe was and still is
used for ceremonies including marriage, baptism, circumcision, birth, full
moon, harvest, and many festivals throughout the year. Whenever an event
takes place in the village, the djembe is there.
Beginning in the late 20th century, the djembe
became very popular in drum circles around the world. In proper form,
however, it is played in ensemble
(such as is done by Kawambe-Omowale) with the
djun-djun drum group (dundoumba,
sangban, kenkeni) and bells with individuals
playing different parts that lace together intricately to weave a delicate
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.
were cut by members of the blacksmith caste, who had an important role in
social life, since they also manufactured tools, knives and masks.
has taken its shape from mortars used to pound millet.
instrument was especially manufactured for one particular drummer. A tree
was chosen, and the spirit of the tree was offered colanuts to apologize for
the cutting. A complicated
lacing system is used to tension the goatskin which covers the top playing
surface. The djembe is played with both hands and
has a wide variety of sounds and dynamics.
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;
the tone, more
and full. The bass is the lowest.
The djembe can be used both as an accompanying instrument and as
a solo instrument.
Design and Accessories
Djembes are often decorated with intricate
carvings and other materials that have particular meaning or purpose for its
owner or creator. Djembes can also be accessorized with items that affect
the sound produced by the drum. The most common accessory is
see photo above right),
also known as se-se, sege sege, or
ksing-ksing, which are resonators placed around the head of
the djembe. Ksink-ksink come in many sizes and designs, can be made of tin, sheet
metal, or old soup or coffee cans, and represent the shields worn by the drummer
in war. When the djembe is played the ksink-ksink
create a sympathetic metallic rattling, adding body
and accents to the music. They are sometimes called
“djembe snare.” They can
be slipped through the crown loops, woven through the verticals, or secured with
a rubber strip tied around the belly.
The Djembe in Village
There are no hereditary
restrictions on becoming a djembefola
or “one who gives
the djembe voice.” Being a djembefola was not even considered to be a
profession. Typically, the village drummer, even if he was a real master, earned his
living with another job.
Traditionally, djembe music is played at different
festivals or rituals, like baptisms and
weddings. It is always combined with singing and dancing.
There are also no real 'spectators' – everyone who is present
participates in some way.
drummers often start playing in order to announce the start of the
festivities and gather the guests. Then, a griot
(keeper of history and records or storyteller) starts to sing a song to
which everyone answers in chorus (this is referred to as “call and response”). By
this time, the musicians have recognized the song and have started to play
the corresponding rhythm, not too loud. The dancers start to dance the basic
steps of the rhythm in a circle. When the griot stops singing or the
master drummer feels there has been enough singing, the musicians increase
the volume and pace of the music. Taking turns, solo dancers (mainly women)
emerge from the crowd and come and dance in front of the djembefola. The
djembefola follows their steps and variations on the djembe, and depending
on how well they dance and how many variations the dancer knows, sooner or
later the drummer ends with a chauffement (break).
Each solo dance takes no longer than about half a minute. The pace of the
rhythm decreases again while waiting of the next dancer. Only when everyone
is satisfied with dancing this rhythm (which can take a long time), the
music stops and the griot starts to sing another song.
This process of singing, playing and dancing can lasts anywhere from two to
four to six hours or more!
rhythm consists of two or three djun-djun parts, two or more djembe
accompaniments and some traditional variations for the solo djembe. Each
rhythm also has its own dance and song that are an integral part of that
rhythm; and its own time, place and purpose to be played.
The Modern-Day Djembe
the independence of the current west-African countries, national
“ballets” were formed, which were meant to showcase the cultural legacy of the country
all over the world. During this process, a new genre of performing was
created to adapt traditional West African
drumming/dancing events to the Western-style stage. Rhythms from regions far apart were played in quick succession;
musical instruments were combined that were not played together before; and
rhythms traditionally played on other instruments were adapted for the
djembe. The dance circle of the village was broken and spread out in a line,
so that a seated, non-participating audience could see. The musicians often
played behind the scene, leaving it open to the dancers, who danced to
complex choreographies with many dancers moving in unison, depicting scenes
of traditional village life.
later phase, another new genre emerged, where the musicians are the main
attraction. Emphasis is on the arrangements and on the elaborate solos of
the soloists, while only a couple of dancers remain in the background.
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