History Of The Djembe

The Modern Djembe Built by DrumConnection
The Modern Djembe Built by DrumConnection

The djembe is one of West Africa's best known instruments. This goblet-shaped drum is traditionally carved from a single piece of African hardwood and topped with an animal skin as a drumhead. In western understanding, the drum belongs to the membranophone class of instruments in the percussion family.


Some say the name of the djembe came from the Bamana in Mali, who said "Anke dje, anke be" to call their people together, as the saying translates as "everyone gather together." "Dje" means gather and "be" means everyone, which gave the drum used in these calls to order its name. The Bamanakans' mythology tells of the original djembe, which was made of the hide of a giraffe-zebra hybrid called the gebraffe. There are at least a dozen stories of the history of the drum told by many master drummers. My master tells these stories and then steps back as even he, doesn't purport to know the real truth. In history, the Mandinka of Manden became the Malinke of Mali. We often refer to them as the Mandé. 


The djembe drum is most likely about 400-800 years old, and was created during the Malian Empire by the Mandé people. It spanned the modern-day countries of Senegal, southern Mauritania, Mali, northern Burkina Faso, western Niger, the Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, the Ivory Coast and northern Ghana. The Mali Empire grew out of an area referred to by its contemporary inhabitants as Mande. Mande, named for its inhabitants the Mandinka (initially Manden’ka with “ka” meaning people of), comprised most of present-day northern Guinea and southern Mali. The empire was originally established as a federation of Mandinka tribes called the Manden Kurufa (literally Manden Federation), but it later became an empire ruling millions of people from nearly every ethnic group in West Africa.


It is taught that the Blacksmiths made the first djembes, making each drum custom-fitted to the drummer who would play it. This makes sense as they would be the people to cut the tree. The making of the drum was spiritual, and the blacksmith was obliged to make offerings to the spirits of the trees he cut down. With the lengue tree, a sacrifice would be made to ask for permission to cut the tree for a djembe. Once the blacksmith finished the djembe, it was delivered to the drummer who commissioned it, a member of the jeli caste. The jeli are musicians, who are responsible for the oral history of their people. This remains true to today.

Stem of a beautifully carved djembe in Guinea
Stem of a beautifully carved djembe in Guinea

Traditionally, only those born into the djembe family would be allowed (or interested) to play the djembe. Castes have last names that have survived to this day and if your last name (your family name) is one of those families born into the djembe, it is your instrument and possibly your job to play the drum for the village.


The djeli caste still exists today, and is responsible for the traditional music. The djeli sing and perform during rituals, baptisms, weddings and sometimes funerals, and are trusted with the music of their ancestors.

 

Africans say that the drum contains three spirits. The belief is that the djembe drum contains the spirit of the tree from which it was made, the spirit of the animal whose skin is played, and the spirit of the carver or the one who cut the tree and the people who assemble the drum. We would add that possibly the most important is the spirit of the ancestors. I have seen the oldest djembe known today and it has the names of generations of djembe masters from many countries and villages.


During a performance, the djembe may begin the ritual, followed by the singer and the other instruments. However, the music can also begin in a different fashion. The djembe player can change the beat of the drums in order to change the song, and the singer and instrumental players use the rhythm to recognize what they should be playing and adding to the whole. Meanwhile, the guests at the ceremony dance to the rhythm in a circle or incircled by a vast gathering of people. Solo dancers may leave the circle to dance for the djembe players or simply move up as allowed to dance for the djembe soloist of the moment.

 

In the villages of Guinea and Mali, I have more often than not seen the traditional beginnings of ceremonies. They often start with work being done and a song is sung to that work. If there are gourds or bells they may be added and then the bass drums (dunun) and then the djembe, in that order. That seems to me to be the natural way in the village. And, if you think about it, westerners often use a 'vocal first' call to begin a song or maybe a prayer.


Hundreds of years later, the djembe gained a new following after West African countries gained independence. Highlighting the old culture of these newly sovereign states, djembe was used in national ballets, and drew emphasis to the djembe as a premier musical instrument and solo voice, rather than as an accompaniment to song and dance. Some modern djembe troupes only focus on the djembe and dunun music, but often do not include the dance. The song is often lost. To hear the music of the song, the dance and the drumming along with the villagers clapping and moving in a circle is just amazing. And you may need to make that trek to Africa to experience it in an actual village setting.


A djembe is normally 23-25" in height but can be smaller in many villages in Africa. We like to say the perfect height of a djembe is 24 1/2". Children often play djembe drums that are only 12-15" tall and they strap them on and play in a standing position as they copy their adult teachers. Many children in Africa actually start learning to play the drum on coffee cans on the side of the road. In the western world, children often start off in the kitchen with pots and pans. This is interesting to me as the djembe in Africa and in America comes from the kitchens of Africa. Most percussion instruments come from those outdoor African kitchens. Wood and metal make up the kitchen utensils and so it is with the djembe and dunun (the bass drum of the dununba).

