THE DJEMBE DRUM

There are many colourful legends and stories of how the djembe may have originated.mali djembe

One of our favourite stories are that the basic shell evolved out of the large mortar used for pounding grain or millet. Apparently, the village idiot's wife pounded a hole clear through the bottom of it one day while he was conveniently hanging around with a goatskin. He looked at his wife's handwork and laid the goatskin over the head head of the mortar. He stretched it tightly so that he could place his calabash of beer on and with doing so he heard a sound sound coming from it. And the rest as they say is musical history.

Here's another one of our favourite stories, edited from recounts by Hugo Zemp in Serge Blanc's book and CD 'African Percussion':

'Long ago, before humans knew of the drum, it was owned by the chimpanzees, which played it in the trees. At that time there was a great trapper named So Dyeu. The chimpanzees would often come near his camp and so one day So Dyeu spotted them eating fruit and entertaining themselves with the drum.

He said, 'This thing they are beating is beautiful, I will set a trap', so he dug a whole and laid a snare.

The next day he heard a great commotion and the sounds of the young and old chimpanzees crying. He went to investigate and found the chimpanzee drummer caught in the trap. So Dyeu captured the drum and returned to the village, where he gave it to the village chief.

djembe-drums-large-sizeThe chief said, 'We have heard the voice of this thing for a long time, but no one has seen it until now. You have brought it to us; you have done well.' , and in return, the chief gave his first daughter to be So Dyeu's first wife.

So the chimpanzees were left without the drum and that's why they can only beat their chests.'

Truly a wonderful story but lets get serious about the djembe and its origins. A djembe, also spelled djembé, jembe, jenbe, djimbe, jimbe, or dyinbe is a rope-tuned skin-covered goblet drum played with ones 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". In the Bambara language, "djé" is the verb for "gather" and "bé" translates as "peace".

The djembe has a body carved of hard of softwood or even moulded from plastic and a drumhead made of untreated animal hide, goatskin is the most commonly used. Excluding rings, djembes have an exterior diameter of 30 to 38cm and a height of 58 to 63cm. The weight of a djembe ranges from 5kg to 13kg 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 9kg.

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. Just as a matter of interest - the djembe was never used by the Malinké people as a signalling drum to send messages.

Traditionally, the djembe is played only by men, as are the dunun, or pronounced "dum-dum", that always accompany the djembe. 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.