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 to play! We'd like to share with you what we have learned in more than 12 years of traveling to West Africa, studying, selling, and repairing djembes for over 22 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. This is not meant to scare you but to warn you that it is virtually impossible to buy a djembe online. I have spent about $700.- on a few djembe in my day and was disappointed over 50% of the time! That's a lot of money for a low satisfaction rate!
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 or from a street vendor, as well. A good salesperson should be able to address these questions and have answers for you.
• A perfect djembe should have 3/16" (4mm-5mm) rope that is round and not frayed
• The djembe should be between 22.5" to 25" tall (we like 24.5")
• A slightly round bearing edge that may be very sharp or curved
• 22 -28 or more loops
• Symmetry - It should look even and feel good to you.
• Rings snug against the shell but not choking the skin.
• An interior that is hand carved with some roughness and NOT lathed
• Medium to Heavy in weight, though there are some nice lightweight drums out there too
• A Medium to thick skin as thin skins usually sound too ringy
• No rope flips or up to one row of rope diamonds (flips) already in
• A 12" - 13.5" head (measure the head diameter 3-4 ways to see if it's round, if you wish)
• Make sure the top ring isn't slipping over the ring inside the skin
• See if the very bottom ring (under the bowl) is too crooked OR not strong enough
• Rings should be wrapped with cloth, and not bent, rusted, eating through the skin or broken!
• Look for open cracks in the wood. Cracks are a norm for djembe but have them repaired if you love your drum
• Is a dark stain hiding any imperfections?
• Skins should be free of holes and bug bites. There may be some natural skin blemishes that are okay.
• If there is some hair left on the skin it can easily be cut or sanded off with a sanding block. Hair usually falls out on it's own, in time. Some people like it!
Final note: If you are paying less than cost on the djembe, or getting a discount, you may be getting a drum with a few of the above, most likely. So take price into account when you go through this checklist. As a drummer, when I see and hear and play a perfect djembe, I do NOT want to sell it. And if I have to sell it, and it is that good, the price will not be discounted.
When buying any musical instrument you want the best you can get at a price you can afford. When you are buying a handmade djembe or dunun drum, you do not want to get a deal, so to speak. Unless you are willing to life with a few compromises which, in some cases may be okay. The old saying is as true today as it was years ago. You get what you pay for. Take that to heart when you are looking at djembe and dunun drums. Please.
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 Konaté, Fadouba Oulare, Adama Drame, Ibrahima Camara, 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 good. Increasingly rare, this is the "Cadillac" of djembe woods. They have a melodic quality, superior projection, good 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 Konaté. 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. I love the Bois Rouge.
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. I love them. 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 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. (Not ALL have it though) 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. It is possible to find lightweight ones but you may have to wait 6mos or so for one to get here.
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 basic 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. However, Famoudou's 14" is with our teacher Nancy and she has not had to tune that for a year or two now! So, there are always exceptions. Depends on who made the drum too and where.
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. The shape of the drum, the thickness and tuning of skin and your technique will decide the sound of the bass.
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. 24.5 " seems more perfect. And 25" is okay. Any taller and the sitting position you will be in may not be comfortable. We sometimes cut off the stem a half inch to fit the customers needs. Rarely but it can be done. Consider that most chairs are a standard height so when testing a new drum, be sure to be sitting at the approximate height you will encounter in playing situations. Some people carry their own chair, but rarely. Some people carry a drum seat (throne) but rarely. Carrying a round small cushion in your case on top of your djembe is not a bad idea as you can add an inch to your height and have a comfy seat, always.
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 sometimes 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 and may be unreliable. Some are ringy. 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 or dry shaved.
SKIN THICKNESS: We recommend medium, medium thick to thick skins. In general, beginners prefer a thinner 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. We highly recommend going with a thicker skin. Thicker skins last longer.
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 sometimes nylon. Some 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 imported rope was used. Ours do! (If you buy a drum with a low quality 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. Interesting factoid: From almost 30 years of experience in the Northeast region of the U.S., I have found extreme heat (as in a closed up car in hot sunlight) will cause more damage to your drum that extreme cold! In most cases, so park in the shade or take your drum inside with you. If you're comfortable, so will your drum be.
