How to Play the Djembe

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Follow-up to Djembe Technique Workshop

(I respond to a student's comment at the technique for djembe workshop.)

Thanks so much for coming out to the Djembe Technique Workshop on Friday night. I hope you had a good time and learned a lot! We certainly covered much material. I really enjoyed working with all of you and appreciated such positive energy from everyone. Nice to see.


How to Play the Djembe. 


The basic sounds of the djembe explained.

There is always context. Every workshop I do is different. The stories are there to illustrate the importance and give history to what we are learning. It is obvious to me that one cannot learn that much that will be done by our hands in a two hour class so we give the information and give you a life of time to start working on it. That was the tact I took that night. It was what it was. All the sounds were played by all of us for long periods of time. One way to hold a technique workshop for djembe.


Technique workshop should be a 10 week or 52 week series. It can't be all done in one seating. Remember "it takes 2 lifetimes to be able to be great at this djembe playing." Famoudou Konaté say a lifetime, Mamady Keita says a lifetime, I joke and say two lifetimes.


"You must play your drum without me around, on your own, for 5 minutes a week." That used to be a Mamady Keita quote that went from "10 minutes a day" and I think at one time was 30 minutes a day in his early years of teaching for us.


Bass is not that important a tone though it should be played correctly. If people don't realize that (take that to heart) they waste a lot of time not playing the differences between good tones and good slaps. Bass is usually not a part of a rhythm on djembe as it is played in West Africa.


In drum circles where a lot of people don't have good distinction between tone and slap, they use bass as a third sound. In Guinea, Mali, The Gambia, Ivory Coast, the bass is a tiny part of the rhythm and not so much a speaking sound.


Bass can function in a few different ways. 1. It can be a place to go 'home' and rest. Mamady calls this home. I call it home or 'your friend' or place to rest and gain needed energy. So (stay with me) it's the sounds you play between basses that are what you want to hear and be clear.


Fanga (a drum circle rhythm)

In America we have a popular drum circle rhythm called Fanga and it was devised as a rhythm to be played by newbie drummers with bass as a main sound. There is nothing wrong with Fanga and a lot good about it but I feel it does not put you on the long road to being a decent djembe player. You will have to leave Fanga and its comforts to learn the tone and the slap well.


How To Practice

A good practice routine is something you play while alone or with a friend in a comfortable, upright position, when you feel good, while breathing in and out - that contains tones, slaps and bass and some space between some sounds too. In other words, play some sounds quickly together and play some sounds farther apart in time. Maybe stay with groups of 4s and 8s or add some 3s and 6s and make up any rhythm you like. Focus on Right-Left movement, no doubling of a hand unless there is a space or tap on the opposite hand. 


To get feedback on what you are actually doing with your hands, use a full length mirror and place at a 45˚ angle to you. When you see yourself play, you can and will make instant changes. It is very powerful 'medicine'. You can also use a camera or smartphone and take a video but not as effective. Please keep your shoulders back and your head high and your back straight. Sit at the very edge of your chair and you should hear the djembe sounds change instantly.


Attending classes or drumcircles. Nothing like the weekly dose of instruction. Nothing. And we'd love to have you in our classes. Nice people, good times and your drumming with soar! Here are a few courses coming up soon that I would highly recommend to you:


- Tuesday Class 7:30 - 9pm

- Wednesday Class 7:30 - 9pm

- Thursday Class 7:15 - 8:45pm

- Sunday Class 5:00 - 7pm


Drum Circles 

These are fun events where you get to play a lot and dance a lot. The only downside is many people aren't playing correctly and you can develop bad habits. But... whats so bad about a few bad habits:) We hold ours at DrumConnection every other Friday night 7pm - 9pm; $10.-DrumCircles can be loud, wear earplugs if you still have your hearing left. More >


Upcoming Workshops 

Attending drumming workshops whether they be for one day, a weekend or a week or even a 10 day Drum and Dance camp, is a lot of fun! But it usually needs to be supported by after workshop weekly classes, if you can find the time and money for that. You meet a lot of great teachers and drummers who have a slightly different way of helping you get to a new level of play. And you get to share your personal drumming with a large group and learn from that. I highly encourage attending a weekend workshop with a true master teacher and drummer.

More >


Responsible Recording

I highly recommend a dedicated recorder to record your classes or private lessons. The iPhone and other smartphones have excellent audio recording capability. It is a very good system IF you will listen to the recording 1x after the lesson or class. That's all I ask. It's like you take the drum class twice! It really is. One of the really sweet recorders out there is the model: Tascam DR-05. We sell them at the shop! Or you can get one online. And, as I said, some smartphones make very nice recordings.


