The djembe is the most popular drum from Africa. Known for its deep bass and crisp highs, it's also one of the most enjoyable! We'd like to share with you what we have learned in more than 10 years of traveling to West Africa, studying, selling, and repairing djembes for over 20 years. In addition to West Africa, djembes are now made in Thailand, Indonesia, Mexico, Los Angeles...you name it. You can find them at Marshalls, Costco, and mixed-in with guitars and amplifiers at huge music store chains. Not to mention, everywhere online, including Craigslist and eBay.
With so many poorly made instruments out there, you need to know what to look for. We hope this guide is helpful...read on! Some of these points you may not fully understand in the beginning of your quest, but they will help you to ask the right questions at a store. A good salesperson should be able to address these questions and have answers for you.
• A djembe should have 3/16" (4mm-5mm) rope that is round (not flat) and not frayed
• A round bearing edge that may be sharp or curved
• 25 or more loops
• Rings snug against the shell
• An interior that is hand carved with some roughness and NOT lathed
• Medium to Heavy in weight
• A Medium to thick skin
• One row MAXIMUM of rope diamonds already
• A 12-14" head (measure the head diameter 2 ways to see if it's round)
• Make sure the top ring isn't slipping over the ring inside the skin
• See if the very bottom ring (under the bowl) is crooked
• Rings should be wrapped with cloth, and not bent, rusted, or eating through the skin
• Look for open cracks in the wood
• Is a dark stain hiding any imperfections?
• Skins should be free of holes and bug bites
This is THE drum. The skin, and other parts, can and will come and go, but what you are investing in is the shell. The top players in the world (Mamady Keita, Famoudou Konate, Fadouba Oulare, Adama Drame, and Soungalo Coulibaly) play drums from shells carved in Ivory Coast, Guinea, and Mali.
Keep in mind, that although it's the outside that you see, it's the INSIDE of the drum that you hear. The sound is bouncing around, being absorbed and resonating inside the drum. Most true Guinean and Malian shells have been made totally by hand so the inside of the shell is rough. This uneven roughness helps give the djembe it's dry sound (without unwanted ring or boinginess. The following are the most common woods and some features of the djembe shells made from them.
Lengue Wood: Overall sound, consistency, and durability are great. Increasingly rare, this is the "Cadillac" of djembe woods. They have a melodic quality, superior projection, best overall bass/tone/slap contrast, and long sustain. As with most Guinea shells, the chiseling pattern is on the interior of bowl and the stem is a spiral. Favored by Mamady Keita and Famoudou Konate. RED - MEDIUM HEAVY
Acajou Wood (Bois Rouge): One of the prized "redwoods" from the Guinea-Mali region, along with Lenge and Djalla. Acajou is often difficult to tell apart from the other redwoods. It is generally lighter (in color) with more orange, and will have light patches. As with most Guinea shells, the chiseling pattern is on the interior of the bowl and the stem is a spiral. Overall sound, consistency, and durability are great.
RED - MEDIUM
Djalla Wood: Along with Acajou and Lenge, Djalla is one of the highly sought after "redwoods" from the Guinea/Mali region. It is also very difficult to distinguish from the other "redwoods", except that Djalla tends toward the dark red and purple, and has fewer light patches. As with most Guinea Shells, the chiseling pattern is on the interior of the bowl and the stem is a spiral. Overall sound, consistency, projection, and durability are great. Djalla has exceptional bass/tone/slap contrast.
RED - MEDIUM
Balafon Wood (Hare, Khadi(Susu), Beng (Malinke): Overall sound, consistency, and durability are great. Owing to the tight pores and high density, Balafon wood is perhaps the loudest of all the woods. It will sometimes have a "ringy" quality that is best balanced out with a thick skin. As with most Guinea shells, the chiseling pattern is on the inside of the bowl and the stem is a spiral. In Guinea, balafons are made from this same melodic wood.
BROWN/STRIPED GRAIN - HEAVY
Iroko Wood: Always noticeable because of the ledge carved for the bottom ring so it won't slip. Iroko djembes and dununs are among the most consistent and highest quality in the world. Exceptional overall bass/tone/slap contrast. The more open pores give Iroko a very warm sound, and it is a good weight for carrying. Interior of bowl and stem are thicker, and smoother, than Guinea shells. The thicker shell enables a very comfortable and rounded bearing edge.
