History of The Djembe (2022)

The djembe is one of West Africa's best known instruments. This goblet-shaped drum is traditionally carved from a single piece of African hardwood and topped with an animal skin as a drumhead. In western understanding, the drum belongs to the membranophone class of instruments in the percussion family.


Some say the name of the djembe came 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. There are at least a dozen stories of the history of the drum told by many master drummers. My master tells these stories and then steps back as even he, doesn't purport to know the real truth. In history, the Mandinka of Manden became the Malinke of Mali. We often refer to them as the Mandé.


The djembe drum is most likely about 400-800 years old, and was created during the Malian Empire by the Mandé people. It spanned the modern-day countries of Senegal, southern Mauritania, Mali, northern Burkina Faso, western Niger, the Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, the Ivory Coast and northern Ghana. The Mali Empire grew out of an area referred to by its contemporary inhabitants as Mande. Mande, named for its inhabitants the Mandinka (initially Manden’ka with “ka” meaning people of), comprised most of present-day northern Guinea and southern Mali. The empire was originally established as a federation of Mandinka tribes called the Manden Kurufa (literally Manden Federation), but it later became an empire ruling millions of people from nearly every ethnic group in West Africa.


It is taught that the Blacksmiths made the first djembes, making each drum custom-fitted to the drummer who would play it. This makes sense as they would be the people to cut the tree. The making of the drum was spiritual, and the blacksmith was obliged to make offerings to the spirits of the trees he cut down. With the lengue tree, a sacrifice would be made to ask for permission to cut the tree for a djembe. Once the blacksmith finished the djembe, it was delivered to the drummer who commissioned it, a member of the jeli caste. The jeli are musicians, who are responsible for the oral history of their people. This remains true to today.

(Video) History Of Djembe African Drumming Babatunde Olatunji

Traditionally, only those born into the djembe family would be allowed (or interested) to play the djembe. Castes have last names that have survived to this day and if your last name (your family name) is one of those families born into the djembe, it is your instrument and possibly your job to play the drum for the village.

(Video) History of the djembe


The djeli caste still exists today, and is responsible for the traditional music. The djeli sing and perform during rituals, baptisms, weddings and sometimes funerals, and are trusted with the music of their ancestors.

Africans say that the drum contains three spirits. The belief isthat the djembe drum contains 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. We would add that possibly the most important is the spirit of the ancestors. I have seen the oldest djembe known today and it has the names of generations of djembe masters from many countries and villages.


During a performance, the djembe may begin the ritual, followed by the singer and the other instruments. However, the music can also begin in a different fashion. The djembe player can change the beat of the drums in order to change the song, and the singer and instrumental players use the rhythm to recognize what they should be playing and adding to the whole. Meanwhile, the guests at the ceremony dance to the rhythm in a circle or incircled by a vast gathering of people. Solo dancers may leave the circle to dance for the djembe players or simply move up as allowed to dance for the djembe soloist of the moment.

In the villages of Guinea and Mali, I have more often than not seen the traditional beginnings of ceremonies. They often start with work being done and a song is sung to that work. If there are gourds or bells they may be added and then the bass drums (dunun) and then the djembe, in that order. That seems to me to be the natural way in the village. And, if you think about it, westerners often use a 'vocal first' call to begin a song or maybe a prayer.


Hundreds of years later, the djembe gained a new following after West African countries gained independence. Highlighting the old culture of these newly sovereign states, djembe was used in national ballets, and drew emphasis to the djembe as a premier musical instrument and solo voice, rather than as an accompaniment to song and dance. Some modern djembe troupes only focus on the djembe and dunun music, but often do not include the dance. The song is often lost. To hear the music of the song, the dance and the drumming along with the villagers clapping and moving in a circle is just amazing. And you may need to make that trek to Africa to experience it in an actual village setting.