There are others and they are okay too. I love the Tascams. They are usually a little bit cheaper so you might want to wait a week or two and see if they come back under $100.- Paul in our class likes the Sony IC Recorder. I made my last CD in Africa with 3 Tascams.


The Sounds of the Djembe

Make practice fun and something you don't skip so much. Invite a friend you may meet to join you someplace and play together. You'll figure out stuff and learn from each other no mater what level you are at, I promise. AND you all have things to share even at this point, I'm sure. Most importantly Just sharing your spirit and energy is huge gift.  Take someone out and buy them a dinner and then go play together!


We need each other in these times!


Tone (formerly known as the open tone)

Remember the TONE is a heavy, round sound; it's meaty even iif you don't have a lot of meat on those bones. Keep the tips just off the skin. The TONE is a thuddy sound that should have a little bounce off the drum or land with tips slightly raised to allow the head to vibrate after the hit. You CAN let your hand stay on the drum when you really learn to play a good tone. But for now, practice coming off the drum skin a small bit.


Tones & Slaps


That's when you start becoming happy with your drumming and you want to drum even more! So, I gave context to explain how pro djembe players use bass. As a resting place and as a left hand introduction to a series of tones or slaps (or even 1 tome or slap) starting on the RH.


While bass may not be important in traditional djembe technique it is important to have it available to you when you need it and to feel comfortable playing it. So it is included in the All Tones Exercise. Please play that exercise at lest 5 minutes a week. You may need a password. If so, just email me if you are in our classes.



Remember the SLAP is a light 'tickle'. Let's get rid of the word 'slap' for a while and sub 'tickle'. If you listen to a 'bell-like' sound that is as bright as possible, as high pitched as possible, you will start to feel it as slap. If you can get a slap at a tiny volume, great! When you want to get a loud slap it will be there. If you can only play a slap at a loud volume, you really don't have a very good slap. In music and in drumming you need some control over your sounds and volume to make it musical. My master Famoudou Konaté once said that he only had 12 slaps, which was the first time I had hear someone make that much of a distinction between types of slaps.


Slap TIP: Feel the air under your fingers in the slap. Feel the air. And the finger tips should be pretty straight and up in the air before releasing down to the drum skin. We have a saying that is very old now, 'If you can see my palm when I am playing, that is going to be a slap' and if you can't, that would be a tone. At least for practice sake to find your slap, play it at lightly as possible, even lighter that you think you can and you'll develop a great slap. There is not just one slap! You may develop 3 - 15 distinct slaps on the djembe. All in due time.


Drumming is certainly NOT a full volume or even one volume practice. It has to include various levels and tones of sound to make music you, and others, want to listen to. Not easy to show a family member of friend what you are learning when you have just begun to play. Buy try to play with gentle feeling and commitment to your sounds.


Remember the djembe is a musical instrument and time and love will give you back in sound what you put in with care. The djembe doesn't know color. It doesn't know gender. It is an open vessel derived from a woman's kitchen implement. It is receptive and the sounds already exist maybe just a second before you play it. It's magic; keep it magic. Be scientific be specific, if you need to for now, and dissect a bit and watch closely but then let go and make sure RELAX is your mantra. It's all about relaxation from your neck down thru your feet. That's what it's not a great idea to hold your djembe with your legs. A waist strap can help until you get so used to your djembe, you don't need it anymore.


Read about the history of the djembe that I've spent years writing. It places it in historic perspective a bit so you can begin to understand that the way it sounds today, is far from the way it sounded even 60 years ago. And 100 years ago... very, very different sound. It is still evolving today; becoming tighter and using thicker skins.


And finally, I just want to leave you with the words and thoughts of Evelyn Glennie: How to truly listen on A TED talk. I think you'll enjoy it! She is deaf and a remarkable percussionist. Enjoy. LINK.


If you will go to YouTube, some names to search for are: Mamady Keita, Famoudou Konaté, Sega Cisse, Bolokada Conde, Ibrahima "Boka" Camara, Nansady Keita, etc. And I've studied many hours and years with these guys, so I know how incredible they are. 


Also, since I mentioned my good friend and the master of djembe, Famoudou Konaté, here is one of my favorite things to inspire me, Famoudou Teaching.


Keep your eyes peeled for the next workshop on Djembe Technique, a follow-up to the work we did tonight! YES!


And I am here for you with any thoughts  or questions you may have about anything do to with drumming, drums, music, relationships to music, etc.


Thanks for the chance to reach you in music.

Alan Tauber (1990 - 2017)

Nansady Keita Djembekan

Listen to this Master's tones and slaps speak in many ways. Nansady Keita, teacher in The Gambia for DrumConnection.