Care, Maintenance, and Tuning of an African Djembe Drum
Thank you for visiting our ‘About the Djembe’ page! This is one of the best resources on the internet for information about all things djembe. By selecting one of the links below you can learn more about how to play, tune, maintain, repair, and rehead a djembe drum. We also offer information on how to select the right djembe for you, give suggestions on where to purchase your djembe, and include information on the history and making of a djembe drum in West Africa. If you have any comments or input we’d love to hear from you. Enjoy!
How To Play the Djembe
Body and Drum Position
The djembe can be played while standing or seated. When standing you will use a or a stand. If using a strap the drum will rest between the legs or to one side. Make sure you can comfortably reach the center of the drum with your palms without moving the shoulders. You may choose to use a djembe stand, which will take the load off your shoulders and feet. When playing from a seated position the djembe will rest between the legs, inclined away from the lap slightly, and held in place with the legs. The opening at the bottom of the base must be uncovered in order to get any bass.
Position the drum so that the spine of the goat skin is lined up between both hands, pointing directly toward you. The neck is the thickest part, which should be closest to the hands. Playing with the spine lined up will help improve sound quality. If you can’t see the spine, or if it wasn’t lined up when initially installed, then align the drum any direction you like!
Cautions – The neck of the djembe is the weakest part of the wood, so lateral pressure here should be avoided. This mean adults shouldn’t sit on the drum while it is laying on the ground (okay for young children).
Hand and Arm Position
Most of the movement in the arms is at the elbow when playing the djembe; excessive finger, wrist, or shoulder movement should be avoided. The hand should always be in natural line with the forearm, with the fingers close or slightly spread, and the thumb extended. To find proper hand position position your hands like you would to type on a keyboard, but use the thumb and index finger of each hand to create a triangle.
The hand can come in contact with the bearing edge of the djembe on either side of the knuckles at the top of the palm. Most advanced djembe drummers position the hand so contact is made slightly on the palm-side of the knuckles, taking advantage of the skin pad and natural calluses found there. The best way to find the correct position for you is to experiment with different placement and discover which helps you achieve proper sound without causing you pain.
Caution – You can expect that while beginning to play the djembe your experience some discomfort in the muscles and skin of the palm and fingers. However, if the pain goes into the bones, with bruising, you should take a rest from playing until healed, then re approach your playing with different hand placement. Some surface hand discomfort is okay, but lasting pain is an indication that you’re playing incorrectly and should adjust your technique.
Bass, Tone, and Slap
The djembe is such a popular instrument for many reasons, one of which is the huge range of sounds that can be created on one drum with only minor adjustments in hand placement. In order to be able to play the three main sounds correctly you will need to take lessons (in person or from book/DVD) and be willing to practice, just as with any musical instrument. This short tutorial only covers the general bass, tone, and slap strokes.
Even though there are many different, specific strokes that can be used on the djembe, some general principles apply to the most common described here. First, the djembe is a “whole hand” instrument, unlike the dumbek or tar, which involved a lot of individual finger work. With each stroke all four fingers will make contact with the head at the same time, and rebound at the same time. The palm is included with the bass stroke.
Second, the sounds of the djembe come from two main sources: off the top of the vibrating head, and out the bottom of the stem. In order to allow the skin to vibrate, the hand should immediately leave after making contact. Think of the hand bouncing off the top of the skin, but don’t think of bouncing a basketball (too much wrist, and too much “push” action in that analogy). It isn’t necessary to withdraw the whole hand and forearm up away from the drum as dramatically as one would when touching a hot surface. Rather, be relaxed enough to allow a natural reflection of the hand up just an inch or two above the surface of the drum. In order to allow the sound to extend out the bottom of the djembe be sure nothing is blocking the base hole, including not playing with the drum flat on the floor.
- Bass – With the fingers close together or slightly apart, allow the whole hand to strike the center of the drum head and naturally rebound immediately. Do this with a firm wrist, and don’t cup the fingers, and don’t hit the drum with your fist. Depending on the size of the djembe, the exact center of the head may be a node, or “dead spot”, so practice playing slightly off center for the bass. For faster playing practice making a full bass sound by only moving the hand toward the middle of the drum just until the base of the palm is past the bearing edge.