A djembe is normally 23-25" in height but can be smaller in many villages in Africa. We like to say the perfect height of a djembe is 24 1/2". Children often play djembe drums that are only 12-15" tall and they strap them on and play in a standing position as they copy their adult teachers. Many children in Africa actually start learning to play the drum on coffee cans on the side of the road. In the western world, children often start off in the kitchen with pots and pans. This is interesting to me as the djembe in Africa and in America comes from the kitchens of Africa. Most percussion instruments come from those outdoor African kitchens. Wood and metal make up the kitchen utensils and so it is with the djembe and dunun (the bass drum of the dununba).

Even as recently as the 1950s, the djembe was not known beyond African music aficionados and those who grew up with the instrument. Fodeba Keita, of Siguiri, Guinea, brought a tour of Les Ballets Africains around the world. European countries found the djembe before North America and it became more popular there. Now, Japan has risen to a country that has had a recent upswing in interest in djembe and traditional dance. And we can add China to that ever-growing list!

I have been in Guinea when the Japanese elders were sent to find out what was the djembe all about and the dance and the culture of djembe. Was it tied to evil spirits? So I sat and watched and listened as the grandmaster and bibliothèque of the djembe, Famoudou Konaté, attempted to allay all fears. It was fascinating to me, that a country would send ambassadors and information gatherers before allowing their country to experience djembe and Guinean dance.

In today's musical world, the djembe is making its way into the global consciousness. More people than ever listen to world music, popularized greatly by the rapid spread of West African ballets and orchestras especially during the mid 1980s. While it is hard to find a real djembe worth playing, built with the spirit of the wood, the skin and the maker it is worth the years necessary to invest in finding such a drum. Very often, current djembe-style drums are not being made traditionally.

(Video) African Drumming "Djembe" Documentary

Some argue that it is better to have a djembe style drum than to not have a drum at all. I personally feel (due to experience) that even though those drums may be more accessible, they do not usually find their way into the hands of good drummers. To play djembe means to stay true to the history of the djembe; That includes the traditions of magic, knowledge and an open heart. If one of those is absent, the music will not sound correct to village-people of the seeding countries of the djembe.


As of today, many traditional rhythms and songs have been lost to the past and the spirits that once were. Many current djembe teachers and historians have made it their purpose to make sure the rhythms we currently know and are learning, not be forgotten. Famoudou Konaté, Mamady Keita, Fadouba Oularé (passed in 2009), Mansa Cameo and their sons and descendants are continuing to keep the music alive. We owe it to the spirits of the past to learn their music. If we just jam (play stuff) on the djembe, we will surely lower it's value as an instrument and one day, like a lost and forgotten child, it will be forgotten and die.

When you play the djembe, it needs to speak in the music. If it doesn't speak, it is like you are saying nonsense with your voice. When you learn how to make the drum talk the language of the people who even today play and sing with the djembe, it takes on a life of its own. The djembe can then share in the energy that comes from without and within. And try to leave western accents behind and learn some Sousou, Malinké and Pular words and phrases so you can hear African sounding djembe phrases and djembe tone.

The djembe player is then not 'just' a drummer but a vessel through which the spirit of the djembe comes through. I sometimes say that the sound of the djembe is in the past, present and the future; That it is not really in us yet until the moment it quickly comes into consciousness thru the hands and into the world. It is all at once! The drummer really doesn't own the sound and is certainly not the only one responsible for it. It comes from years of study with masters guiding your hands, fingers, arms, spine - your thinking and your spirit. That is the master's job.

And it is not easy. When you align yourself with a master, you will stay with him for a long time and it is a bond that can touch you and should touch you at your innermost places. If you have gone through this, you know. If you haven't I highly suggest this road BUT it is not easy and you may give up many other things in life to come to the knowledge and ability to make the djembe talk and sing.


More djembe are built in Ghana, Bali and Thailand these days. The djembe has no history there. Some historians say that the djembe never really lived in those countries. Whether they were not born of those countries or not, they are able to export many more drums than the total of all the other djembe-seeding countries combined due to their industrial abilities and more westernized society. We feel strongly that for a djembe to be a djembe it should come from the seeding countries of origin: Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast. These five countries have the trees the djembe is made from and they sound like a djembe. No drum made in the Western World will have that sound or that spirit. You will hear and feel the difference, we promise you. If your heart and ears are open.