RE-HEADING: The tighter you keep your drum, the shorter the life span of the skin. Average 'great sound' life span is 2 to 5 years but the skin may last as long as 20 years. Professional players change them about once a year or two. We sell replacement skins, rings, rope, pullers, and instructions for the "do-it-yourselfer", videos, pulling tables and lots of skins.
RE-HEADING: We have a full time drum tech to rehead your drums, fix the wood, smooth the bearing edge and oil your drum's wood. We are experts in repairing many drums like djembe (authentic and even the plastic and metal ones), doumbek (metal and ceramic), bongos, talking drums, congas and more. Call for a quote. 781-316-8068 during shop hours or leave a message with phone #.
In conclusion, I have in my head and on a card in my shop, the key points we need to look at when choosing a djembe. They are in short:
1. How good of a drum do you want to own now? As you get better, you will want a better drum as your needs change.
• Ease of Tuning
• Enough Tuning rope or easy to get
• How it feels to play it in a standard height chair and ...
• Will you ever perform with it and is it light enough or will you use a stand or maybe someday get a second play-out djembe that is lighter. Most of my students have 2 or more. One for class learning and practice and one for standing gigs.
• Which one makes you feel the happiest! Which one do you feel a bond to?
• If possible have a professional play the drums for you at a little distance from you and hear them.
• And if you are a beginner, do you really want to have a good experience with your drumming? You may not find that in a beginner (inexpensive) djembe.
I hope this helps when you go shopping and searching a new djembe drum!
DrumConnection 177 Massachusetts Ave. Arlington, MA 02474 ph: (001) 781-316-8068
Alan's knowledge is vast...
I needed to replace the head on a djembe. I live on the south shore of MA, and was having a hard time finding a place to do the job. I discovered the Drum Connection through a list serve and found the best resource I could hope for. Alan's knowledge is vast, and the service was done professionally, on time, and at a reasonable price. I do not need to look any further for my hand drumming needs.
It is a privilege to know you...
You play such an important part in drumming education in this country. It is a privilege to know you...
Name withheld upon request. (but a famous dude in percussion).
Great Local Place, Great Stuff, Nice People
Bought a present for a friend and they had just what I wanted. They helped me pick the right one. Weren't pushy. Really nice vibe. Will definitely go back when I need a drum or a present for someone.
5/16/2016 5.0 stars! Yelp!
DrumConnection is great! Excellent teachers, extremely high quality guest drummers from Africa, and female teachers and leaders.
5/15/2016 5.0 stars!
At DrumConnection, I began my beginners' class feeling lost and insecure. However, while the drum is quite challenging, I have felt more and more connected to the group thanks to the wonderful teachers, and the kindness and acceptance of other drummers.
In other words I am deeply indebted and grateful for the opportunity to expand my skills, horizons, and sense of belonging thanks to the drum. The ongoing learning experience is challenging, exhilarating and humbling.
Thank you Alan, Thierno, Audrey, Issa and Moussa, and thank you to all my fellow students!
5/13/2016 5.0 stars!
Thanks so much. Tuned up my kids drum, very knowledgeable and friendly!
4/28/2016 5.0 stars!
Love DrumConnection in Arlington!
Great teachers including the Masters from West Africa; great drums (all kinds) and accessories. Director and owner, Alan, is an excellent drummer himself, friends to all and always willing to share his knowledge. Classes & Workshops at all levels challenging and tons of fun. Serious drumming going on here!
4/27/2016 5.0 stars!
Knowledgeable, and very helpful.
I watched Alan help a gentleman trying to rent an accordion. Yes, this sounds like a Seinfeld script, but it was touching seeing Alan help someone out. Additionally, the store is well supplied, and the prices are quote reasonable for being able to get your hands on what you need right now. Truly, an asset to the community!
Brian C. J.
April 9, 2016, 1:47 p.m.