- Tone (also Open Tone) – With a firm wrist, fingers touching, and hand flat, strike the drum head so the pads on the fingers just above the palm press into the skin. The action is in these pads, with the contact of the fingertips minimized. While the top of the palm still makes contact with the bearing edge, this is also minimized so that the force of the stroke can be centered in the first-knuckle finger pads. It may help to visualize a paddle, or a beaver tail slapping the water. The sound produced by the open tone has reduced overtones and is lower pitched than the slap.
- Slap – Relax the hand slightly, allowing the fingers to naturally curve toward the palm. With the wrist still firm, and structure still in the hand, strike the head, emphasizing the action in the last knuckle of the fingers and minimizing contact with the pads on the first knuckle of the fingers. The palm will come in contact with the bearing edge with more force than on the tone, but the focus is still how the ends of the fingers come in contact with the skin. The sound produced is higher in pitch than the tone, and usually has greater volume.
Caution – The technique development required to make a clear distinction between the tone and the slap will likely require some dedicated practice which will be facilitated with feedback from an experienced djembe drummer. Avoid the tendency to think that playing louder or harder will help you toward proper technique; often beginning drummers think the slap sounds louder because the drum is being struck with more force. As a principle, patiently practicing with more finesses and accuracy will help you sound better and will also help you avoid injury.
How To Care for and Maintain Your Djembe
Just as with any musical instrument, the djembe requires respect and care in order for sound quality and materials to last. If you take care of your djembe the wood and rings should last a lifetime. Life expectancy of skin and rope will depend on how often it is played, how well it is cared for, and the level of tension maintained. In general, it is a good idea to keep your djembe in a case for storage and transportation, which will protect the shell and the head from overexposure to the elements, and protect against bumps and drops.
Since wood (unless sealed) and animal skin are hygroscopic materials they continually take up and release moisture in response to climate conditions. Goat skin, since is it thinner and softer, responds more to changes in temerature and relative humidity than do most kind of wood. When moisture is absorbed the cells expand, causing an increase of overall size. This is why a drum will lose tension and drop in pitch when taken from Santa Fe to Atlanta (low relative humidity to higher humidity), all other factors being equal. When moisture is released the cells shrink. This is also why most unsealed djembes that are not kiln dried tend to have hairline to full-depth cracks when exported from equatorial West Africa to arid climates such as in Salt Lake City. This is also why the skin on a tuned djembe will likely break if left in a car on a hot summer day, or if placed directly in front of a heater vent after being in a cold environment.
Wood Djembe Shell
As a rule of thumb you should treat your djembe shell like you would a nice piece of wood furniture. Avoid prolonged exposure to direct sunlight, water, soil, and excessive heat and cold. When transporting protect from scratches and dings with a padded bag. When taken from one temperature to another, and where the drum has been in one temperature long enough to adjust to it, give the drum time to gradually acclimate before playing. To help unsealed wood adjust to changes in temperature and humidity it should be oiled regularly. Minor cracks can be easily repaired at home.
- Selection and Application of Oil – Natural plant and seed oils can be loosely grouped into two categories, namely hardening and non-hardening. A hardening oil will thicken and turn into a resin over time with exposure to the air, which process can’t be reversed simply by adding water or increasing the temperature. Such oils include boiled linseed, tung, and teak oil. Hardening oils change the properties of the wood, making it harder and less pourous. Multiple coats of a hardening oil can achieve the same effect as using a polyurethane sealant. The resultant sound has more overtone and ring, not as warm and natural as an unsealed shell.Non-hardening oils won’t turn into resin, though they may become more solid as temperature decreases, which is reversible. These commonly include shea butter and coconut oil for djembe treatment. These oils hydrate the wood while allowing it to retain its pourous, woody properties that are desirous for good djembe sound quality. Unless your djembe has already been treated with a hardening oil, or otherwise sealed, we would highly recommend using coconut oil or shea butter to keep your djembe shell hydrated in order to prevent cracking, and to enhance the natural beauty and grain of the wood.
