Sound and Movement: A Brief Look at the Djembe DrumSep 25, 2022 01:00PM ● By Candice Stewart
If you’ve ever seen a drumming ensemble play, you would perhaps understand what Bob Marley said in Trench Town Rock, “one good thing about music, when it hits, you feel no pain”. The sound of beating drums tends to engulf the air that surrounds you and, in some way, make you feel the need to move to the rhythm and get lost in possession of the tune. For me, it feels like my body is taken over with each strike to the head of the drum.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve learned by way of listening and observing. That’s how I have traversed life. As such, music plays an important part of my life as I not only move to the beat of my own drum but I move based on the sounds and drum head strikes from others.
One such drum is that of the djembe.
I was first introduced to this instrument many moons ago in music lessons while in high school. Though I did not learn to play it, I learned to dance to the beat. Later in life, a musician friend asked me to purchase goatskin for his djembe. Initially, I was slightly lost as the specific parts of the drum were unknown to me. Regardless, I got a hold of the skin and he showed me how he wrapped his djembe with fresh skin to make the amazing sounds when he played.
With the little history I had and my ability to dance paired with the demonstration from my friend, I feel the need to share a bit of what I have learned.
Image Source: pixabay.com
The Djembe Origin
The djembe is a goblet-shaped drum that is traditionally carved from a single piece of African hardwood and topped with an animal skin as a drumhead. The drum belongs to the membranophone class of instruments in the percussion family. It is said that the drum contains three spirits: 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.
I don’t know for certain, but the spirits of the drum may also be the reason I’ve always felt the need to move to the beat and rhythm of each slap and strike to the head of the drum. I move with the spirits.
Some say the djembe got its name 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. History has it that the Mandinka (or Maninke) people of western Africa are known to have invented the instrument. There are, however, at least a dozen stories of the history of the drum told by many master drummers in various parts of Africa.
The Djembe Design
The djembe has a distinctive design fundamental to its versatile sound. Its shape is carved and hollowed out of a single piece of tree trunk. They traditionally used wood from Lenge trees, which held great spiritual importance for them while also lending the drum its resounding acoustic. The large bowl-shaped chamber in the upper part of the body creates low resonance for the bass strokes (struck by the whole hand in the middle of the drum); while the narrow elongated lower section helps project the volume of all tones.
The head of the drum is traditionally made from goat skin, providing the djembe with piercing high-pitched tone and slap sounds owing to the thinness of goat skin. The shaved goat skin is lapped around a steel hoop and placed over the lip at the top of the drum. Another steel hoop wrapped with coiled-rope is placed on top of the skin-lapped hoop so that the tension of the skin can be adjusted by tightening or loosening the attached vertical ropes lining the outside of the bowl of the drum.
The Djembe Sound
Its popularity is generally based on the fact that it can create a range of pitches, namely the bass (low), tone (medium) and slap (high). These sounds are created by striking different areas of the djembe skin with the hands.
The bass sound (low-pitched) is achieved by striking the drum in the middle of the skin with a heavy hand. The tone (medium-pitched) is played with the hand on the edge of the skin, using the wrist as well as the arm to propel the hand towards the drum. The slap (high-pitched) is technically the hardest stroke to achieve as there are many types of forms, all of which are played near the edge. It is said that drummers from Guinea, Mali and other countries where the djembe is indigenous, slap slightly further out than the tone, with the fingers pointing as shown below.
As someone who is heavily impacted by auditory stimuli, I can tell you that the djembe’s variation in powerful sounds has the power to direct body movement.
*This is a personal and informative piece highlighting a rather small aspect of the djembe drum. It does not encapsulate the entirety of the drum’s make up or history.
Djembe history – Afrodrumming
History of the Djembe – The Drum Connection
The Djembe – Drum Africa
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