Friends cannot believe how light it is and how good it sounds. Easy for me to carry. It is also very nice looking, not ornate, just beautiful wooden swirls. Thanks for all your help on this..... kdl
4/10/16 ; 5 Stars
I have spent several wonderful weekends at DrumConnection studying drumming rhythms with various master drummers (djembefolas) and I just want to thank Alan and the wonderful community of people I met at there for a wonderful, fun, inspiring and informative time. If I didn't live on Long Island, NY I would be there every week. 5 star rating from me!
Long Island, NY
2/24/2016 : 5 Stars!
DrumConnection is a wonderful place. Alan is so helpful, thoughtful and kind. The store has a great selection of drums that will help you connect to music from all over the world. Highly recommended!
Jan. 16, 2016 : 5 Stars!
Great experience, no pressure to buy or spend more than I wanted to, just the perfect assistance to help me find the right drum for me - a clear joy for drumming and very welcoming - made me feel right at home.
12/22/2015 : 5 Stars!
A great little store
I was looking for some nifty percussion accessories for my son-in-law and I really didn't want to go the the Guitar Center. What a great place! I got great advice & was able to find exactly the kind of stuff I was looking for! A perfect shopping trip & well worth the weekly trip down from Cape Ann!
Cape Ann, MA
5.0 star rating 12/6/2015 Yelp!
I took a beginner drum class here this fall. I was impressed by the business's connection to West African drumming. Thierno, a drummer from Guinea, was our teacher. If you want to learn drumming, have a weekly class with lots of laughing and meet people from around the world this place is for you.
5.0 Star Rating 12/4/15 Google+
Alan the owner is always friendly and helpful. When I was looking for a drum, he chose 4 drums he thought I might like, each unique. He helped me sort out the differences to find the combination of pluses that added up to the perfect drum for me.
Alan the teacher is a non-judgmental, supportive, and clear instructor whose decades of experience and amazing skill as a drummer combine to provide a safe and inspiring learning environment. I've studied with four other DrumConnection instructors and each is excellent in his or her own ways, and all certified by examination.
A great store and a wonderful school. I recommend it without reservations.
11/15/2015 5.0 Yelp!
The beginner drum class was extra special. Taught by Thierno Keita-what a wonderful escape each week from the work-a-day world into a world of rhythm and movement. Great for the brain and the soul. Alan Tauber, who runs the Drum Connection could not be kinder or more devoted to his art. This has been a postive turn for me and I will continue on this road with pleasure.
5.0 star rating 11/11/2015
DrumConnection is an nook of musical magic on Mass Ave in Arlington. The drumming teachers are from Africa, they sponsor workshops and trips to Africa to learn drumming. Alan the owner is very flexible and understanding with scheduling lessons. The drum selection is fantastic!! I recommend it to everyone I know. What a gem!
5.0 star rating 11/9/2015 Yelp!
Broad selection of percussion instruments from all over the world. Alan, the owner, really knows a lot about the instruments and the music they make.
5.0 star rating 11/7/2015 Yelp!
We have purchased many instruments from Alan. He knows so much about percussion instruments that we trust him with ordering sight unseen and have been pleased with our purchases. Prices are very reasonable. We drive 2 hours each way to shop at the Drum Connection and it is worth it.
5.0 star rating 11/6/2015 Yelp!
You will not find a more beautiful person than Alan to assit you with your journey of learning the drums. I have traveled with Alan to Guinea, purchased various drums, and attended numerous classes. Have not been able to find the joy I felt when I was involved with the Drum Connection. Please open a southern location!
5.0 star rating 10/5/2015 Yelp!
The drum I purchased from Alan several years ago is both beautiful and is a joy to use. The classes are fantastic -- designed for all skills levels and taught by master teachers that are knowledgeable and exciting.
They are patient and know how to break rhythms down to bite size. I have enrolled my 4 year old in the children's drum class and it is dynamic -- teaching movement and African songs. She loves it and loves her teachers."
5.0 star rating 10/19/2015 Yelp!
The Best! Thanks!
Purchased my djembe here a few years ago, just bought new skin, Alan and staff always knowledgeable and helpful.
5.0 star rating 8/29/2015 Yelp!
