Sound of the Djembe

Every once in a while I get the urge to see what all is out there on the World Wide Web. It’s easy to get wrapped up in my own world, but it’s healthy to acquire new information so I can continue to grow.

I’ve heard a lot of nonsense surrounding the djembe and drumming. But this one tops it… Well maybe not, but in the moment I had to read it twice.

The name ‘djembe’ originates from the wood of the tree used to make a djembe drum. The djem tree, a very dense wood, found in Mali, is carved into an hourglass shape. The wooden frame is then skinned with a carefully selected and tanned goat hide. Matching hide to wood is a unique skill that captures the unique healing sounds. This match determines the sound excellence of the drum upon completion.

WHAT?? Where did this come from? This sort of information, or delusion, only hides the actual beauty of this culture.
Let me break it down…

There is no “djem tree” in Mali.
The term djembe comes from the phrase “Anke dje, anke be” which translates loosely into something like, “to gather in unity”. This meaning is important to the djembe, actually defines it. The djembe is often used in modern western society as a gathering drum with the participants having no idea the history or culture that surrounds this drum. Somewhat ironic I think.

The ‘d’ is silent and exists because the of the French spelling. Some people will write it as jembe or even jenbe.

A goatskin should never be tanned before being mounted on a djembe. The tanning process makes the hide pliable which would sound neat and boomy with a long sustain. However that’s the opposite goal for djembe. A good skin will be tight, dry, and stiff. The less pliable the hide, the quicker and sharper the sound.

Matching hide to wood is getting close to something true but just missing out. Choosing a skin for a specific shell is an art, but has more to do with the thickness of the skin in relation to the size of the head… And most importantly the preference and playing style of the drummer.

Sound excellence? I like that term. Any djembe can sound excellent under the right persuasion. So with such an obscure idea of what is good sound, what makes one djembe sound good, or better than another?

It’s like the question that always came up in art class, what is good art and who decides which is good or bad? Well it made no sense to me then, and still doesn’t, but I do have some thoughts on what makes a djembe sound “good”.

Even within a huge slope of opinions about the specific sound qualities of a djembe there are some definitive aspects that contribute to “good sound”.

To me, dynamics is the biggest factor in the sound of a djembe. I like a low, woody tone, with a cracking high slap. 🙂 and I know how to build it 🙂

Purity of sound:
Of course right? What I mean by this is that a good sounding djembe won’t have funky overtones… You should hear a pure tone, or at least a dominant tone with the over and undertones not competing with the sound space. Overtones aren’t always bad, I’ve heard Famoudou Konate bust out some sweet solos on lower pitched drums with all sorts of overtones. These tones aren’t obstructive to the sound of the natural tone and Famoudou has a unique ability to control them.

Volume and Choke.
Djembes are meant to be loud, if its too loud, play softer. A good djembe will have plenty of volume available to annoy and wake up the surrounding neighbors.

The overall sound shouldn’t feel choked or snuffed out. Depending on the inside carvings, shape, and dimensions, the projection properties will change. A good djembe will have a nice open feel without sounding too airy or light.

The shell density and properties, detail and quality of carvings, skin selection and mounting quality and quality / durability of other materials all contribute to what is considered a good djembe.

But then who makes these determinations?

We do! The drummers, the drum builders that are pushing for more dynamics, greater knowledge of how the sound works so we can shape a drum around a sound, and most importantly the preferences of the popular djembefola from West Africa that bring this music to the west.

…Out of curiosity I did a google search for djem tree. It seems someone made up this story and made it sound so good that other sites copy and past almost the exact same text. I wonder who started it, and why? Hopefully this page will rank well for ‘djem tree’ and correctly inform the curious before they too spread this nonsense.

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