Among the group of membranophone instruments is the djembe. Typically made from wood it is shaped like a large goblet over which is stretched an animal skin. One of West Africas most popular drums it creates a deep bass sound when played correctly due to its goblet shaped body.
The drum's history can be traced all the way back to the Mali Empire of the twelfth century and to the tribes of either the Mandinka or Susu (also known as Numu). As the Mandika tribe crossed Africa the djembe drum travelled with them , it was readily adopted and over time its usage became
widespread. It is believed by the members of these tribes that the drum has within it three spirits, one of the drum maker, one from the tree used to make the drum, and the spirit from the animal whose hide was used for the drum. Today, the preferred choice is goatskin to cover the drum and they decorate it by carving designs into the wood and attaching braided rope to give each drum a unique appearance and flair.
The word djembe itself is not actually African, it is in fact French. When the French colonised certain areas of Africa they studied along with the people their instruments and musical styles. As they do not have a hard 'j' in their language they opted to use 'dj' and it is this spelling that has gained the greatest recognition. It is not the only accepted spelling though with some other common names including djimbe, jembe and yembe. It was in the 1950's and 1960's around Paris that the djembe grew in public awareness due to be it extensively used by the ballet ensemble Les Ballet Africains. Since then the drum has continued to grow in popularity around the world, especially amongst professional drum players who are
appreciative of its unique and tribal sound.
In Africa the diansa, or drum rhythm, is traditionally used in celebrations such as at weddings and baptisms and to commemorate full moons as well as the changing seasons. It is even suggested that djembes were used as a kind of musical language to send messages over great distances.
The djembe is sometimes accompanied by other instruments such as bells and dundun drums. In Senegal, the djembe is used by the Wolof tribe as part of the elaborate dances that their women perform. With the instrument playing the women put on an alluring dance called the Saber designed to attract and entice the men.
You can create a sound with the djembe using one of three basic techniques. The first is by hitting the centre of the djembe with the palm of an open hand, creating the 'bass' note. Hitting the edge or rim of the drum with the fingers flat produces the second sound called a 'tone', and thirdly using a similar action on the rim of the drum but with fingers relaxed is called a 'slap'.
Djembe drumsare now made by specialist drum makers all over the world and are sought after by students, tourists, professional musicians and hobbyists alike. When you hear a djembe being played well it is not easy to resist moving to the rhythm and even beginners will feel the primal energy of handling this african drum.