When the wood begins to feel or look dry, or if small cracks begin to appear near the base of the shell, it is time to hydrate the wood again. For best results make sure the surface of the wood is clean and dry. Coconut oil or karite (shea butter) can be applied in a liquid or semi-solid state, using paint brushes or saturated cloth. The wood will absorb more oil when its pores are open and the oil is liquid. By simply placing the drum in sunlight for a few minutes so the surface of the woods heats up a bit, and letting it sit in the sun for a couple of hours after the oil ahs been applied, the wood will absorb and retain more oil. Wipe off excess oil with a clean cloth, and repeat this process as often as necessary to keep the wood hydrated and healthy.
- Repairing Cracks in the Wood – Wood dries starting at the surface and working toward the center, which is why most imported, unsealed djembes have at least one hairline crack. If they have already been repaired you may not even notice them. In some cases, regardless of how much oil is put on the wood, it will still crack in order to relieve internal tension. The bright side is, once a djembe has relieved this tension through one or more splits, is it more stable than before cracking. For this reason we don’t recommend attempting to close the split by bringing the wood back together; this simply reapplies the tension that was naturally released by the split and can lead to instability and sympathetic cracking elsewhere.
The best method for repairing minor cracks requires a small amount of fine sawdust and liquid super glue. First remove as much dirt and oil as possible from the repair area, and make sure the surface is dry. Fill the crack with the sawdust, rubbing it in as densely as possible. Carefully apply superglue to the sawdust, taking care not to allow the glue to run, and keeping the sawdust and superglue localized to the crack. Depending on how dry and fine the sawdust is, it may chemically react with the glue, producing heat and fumes. For this reason do this type of repair in a well ventilated area so you don’t breathe the fumes. After a couple of minutes the mixture will harden, and can them be sanded down or dyed to help blend the repaired crack with the surrounding wood. If the sawdust/glue filler doesn’t bond to the wood or turn very hard it is likely because there was too much oil in the wood, or too much moisture.
In some cases the crack may be so wide, extending fully through the wood, which would preclude the use of a bit of sawdust/glue as filler. For larger repair you’ll need a permanently bonding glue like Gorilla Glue and some method of clamping the wood together; a pair of ratcheted straps can work. After making sure the area is clean, apply the glue (follow instructions on label for best results) and force the wood back together. After allowing the recommended drying time, remove the clamps and sand surface to remove extra glue. Be aware that by bringing the wood back together where it was once cracked you are causing the wood to go back under pressure, which may result in other sympathetic cracking around the drum. For this reason we recommend filling whenever possible.
Natural Goat Skin Head
As a rule of thumb, it is best to to treat the skin of a djembe head as you would the skin on your body. Obviously, your own skin has a tendency to become dry when exposed to the elements, and even split with too much exposure, stretching, or abuse. The oils that naturally exist in an animal skin contribute the better sound and greater strength, so we recommend using skins that have not undergone an extensive manufacturing process involving chemicals that remove hair, pigment, and natural oils from the skin. Over time any skin that is not replenished with moisture will dry out and crack, so you need to be prepared to keep you djembe head moisturized and protected.
- Hydrating the Skin – The best way to keep your natural goat skin djembe head in good shape is to play it. The natural oils from the palms of your hands will work into the goat skin, keeping it hydrated and healthy. If you are not playing the drum regularly it would be a good idea to have some natural shea butter available to apply to the skin from time to time. For drums that are played regularly, it is still a good idea to apply shea butter in very small amounts, and infrequently, to the areas of the head that don’t come in contact with your hands. We highly recommend against using lotions and moisturizers that are meant for human skin, since these often contain additional chemicals that can weaken the skin over time, and even contribute to accelerated drying (alcohol, for example). A small amount of shea butter (karite), alone or mixed with other natural oils, rubbed into the hands, then massaged into the drum head, will help keep it hydrated so it continues to sound good and last longer. Drum Butter from Africa Heartwood Project works very well to keep your hands and the drum head from drying out and cracking.
