The Modern Djembe

ROPE TUNED DJEMBE The use of rope for making djembe is a recent addition and change for the drum. That system was first used in the late 1960s possibly 1970. The first djembe I saw was tuned with cow strips as 'verticals' interlaced into the goat, deer or antelope skins pitted with holes. This is really important for new students of the djembe to know as the djembe used to be a low tuned instrument.


In early concerts I attended in Boston, MA USA, the drummers were not 'pulling' or tightening their djembe with rope or much force. Every concert for these artists would have electric heaters backstage and the djembe would be gathered there in front of the heat to tighten the heads as much as possible. Often this was also combined with pounding the edge of the drum with a large stick or mallet (stick wrapped in cloth).


When the metal rings were added to the djembe, many still had the leather lacing holding the head in place. It wasn't until years later that some basic cotton rope was first used to tighten the skin of the djembe. I was lucky enough to be around during that time to see each little change that was made to djembe both here, in Europe and, of course, in Africa. There have been many, many changes for this 600 year old or more, djembe drum. And there are certainly many that we just don't know.


It has been reported that the first use of metal rings in America was the creation of Chief Bey, who got the idea from the conga drums of Haiti and Ashiko drums of Nigeria. The place of this happening was 494 Macon Street in Brooklyn New York. Neil Clark, a student of Chief Bey took his djembe to West Africa (early 70's), and that is when his system was incorporated.

Chief Bey
Chief Bey

James Hawthorne known to his community and on recordings as Chief Bey was born in Yamassee, S.C., in 1913. As a boy, he moved with his family to the Brownsville section of Brooklyn and then to Harlem, where he began playing drums and singing in church choirs. He served in the Navy during World War II and later attended cosmetology school. Chief played an integral role in shaping modern day Orisha worship across America.

A descendent of the prestigious Lukumi “La Pimienta” (Yoruba Atare—Pepper) linage via Okikilo, 'Chief' James Hawthorne Bey was initiated to the Orisha Sango and given the name Aiya Ilu (Bravery is a drum) on June 15, 1976. As a legendary pioneering cultural icon in the Lukumi Orisha religious traditions as well as a master drummer, his accomplishments and legacy will continue to be recognized for many years to come.

Chief Bey, along with his wife Barbara Kenyatta Bey established one of the most prolific Afro-centric “Black” Orisa “Iles” (houses) in Brooklyn, New York. “Barbara and Chief” named their house Ile Omo Olofi (House of the children of God). Ile Omo Olofi in its hay day touted about 50 members. As a Babalorisha, Chief Bey crowned (initiated) 12 men and women into the Lukumi religious traditions. A master drummer as well as a wood carver, Chief Bey taught drumming, drum making, beadwork and wood carving at the Ile. But more than that, he was a highly respected role model and the salvation of many young men across America.

Chief Bey was also a renowned jazz percussionist and African folklorist who recorded with artists like Babatunde Olatunji, Art Blakey and Herbie Mann before turning to teaching.

Babatunde Olatunji
Babatunde Olatunji

Babatunde Olatunji hired Chief Bey to play on his immensely popular 1959 album, Drums of Passion (Columbia), which set off a nationwide craze for African drumming. In the 1950's Chief Bey performed in an international tour of ''Porgy and Bess'' starring Leontyne Price and Cab Calloway and made several theatrical and film appearances, performing as an African drummer in the Broadway musical ''Raisin,'' and in the films ''Smoke'' and ''Blue in the Face.''

Chief as he was affectionately called joined the ancestors on April 8, 2004. His beloved wife Barbara Kenyatta Bey joined him nine days later on the anniversary of their first date. Babatunde Olatunji passed on in April 2003.

Babatunji Olatunji the Nigerian drummer, bandleader, teacher and tireless ambassador for African music and culture in the United States, died on Sunday in Salinas, Calif. He was 76 and lived at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, Calif. He had previously lived in Boston, New York and California.

The cause was complications of advanced diabetes, said his daughter Modupe Olantunji Anuku.

Mr. Olatunji's 1959 album, ''Drums of Passion,'' was the first album of African drumming recorded in stereo in an American studio, and it introduced a generation to the power and intricacy of African music. While field recordings of African drumming had been available, ''Drums of Passion'' reached a mass public with its vivid sound and exotic song titles like ''Primitive Fire.’’

Olatunji was born and reared in Ajido, a fishing and trading village pervaded by Yoruba culture, a small town near Badagry, Lagos State, in southwestern Nigeria. He made it his life's work to bring village memories to audiences everywhere. His band of drummers, singers and dancers evoked both the village's music and its masquerades, with outsize figures dancing in elaborate raffia costumes. His credo was: ''Rhythm is the soul of life. The whole universe revolves in rhythm. Everything and every human action revolves in rhythm.''

History of the djembe >>

Thanks to Bradley Simmons for the information. From a post by Jo Anna Hunter. Additional info added by Alan Tauber.