(Video) Five(ish) Minute Drum Lesson - African Drumming: Lesson 1: The Djembe


Please support African artisans and buy traditional djembe drums where much of the money will go back to pay the carvers. Thank you. And may the spirits that pass through the djembe speak to the spirt in you to help you on your way in life, love and happiness.

Contents by Alan Tauber as learned over 35 years of studying the Mande music, drumming, dance, songs and being a visiting member of the Guinean culture. If you use this info, and wish to state its source, it is through Alan Tauber from his many masters of the Mandeng Music over a 35 year period. There is much more to know and learn. Just because it is written doesn't make it so. Just because someone says it, doesn't make it real.

Many people contact me and ask where did you get this? So, when you have been deeply involved in this music and culture for as long as I have, you make strong and loving connections with those people. If you care, you open your ears, and you listen to every word and think about the implications and history. I tend to record a lot and then listen to the recordings. I don't ask a lot of questions as I feel it is not my place. I just listen on a 'need to know' basis.

My teachers directly in my history: Nuru Dafina, Ibrahima Camara (passed), Abdoulaye Sylla (passed), Paulo Mattioli (passed), Mamady Keita, Mamady 'Wadaba' Kourouma, Mamady Kourouma, Sayon Camara, Nansady Keita, Bolokada Conde, Monette Marino, and the grandmaster himself, Famoudou Konaté.

Thanks to Kim Atkinson, CA for his support of this work and his wish for the source to be credited.

Djembe History Page 2 >

(Video) Origin Story: The Legend of Djembe

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FAQs

What is the history of the djembe drum? ›

The djembe drum is said to have been invented in the 12th Century by the Mandinke tribe in what is now Mali, in West Africa. It has been played by West Africans for generations forming an integral part of ritualistic life in Mali, Guinea, Senegal and other neighbouring West African countries.

What does the name djembe mean? ›

According to the Bambara people in Mali, the name of the djembe comes from the saying "Anke djé, anke bé" which translates to "everyone gather together in peace" and defines the drum's purpose. In the Bambara language, "djé" is the verb for "gather" and "bé" translates as "peace."

What is the djembe drum made of? ›

The djembe is one of West Africa's best known instruments. This goblet-shaped drum is traditionally carved from a single piece of African hardwood and topped with an animal skin as a drumhead. In western understanding, the drum belongs to the membranophone class of instruments in the percussion family.

What are two purposes of the djembe drum? ›

What is the djembe drum used for? Musicians use the djembe as the instrument of dance at marriages, baptisms, funerals, circumcisions and excisions. They also play songs during the ploughing, sowing and harvest, during courtship rituals and even to settle disputes among the men of the village.

How many types of djembe are there? ›

There are three different types of djembe drum: 1) in which the base ends in a swallow's tail and the drum shell is round and vertical, 2) in which the base ends in a swallow's tail and the drum shell is funnel-shaped with a large diameter, and 3) in which the base is cylindrical and fairly narrow.

Where does the drum originate from? ›

The first drums made from natural objects such as alligator skin appeared during 5500 BC. They first came about in Neolithic cultures originating from China but later spread to all of Asia. This period also saw the creation of Bronze Dong Son Drums in Vietnam during 3000 BC.

What language is djembe in? ›

The most commonly used is 'djembe', which comes from the French, who did much to study and describe African drumming to the world. As there is no hard "j" sound that correlates to the English, the "dj" spelling was used.

What wood is a djembe made from? ›

The drumhead is covered in stretched African goat skin and secured by rope. And since we're talking trees, special care for the environment is essential. Each drum is meticulously hand-carved from a piece of lawfully collected, plantation cultivated mahogany hardwood.

What does djembe sound like? ›

Djembe technique - sounds of the djembe - YouTube

What are the three types of djembe techniques? ›

There are three main sounds that can be played on a djembe: bass, tone and slap. The bass sound (low-pitched) is achieved by striking the drum in the middle of the skin with a heavy hand, with the fingers held together.

