Djembe

A djembe is a rope-tuned skin-covered goblet drum played with bare hands. According to the Bamana people in Mali, the name of the djembe comes from the saying “Anke djé, anke bé” which translates to “everyone gather together in peace” and defines the drum’s purpose. In the Bambara language, “djé” is the verb for “gather” and “bé” translates as “peace”.

Teachers: Bruce Harding, Sandy Khaira

The djembe has a body (or shell) carved of hardwood and a drumhead made of untreated (not limed) rawhide, most commonly made from goatskin. Excluding rings, djembes have an exterior diameter of 30–38 cm (12–15 in) and a height of 58–63 cm (23–25 in). The majority have a diameter in the 13 to 14 inch range. The weight of a djembe ranges from 5 kg to 13 kg (11–29 lb) and depends on size and shell material. A medium-size djembe carved from one of the traditional woods (including skin, rings, and rope) weighs around 9 kg (20 lb).

The djembe can produce a wide variety of sounds, making it one of the most versatile drums. The drum is very loud, allowing it to be heard clearly as a solo instrument over a large percussion ensemble. The Malinké people say that a skilled drummer is one who “can make the djembe talk”, meaning that the player can tell an emotional story. (The djembe was never used by the Malinké as a signaling drum to send messages.)

Traditionally, the djembe is played only by men, as are the dunun that always accompany the djembe. Conversely, other percussion instruments that are commonly played as part of an ensemble, such as the shekere (a hollowed-out gourd covered with a net of beads), karignan (a tubular bell), and kese kese (a woven basket rattle), are usually played by women. Even today, it is rare to see women play djembe or dunun in West Africa and African women express astonishment when they do see a female djembe player.