- Minor Skin Repairs – If your djembe skin develops a tear or rip you will eventually need to replace the entire head for best performance. If the tear is in the playable area of the skin (the part not touching any wood or rings) most likely the drum won’t produce the full range of sounds because some of the air will escape through the hole. However, if the rip is small enough, or on the bearing edge, in some cases some gel-type super glue can fill the hole and offer enough strength to keep the drum in playable condition for quite a while. You can even use a bit of skin dust (get this by lightly sanding the surface of the skin) to fill the hole, and solidify it with super glue. Even if the rip isn’t all the way through the skin, or if there is a scar of fly bit, we’d recommend strengthening the area by using this repair technique, to give the skin a longer life.
How To Rope Tune Your Djembe
How To Rehead the Djembe
Every drum head will eventually break. Sad, but true. The life of the drum head depends on many factors, including the natural strength of the skin, the tension it has been under, how often and hard it has been played, how well it has been maintained, the frequency and degree to which the skin had to adjust to significant changes in temperature and humidity, and finally…. on luck! When the goat skin on your djembe drum breaks, first you’ll cry, then you’ll determine what to do 🙂
It is possible for drummers to rehead their own djembe drums, but it is a skill and usually takes some practice to get it right. You could purchase an untanned goat skin for $25-$35, look up some free YouTube videos or purchase a $25 DVD, and go for it. But you should buy two or three skins in case you mess one up. If you want to go the more convenient route, you could have somebody with experience rehead it for you. We recommend starting with somebody in your own town who you can deliver your drum to in person, and who you can support with your purchase. This could take a few days to a few weeks, depending on the drum builder, and could cost $75 to $150. Alternatively, there are a few drum shops around the US who do great work. You can visit their websites, compare prices and services, and send your drum in for repair. This could take a few weeks to a couple of months, depending on the drum shop, and could cost $95-$200, depending on the cost of shipping.
Brief History of the Djembe Drum
Who really knows? Seriously, we have encountered so many different versions of the origin of the djembe from African master drummers and westerners enthusiasts and academics who have studied the subject, that it is difficult to put into writing one story that would be credible. We’ll relate here the most widely accepted key components of the history of the djembe:
- In the ancient Mande/Mandinko Empire, comprised primarily of modern-day Guinea and Mali in the 1100-1200 A.D., the blacksmith class, known as Numu, created the djembe. They may have been inspired by the mortar bowl used in crushing kassava and corn, which has an hourglass shape.
- The djembe is not a traditional instrument used by the Jelis – keepers of musical traditions. Rather, these include chromatic instruments like the kora and balafon.
- Those who dedicate their lives to djembe drumming are sometimes referred to as djembefola, which in some areas and during some periods was not a respectable or lucrative profession.
- The word “djembe” is not the original name of the instrument, but is a French-based derivative. Jembe is the English spelling of the word.
- The djembe is classified as a membranophone instrument, which consists of a resonating chamber or body with one or two membrane heads.
- Some master djembefola say the djembe has spiritual properties when the wood comes from the Lenke tree.
- The djembe gained worldwide recognition as performance groups, or ballets, sponsored primarily by the Guinean government, toured the world with song, dance, drumming, and story-telling.
- The djembe is used to accompany dance and song connected to specific events or rituals. Examples include harvest, marriage, passage into adulthood, courtship, circumcision, and hunting.
- The djembe is played in ensemble with other drums (dunun; tama), bells (kenken), and pitched instruments (balafon; flute).
- The modern-day invention of the “drum circle” has very little relation to African drumming traditions in terms of rhythms and cultural context.
Further information about the history and culture of the djembe, consider the following resources if your are unable to travel to West Africa to get first hand information:
- Charry, Eric. A guide to the jembe..1996. http://echarry.web.wesleyan.edu/jembearticle/article.html
- Wikipedia entry for the jembe. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Djembe
How the Djembe is made in Africa