 

Even as recently as the 1950s, the djembe was not known beyond African music aficionados and those who grew up with the instrument. Fodeba Keita, of Siguiri, Guinea, brought a tour of Les Ballets Africains around the world. European countries found the djembe before North America and it became more popular there. Now, Japan has risen to a country that has had a recent upswing in interest in djembe and traditional dance. And we can add China to that ever-growing list! 

 

I have been in Guinea when the Japanese elders were sent to find out what was the djembe all about and the dance and the culture of djembe. Was it tied to evil spirits? So I sat and watched and listened as the grandmaster and bibliothèque of the djembe, Famoudou Konaté, attempted to allay all fears. It was fascinating to me, that a country would send ambassadors and information gatherers before allowing their country to experience djembe and Guinean dance.

 

In today's musical world, the djembe is making its way into the global consciousness. More people than ever listen to world music, popularized greatly by the rapid spread of West African ballets and orchestras especially during the mid 1980s. While it is hard to find a real djembe worth playing, built with the spirit of the wood, the skin and the maker it is worth the years necessary to invest in finding such a drum. Very often, current djembe-style drums are not being made traditionally.

Building up the djembe at our shop
Building up the djembe at our shop

Some argue that it is better to have a djembe style drum than to not have a drum at all. I personally feel (due to experience) that even though those drums may be more accessible, they do not usually find their way into the hands of good drummers. To play djembe means to stay true to the history of the djembe; That includes the traditions of magic, knowledge and an open heart. If one of those is absent, the music will not sound correct to village-people of the seeding countries of the djembe.


As of today, many traditional rhythms and songs have been lost to the past and the spirits that once were. Many current djembe teachers and historians have made it their purpose to make sure the rhythms we currently know and are learning, not be forgotten. Famoudou Konaté, Mamady Keita, Fadouba Oularé (passed in 2009), Mansa Cameo and their sons and descendants are continuing to keep the music alive. We owe it to the spirits of the past to learn their music. If we just jam (play stuff) on the djembe, we will surely lower it's value as an instrument and one day, like a lost and forgotten child, it will be forgotten and die.

 

When you play the djembe, it needs to speak in the music. If it doesn't speak, it is like you are saying nonsense with your voice. When you learn how to make the drum talk the language of the people who even today play and sing with the djembe, it takes on a life of its own. The djembe can then share in the energy that comes from without and within. And try to leave western accents behind and learn some Sousou, Malinké and Pular words and phrases so you can hear African sounding djembe phrases and djembe tone.

 

The djembe player is then not 'just' a drummer but a vessel through which the spirit of the djembe comes through. I sometimes say that the sound of the djembe is in the past, present and the future; That it is not really in us yet until the moment it quickly comes into consciousness thru the hands and into the world. It is all at once! The drummer really doesn't own the sound and is certainly not the only one responsible for it. It comes from years of study with masters guiding your hands, fingers, arms, spine - your thinking and your spirit. That is the master's job. 

 

And it is not easy. When you align yourself with a master, you will stay with him for a long time and it is a bond that can touch you and should touch you at your innermost places. If you have gone through this, you know. If you haven't I highly suggest this road BUT it is not easy and you may give up many other things in life to come to the knowledge and ability to make the djembe talk and sing.


More djembe are built in Ghana, Bali and Thailand these days. The djembe has no history there. Some historians say that the djembe never really lived in those countries. Whether they were not born of those countries or not, they are able to export many more drums than the total of all the other djembe-seeding countries combined due to their industrial abilities and more westernized society. We feel strongly that for a djembe to be a djembe it should come from the seeding countries of origin: Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast. These five countries have the trees the djembe is made from and they sound like a djembe. No drum made in the Western World will have that sound or that spirit. You will hear and feel the difference, we promise you. If your heart and ears are open.


Please support African artisans and buy traditional djembe drums where much of the money will go back to pay the carvers. Thank you. And may the spirits that pass through the djembe speak to the spirt in you to help you on your way in life, love and happiness. 


Contents by Alan Tauber as learned over 35 years of studying the Mande music, drumming, dance, songs and being a visiting member of the Guinean culture. If you use this info, and wish to state its source, it is through Alan Tauber from his many masters of the Mandeng Music over a 35 year period. There is much more to know and learn. Just because it is written doesn't make it so. Just because someone says it, doesn't make it real.

 

Many people contact me and ask where did you get this? So, when you have been deeply involved in this music and culture for as long as I have, you make strong and loving connections with those people. If you care, you open your ears, and you listen to every word and think about the implications and history. I tend to record a lot and then listen to the recordings. I don't ask a lot of questions as I feel it is not my place. I just listen on a 'need to know' basis.

 

My teachers directly in my history: Nuru Dafina, Ibrahima Camara (passed), Abdoulaye Sylla (passed), Paulo Mattioli (passed), Mamady Keita, Mamady 'Wadaba' Kourouma, Mamady Kourouma, Sayon Camara, Nansady Keita, Bolokada Conde, Monette Marino, and the grandmaster himself, Famoudou Konaté.

 

Thanks to Kim Atkinson, CA for his support of this work and his wish for the source to be credited.

 

Copyright 2016 Alan Tauber, Director DrumConnection PO Box 1311 Arlington, MA 02474

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