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.
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.
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
DrumConnection 177 Massachusetts Ave. Arlington, MA 02474 ph: (001) 781-316-8068
I will update this soon.
5.0 star rating
5.0 star rating 2/9/2017
I was thrilled to find that this store doesn't just have hand drums, but is also well-stocked with hardware and parts for rock drum kits. And if they don't stock something you need, they'll order it for you or point you in the right direction.
Alan, the owner, is extremely knowledgeable and helpful if I have questions or need advice. When I came in last year wanting to restore my vintage kit, I had no idea where to start, and Alan helped me through the entire process, from cleaning, de-rusting, to finding missing parts. Whenever I have a problem with my kit or something breaks, I always go to Alan first (it's a good idea to call the store to see when he's working!) Often he'll find a way to fix it without having to purchase new parts.
Definitely recommend this gem over bigger places like Guitar Center.
5.0 star rating
Jan 22, 2017
"Hi Alan, Eddie & I LOVED Nancy's classes. We stopped going because it was dark & cold & late & it was the only time we could both make it ( I work nites ) but we plan to resume classes probably in the spring. I miss it. Rochelle"
5.0 star rating
Purchased beautiful instruments...
I recommend the workshops to all my college student studying world music in the classroom. We've also purchased beautiful instruments I use in my teaching. People marvel at their sound and touch.
5.0 star rating
So much fun...
Participating in a beginners drumming series was so much fun, and I was surprised at what they were able to teach us! We plan to go back as soon as our schedule allow a steady attendance.
5.0 star rating
Just bought my 3rd instrument from this store. Always a pleasure to do business with DrumConnection, and home to a great community of drummers.
5.0 star rating
Honest, original voice...
Way back in 2011, I wrote and published a feature story about Alan Tauber and DrumConnection. Read it at YourArlington
Nothing that has occurred since would cause me to change my mind about Alan and his business: He's an honest, original voice in a fast-changing town, offering a rhythm that is hard to beat.
5.0 star rating
Always a great experience...
Alan is always a pleasure to do business with. He is knowledgeable and very kind. The classes they have are fun and very informative. Always a great experience.
Redington Beach, FL
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 DrumConnection 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!
Thank you Alan, Thierno, Audrey, Issa and Moussa!
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.
March 6, 2015
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, 20115
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!