How do you carry a djembe? ›

How To Use A Djembe Roving Strap :: African Drumming's How To Series

What does a djembe look like? ›

What Is the Djembe? | African Drums - YouTube

What are the 3 spirits of djembe? ›

It is believed that the Djembe contains three spirits: the spirit of the animal from which the drum head was made, the spirit of the tree used to construct the hollowed-out shell and the spirit of the instrument maker.

How long does it take to make a djembe drum? ›

And because excellence can't be in haste, finishing just one djembe drum may take somewhere from several hours to a few weeks to complete.

What is a full size djembe? ›

The 12-13"X24" is a standard full size djembe, suitable for most adult male and female drummers. The height is just right for most drummers to play sitting in a regular folding chair. The head size is adequate for average adult size hands to comfortably play with proper djembe technique.

Why does my djembe ring? ›

If the head is too loose there is usually an excessive amount of overtone (a higher pitch that accompanies the lower-pitched bass or tone), or "ringing". An in-tune djembe will have a crisp bass that can be easily heard, that doesn't linger too long, with minimal overtone.

What are the three 3 types of drums used by the Africans? ›

Drums used in African traditional music include talking drums, bougarabou and djembe in West Africa, water drums in Central and West Africa, and the different types of ngoma drums (or engoma) in Central and Southern Africa.

Who is the founder of drum? ›

The drum kit was born at the end of the nineteenth century

The man attributed with starting this evolution is said to be a snare drummer named Dee Dee Chandler. Chandler became popular when he devised a way to play the bass drum by stepping on a pedal with his right foot, while at the same time playing the snare drum.

Who made the first drum set? ›

William F. Ludwig, Sr., and his brother, Theobald Ludwig, founded the Ludwig & Ludwig Co. in 1909 and patented the first commercially successful bass drum pedal system, paving the way for the modern drum kit.

Why do Africans drum? ›

In much of Africa, drums are considered to symbolize and protect royalty, which often leads to their being housed in sacred dwellings. They can also be considered as a primitive telephone, since drums are also used to communicate with tribes that are miles and miles away.

When did African drumming start? ›

It is widely believed that the Djembe (pronounced JEM – Beh) has its origins with the "numu", a social class of professional blacksmiths from the Mandinka (Maninke) people of western Africa in around 1300 AD.

What is the purpose of African drumming? ›

African hand drums are played to communicate, celebrate, mourn and inspire. They're played in times of peace and war, planting and harvesting, birth and death. Drums have been such a large part of Africans' daily experience for so long that drumming pulses throughout their collective unconscious. It's in their genes.

How much does a good djembe cost? ›

Current African djembe market prices are $299 - $1,000 We do carry less expensive djembe as well.

What is the most popular instrument in Africa? ›

Most widely spread and played instruments in Africa are the drum, the xylophone, the mbira, rattles and shakers.

What is the most popular African drum? ›

Djembe. The djembe is the most well-known African drum around the world.

Is djembe hard to learn? ›

This West African instrument is simple to learn, as there are just three fundamental ways to strike the drum. Once you master those strokes, you can move on to progressively more intricate and impressive percussion patterns.

How do you play slap on djembe? ›

Djembe Slap Tone Demonstration - YouTube

How tight should a djembe head be? ›

It should be tight so the hand rebounds quickly off the skin, and the skin resonates freely. Usually, by tuning your drum, the bass is actually louder and more clear.

Can you use sticks on a djembe? ›

Djembe drums are not meant to be played with sticks or mallets, and rings could have the same damaging effect to the skin as mallets or drum sticks. Above all, play your Djembe whenever possible.

What skills do you need to play the African drums well? ›

Finely tuned sense of groove in music. Ensemble skills. Intelligence and rhythmic accuracy go hand in hand. Active listening.

Can you bring drum on plane? ›

Musical instruments must undergo screening when transported as carry-on or in checked bags. Musical instruments transported as carry-on require a physical inspection at the security checkpoint.

Who is a famous African drummer? ›

Babatunde Olatunji has been hailed as the father of African drumming in the United States. For nearly fifty years he has spread a message of love with his drum. Legions of friends and students count him as a great influence in their lives -- musically as well as spiritually.