I am new to drumming and am having a ball. I went to a Sunday night lecture and lesson on one type of drums and followed that with 2 Sunday night drumming circles with an excellent teacher-but not at the rank beginner level. Still, I loved it and just tried to follow and keep up.
Now I am in a beginner class and I am still enjoying every minute. Alan is a kind and welcoming person. He coordinates to bring in a variety of excellent teachers and classes take place most every day of the week. He gives great advice about what to purchase and has rentals available. Come join the fun!
5.0 star rating 8/24/2015 Yelp!
This is a great little shop. Alan was able to rent me some drums for my autism caregivers retreat and was very accommodating. The drums were gorgeous, beautiful sound. Our group had a great time thanks to Drum Connection coming through at the last minute for me. Thank you!
June 25, 2015
5.0 star rating Excellent Teaching!
This is the first time I took drum lessons. I have taken piano lessons off and on for years. I really enjoy playing the drums. I had two teachers. They both had their individual style of teaching. I found that Alan is an excellent teacher. I would recommend anyone with a desire to learn drumming to check out DrumConnection. I haven't gone to their drum circle yet, but that's the next step for me. I am finishing up my first six weeks of classes, two more classes to go.
August 4, 2015
5.0 star rating 8/4/2015 Yelp!
I'm new to the djembe and drum circles in general. The drum circle I attended last week was a blast. Very relaxed and friendly, the drumming was amazing. Alan and Fanta were both very warm and welcoming. As others have noted, great energy. I'm definitely going back.
July 6, 2015
5.0 star rating Incredible Drums!
I returned to the store today to purchase my first djembe. Alan was more than helpful. He gave a mini-lesson on the spot so I would know how to evaluate the variety of drums, their tonal differences, etc. He also played several of them for me to have a better impression of what it sounds like once technique is mastered. The drum I finally settled on is incredible, love it. My wife was looking for a bodhran, and he gave demonstrations of those as well!
July 8, 2015
Way better than 5 stars!
Alan clearly loves what he is doing and it shows in the friendly, professional and deeply knowledgeable service. Way better than 5 stars.
June 10, 2015
Alan was so helpful. He came highly recommended, and lived up to it. I got a wonderful drum for my nephew - have not yet given it to him, but he is going to love it.
April 8, 2015
Five stars all the way!
Honestly, I can't say enough good things about DrumConnection. Alan and John helped me pick out the perfect drum, and when I came in tonight, Alan talked with me for at least an hour about technique, the history of the djembe coming to America, and more. The place is warm and inviting, and the people who work there are the same. I am confident I chose the best place to start my drumming journey, and I will be back for their classes! Five stars all the way!
March 7, 2015
My son is now starting drum lessons. We stopped in to purchase a drum pad and drum sticks. This is an amazing store. There is much to learn about choosing an instrument that suits you...and we were encouraged not to rush in and spend a lot of money at this stage. The store is packed with drums (mostly hand drums) and each visitor is encouraged to try out items that spark their interest. While visiting, my son tried several thumb pianos as well.
Fanta lead our group of 21 drummers thru two hours of song, dance, and drumming. Everybody was smiling at the end of the evening. What a deal for 10 bucks!
February 24, 2015
Drum Connection is a fantastic place to take African drumming lessons, meet some wonderful people and really expand your horizons by attending workshops with master drummers from West Africa. It's been a life changing experience for me. I am so blessed to part of Alan and Fanta's community.
February 13, 2015
As always Alan was right there to make sure I got exactly what I was looking for. He even sent me a photo/text to confirm that he had the correct size, shape and sound of rattle I needed. This was that perfect combination of personal service and immediate results.
February 5, 2015
Hey just wanted to write you a note to tell you how much I absolutely love the drum! It was the perfect choice for me. The slaps are just incredible and yet it gives good bass response. I brought it to work to play with the children and it was just such the perfect instrument. It’s just the right one for me and I'm really thrilled with it. Thanks so much.
January 24, 2015
Thanks Alan for your undivided attention today as I purchased the replacement head for the djembe I had previously bought at DrumConnection. Could not be more satisfied!