BROWN - MEDIUM
Demba (Dimb, Duki, Dougoura, Teak): Density and tight pores make this a very bright drum. It has a "dry" sound; not a lot of bass response or sustain, but strong tones. Drawbacks include heavy weight, poorer than average bass response, many cracks, and chunky (not smooth) interior. Senegal is facing a tree shortage and carvers are now using trees cut down a decade ago, which were discarded at that time for low quality. Watch out for a greater than average amount of cracks and patches repaired with glue and sawdust. Demba-Duki shells from southern Senegal (Casamance), Gambia, and Guinea are the most consistent shells from this wood.
RED - HEAVY
SIZE OF A DJEMBE
DIAMETER: The best size for a lead drum is about 13" diameter head and 24" tall. A supporting drum is slightly larger in diameter. Drums larger than 14" head diameter are hard to keep in tune because there is more skin surface area. Those skins also pop easier because the thinner edges of the skin are on the edge of the drum.
SHAPE: A common myth is that the bass on a larger drum is boomier. However, this is not always true. Sometimes the bass on a 14" (or larger) drum is so low that it can't be heard. Our ears have a specific range. Huge drums may rattle windows, but be hard to hear. In large groups, the bass is the first thing to drop off anyway. Moreover, some smaller djembes can have a lower bass than a huge djembe if the drum has a smaller throat diameter.
HEIGHT: 22.5" should be about the minimum height. Anything shorter, and you'll be hitting your legs and bending over too much. 24" seems perfect. And 25" is okay. Any taller and the sitting position you will be in may not be comfortable.
CRACKS: Small cracks near the top and bottom of the drum are normal. They occur during the open-air curing process as the wood loses water and acclimates to the environment. Once these small cracks are filled with wood-putty, they rarely open up. But be aware of huge patches, as they may be covering a knot or a structural problem.
ABOUT THE SKIN: Skins from Guinea, Ivory Coast, Mali, and Senegal are best. They are fresher and are from leaner animals, which translates to stronger, less brittle skins with less fat and scaring. Careful about skins from Pakistan, Thailand, or Indonesia (Bali)...most are thin, unreliable and prone to breakage. The spine should be centered on the drum. We feel that hair that was removed with a razor blade when the skin was still wet is preferable to that which was removed by chemicals.
SKIN THICKNESS: We recommend medium, medium thick to thick skins. In general, beginners prefer a thin skin because the slaps and bass come easier. The thicker the skin, the harder you have to work for definition between tones and slaps. But, as players improve, they go to thicker skins for better tones and minimal excess ring.
THE ROPE: Next to the shell and skin, this is the most important component of the djembe because this is what keeps your drum in tune. We recommend a 3/16" (4.5mm), double-braided polyester. Most rope from Africa is flat, thin, weak, very stretchy, and often nylon. Many drums strung in Africa are not capable of staying in tune in North America because of the weak rope and our ever-changing weather. If a drum was strung in Africa, be sure it has imported rope. Ours do! (If you buy a drum with African rope, think about changing the rope during the next re-heading.)
THE RINGS: Rings should be as absolutely tight as possible while allowing the skin to move freely. There is no reason for rings to stick out more than 1/4" from the drum. You should not be able to stick your little finger between the rings and the shell. If too big, you will find your drum not staying in tune. 1/4" round-bar is standard. Wrapping rings with cloth prevents rusty rings from bleeding through. The cloth can also help you fine-tune snugness, by controlling the ring diameter with the amount of cloth used. Also, coating the unseen flesh ring with a rust inhibitor may help save the life of your skin.
THE WEATHER: Natural skins are affected by temperature and weather pressure changes. Expect the pitch of your djembe to go up in warm or dry weather, and back down in cool or moist weather. Don't fully tune a drum under wet or cold conditions because it could burst the skin when the temperature and humidity change.
RE-HEADING: The tighter you keep your drum, the shorter the life span of the skin. Average life span is 2 to 5 years. Professional players change them about once a year. We sell replacement skins, rings, rope, and instructions for the "do-it-yourselfer".