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The Djembe Drum


There are many kinds of African drums, but one in particular is very special, the djembe drum.

The Drum with a Thousand Faces

Drum with a Thousand Faces by Lilian Friedberg from Percussive Notes, the Journal of the Percussive Arts Society, Vol. 31 #8, December 1993 Photo above: Famoudou Konaté and Fanta Kaba It bellows, screeches, cries AND screams. It whispers and it sings. The penetrating depth of its bass and the piercing clarity of its slaps are testimony to the richness of its tale. It is the drum with infinite range, the drum with a thousand faces, each exuding its own unique tenor.

This grail-shaped hand drum, known to various tribes in West Africa as the "djembe," (jem-bay) is central to the musical heritage of the Malinke and Sousou tribes of Guinea in West Africa. The common cultural and historical roots of these tribes can be traced to the great Mali Empire which once encompassed all of present-day Mali as well as most of the coastal regions of West Africa. Its legacy has been preserved throughout the centuries in the praises, lamentations and narrations of a special breed of musicians called "griot." Traveling the countryside accompanying themselves on the sacred "kora," a harplike stringed instrument, they give voice to the cultural wisdoms and historical truths of the descendants of Sundiata, the great warrior of the Mali Empire. They enjoy the special status granted them as historical custodians or, as Guinean author Camara Laye has put it, as "guardians of the word."

Abbildung 1: Two Djembe Drums [1]

While the djembe is not necessarily an integral component of the "Griot tradition, it has always played a significant role in the celebration of sacred and secular events among the Malinke and Sousou tribes. Unlike the "talking drums" common to many African traditions, the djembe does not speak by reproducing sounds which correspond to the words of any given language. Instead, it tells its tale in abstract terms that might mean different things to different people. The secret to its seemingly endless spectrum rests, on the surface at least, in the tautness and thickness (relative to the drum body) of the goatskin covering its head. An experienced djembe drummer can coax enough sound from the drum to make it seem like an exchange between several drums is taking place, when in fact just one drum is speaking.

And yet, the true complexity and beauty of this tradition lies in the fascinating interplay between the three accompanying bass drums called, in the Malinke tongue, "doundoun" (better known in the United States perhaps as "djundjun" or "junjun"), "sangban" and "kenkeni." These double-headed stick drums, covered at each end with a thick cowhide, form the foundation upon which the djembe can build its solo, which is to say, tell its tale. A bell is hung from each of the three drums which is struck with the left hand while the right hand strikes the cowhide head with a wooden stick. The amalgamation of the two rhythms produced in this manner forms one coherent melody. In a complete ensemble, six independent rhythms (3 bells and 3 hides) intermingle to create a space in which the djembe can weave with vigorous insistence a tapestry of sound. The success of the symphony is dependent not as much on the skill of the djembe soloist as it is on the harmonious interaction between the drums on several levels

  • Between each bell and each hide
  • Between the individual bassdrums, each with its own bell
  • Between the entire bass ensemble and the djembe.

A tense surge of movement and sound is experienced as the djembe leads the ensemble into the "echauffement" (French for 'heating up').

In response to a signal given by the djembe, the entire ensemble bursts into a cacophonous flurry of organized chaos until finally, the djembe gives the signal to return to the original "grooved" or repeating pattern of rhythmic motion.

The djembe has quickly won popularity and the many groups of professional drummers - black and white - wourk to keep the tradition of the dje,be alive.

[1] Picture is from http://www.rainbowskytrading.com/ img/djembe-l.jpg
[2] Konaté, Famoudou and Thomas Ott. Rhythmen und Lieder aus Guinea.
     Institut fur Didaktik populärer Musik, Lugert Verlag GmbH & Co. KG. 1997
[3] Branscheid, Ursula and Kandara Diabate. Djembe. Leu-Verlag. 2003
[4] Klöwer, Tom. Die Welt der Trommeln. Binkey Kok. ISBN: 90-7459-724-6
[5] Charry, Eric. Mande Music. Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-10162-2


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