History of the Djembe
What’s In A Name, Djembe or Jembe?
Djembe is the French spelling of a Maninka (pronounced Mande-nka) word.
During the French colonization of western Africa, many native words were
recorded using the French spellings. Today many Africans argue that use
of the “Djembe” spelling is a sore reminder of that colonial
domination of their heritage. Today, Africans, and supporters of indigenous
peoples, have been developing phonetic spellings for various African dialects.
In the culturally sensitive phonetic spelling the French “D”
is dropped. If you are a purist, or an African Music devote, you will
likely demand the Jembe spelling. However, as you will read below, the
non-African spelling may be more appropriate when talking about a drum
who’s popularity is exploding on an international, inter-cultural,
scale. Interestingly, the term Djembe was not popularly used in France.
There, the African Drum is known as the Tom-Tom. They erroneously, believed
that the Tom-Tom was beaten with the hands to send messages through the
jungle (shades of Edgar Rice Burroughs). Actually, the drum used to transmit
messages is constructed of a hollowed tree trunk, and beaten with mallets.
The north western reach of Africa bulges out into the Atlantic Ocean. In the north is Morocco. On the southern portion of this bulge is the country of Ivory Coast. To the west of Ivory Coast is Guinea, to the north the land locked country of Mali. Threading trough Mali and Guinea is the Niger River. On the banks of the Niger at the border between Guinea and Mali you will find Mande, the home land of the Maninka people. This is the birth place of the Jembe. Reportedly the word ‘jem’ refers to the tree used to make the Jembe, while “be” refers to goat, the hides of which were used for the drum head.
Jembe Emerges on the International Scene
In 1958 Guinea took the lead in declaring its independence from French Colonial rule. From October 2nd, 1958 until 1984 Guinea was a dictatorship led by President Sékou Tourés. His government was a patron of traditional music. The most famous government sponsored ensembles of the day were Les Ballets Africains and the Ballet Djoliba. Les Ballets Africains became the national ballet of Guinea and was well accepted on its world-wide tour. His authoritarian rule has ended but the world-wide interest in the African Djembe may be his lasting legacy.
Unfortunately, though perhaps unavoidably, the ensemble created the disassociation of the Jembe from the culture that created it. By necessity the ensemble’s world tour tried to present a variety of songs, rhythms and instruments from a large area populated by a staggering number of cultural groups. In doing so, the world received the Djembe and not the Jembe. The traditional rhythms and dances that were unique to Jembe playing in villages, were replaced by performers playing a collection of instruments. Instruments that would never have been played together in a village were now presented to the world as Africa music. In villages dancing-in-the-round was the norm. However for shows this would not do. Dancers were removed to lines that did not block the view of the instruments and in many cases the dance was removed completely; something that would not have occurred in the villages. While the world embraced the physical appearance and the sound of this Maninka drum, the heritage it symbolized was lost.
If you want to play the Djembe, there are an unending supply of books and instructional recordings. Joining your local drumming circle will provide you with support, guidance and a social awareness of the drum. However if you want to learn about the Jembe, You will have to search out one of the African jembe masters who has relocated out of Africa. Search on line for “Jembe” or “Mande.”
The main advantage that our African style drums, which are made in Pakistan, over those from Africa is the rosewood. It almost never cracks and is very tolerant of severe weather conditions. Our experience with drums from Africa has been that they have a very high rate of weather cracks within a year or two.
DJMB Djembe, 14"x24"
DJMM Djembe, 12"x22"
DJMS Djembe, 10" x 20"
DJB2 Djembe, 12"x22", Rosewood, Bolt Tuned
DJM3 Djembe, 13" x 24" Mango Wood
DJSM Djembe, Shell & Rings, 12"x22"
DJSL Djembe, Shell & Rings, 14"x24"
NC12 Djembe, Nylon Case, 12"x20"
DJC2 Djembe, Nylon Carrying Case, 13"x24"
DJC4 Djembe, Nylon Carrying Case, 17"x25"
How to Play Djembe and Care of Djembe
To play the Djembe sit on the edge of a chair. Cross your ankles and tuck them slightly under you. Hold the Djembe between your knees or thighs so that the bottom of the drum rests behind your heels. Djembe players will find a wide range of sounds can be produced from this instrument.
There are commercial head conditioners on the market. However the best treatment for a skin head is use. The more a drum is played the better for the head. The natural oils from your skin will help to keep the head in condition. If you find the sound going a little dull you can re-tune the head using the cords. Click here for instructions: http://www.mid-east.com/Info/drum_ropes.html.
Never use harsh chemicals to clean you drum or the head. When not playing your drum do not leave it in a car or vehicle. Keep your drum, like all instruments, away from sources of cold or hot air. Since the head and the body of this drum are natural materials, they will be affected by changes in heat and humidity; therefore try to avoid rapid changes in environmental conditions.
If the head is loosened due to humidity, one can tighten the head with a damp cloth placed on the head for about 15 minutes. Then let the head dry naturally. It is important to make sure water does not get into the glue joint. If the drum is a tabla, water must not get on the gaab (center black dot). Also, applying heat from a hair dryer will tighten the head.
A skin with hair on it still has the natural oils which produce more
subtle and lower bass tones. Also, the hair (and therefore, natural
oils) promotes strength. A skin without hair produces a crisper sound
with higher pitches.
These are all rope tuned (unless you have a tunable model which uses
a tuning wrench) and the heads are tightened by tightening the rope.
Click here for instructions.
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