What is a djembe drum for kids? ›

Djembe is a famous African percussion. Let your kids explore their sense of rhythm with the Djembe! The djembe is a type of hand drum originating from Africa. It is played by the hands and probably best known for being played by popular musician Ben Harper.

Where did African drumming come from? ›

It is widely believed that the Djembe (pronounced JEM – Beh) has its origins with the "numu", a social class of professional blacksmiths from the Mandinka (Maninke) people of western Africa in around 1300 AD.

What is the purpose of African drumming? ›

African hand drums are played to communicate, celebrate, mourn and inspire. They're played in times of peace and war, planting and harvesting, birth and death. Drums have been such a large part of Africans' daily experience for so long that drumming pulses throughout their collective unconscious. It's in their genes.

Where did drum circles originate? ›

Drum circles originated in the United States during the late 1960s and early 1970s for any group of people, particularly counterculture groups, who gather (informally) to play music together. The terms "drum jam" or "jam session" could be substituted.

Why do Africans drum? ›

In much of Africa, drums are considered to symbolize and protect royalty, which often leads to their being housed in sacred dwellings. They can also be considered as a primitive telephone, since drums are also used to communicate with tribes that are miles and miles away.

What is the African drum called? ›

The djembe (pronounced 'jem-beh') is one of West Africa's best-known instruments, one of the most versatile and widespread percussion instruments on the planet. This goblet-shaped drum is traditionally carved from a single piece of African hardwood and topped with an animal skin as a drumhead.

What wood is a djembe made from? ›

The drumhead is covered in stretched African goat skin and secured by rope. And since we're talking trees, special care for the environment is essential. Each drum is meticulously hand-carved from a piece of lawfully collected, plantation cultivated mahogany hardwood.

What does the drum symbolize? ›

Thus, in different cultures the drum is a sacred tool connecting heaven and earth, and for maintaining the rhythm of the world order. And when drummers practice their art, it's as if they too are changing the world and touching the human spirit through the rhythm of the drum.

What are the three 3 types of drums used by the Africans? ›

Drums used in African traditional music include talking drums, bougarabou and djembe in West Africa, water drums in Central and West Africa, and the different types of ngoma drums (or engoma) in Central and Southern Africa.

What does a drum circle symbolize? ›

The Drum as a Circle

Many drum teachings by First Nations in BC use the circle to represent balance and equality, wholeness and connection. The circle is unbroken and made of equal, connected, and infinite points.

What is a drum group called? ›

A drum circle is an instant rhythm experience for all ages and abilities – no musical experience needed! Frequently called in-the-moment music-making, drum circle participants sit in a circle and play drums and/or hand percussion instruments.

Why do people love drumming? ›

Scientists have determined that the sound of drums alerts our senses and triggers the need to move our bodies. This is a common reaction you may be familiar with if you've ever been to a concert or dance club where the bass is especially thick. And being able to signify rhythm and beats is part of our social make up.

Who is a famous African drummer? ›

Babatunde Olatunji has been hailed as the father of African drumming in the United States. For nearly fifty years he has spread a message of love with his drum. Legions of friends and students count him as a great influence in their lives -- musically as well as spiritually.

What instrument originated in Africa? ›

Played like the xylophone, the balafon is a percussion instrument and can be found in Ghana, Ivory Coast, Mali, and Burkina Faso. It has been in recorded history since the 14th century and according to oral history (told by griots), the instrument originated from Mali.

How many types of African drums are there? ›

There are many kinds of African drums, including the djembe, the dundun, the bata, the bougarabou, the ngoma, and the ashiko.

Videos

1. The History of the Djembe
(proleikohomeschool)
2. Djembe - Making a Djembe - Ghana, West Africa
(DjembeDirect)
3. History of The Djembe | African Culture and History
(Myers Ivey)
4. How banning the African drum gave birth to American music | Chris Johnson | TEDxHudson
(TEDx Talks)
5. What Is the Djembe? | African Drums
(Howcast)
6. FOLI (there is no movement without rhythm) original version by Thomas Roebers and Floris Leeuwenberg
(thomas roebers)

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