About the Djembé

Curious what kind of djembé drum is suitable for learning traditional West African rhythms? This page contains what you need to know.

Choosing the right djembé

If you are learning traditional West African music in a class settings, it’s important to have the right kind of drum.

These days, djembés are manufactured all over the world (not just in Africa), and not all of them are good. I recommend going with a traditional hardwood djembé either from West Africa, or from an experienced drum builder who has studied the traditional craft. There are a lot of good companies that import high-quality drums from Africa.

Here’s a few tips when considering a djembé:

  • Ideally, the shell should be made out of a single piece of wood, which delivers the best sound.
  • The skin of the drum should be goatskin, free from nicks or tears.
  • The djembé should be between 22.5 and 25 inches tall.
  • The diameter of the head should be between 10 and 14 inches. Any djembé with a head significantly smaller than 12” is likely an instrument intended for children.
  • Look for good quality rope that is in good condition.
  • Choose a drum that is not too heavy for you to carry.
Djembe drum specs

Appropriate specs for a djembé drum.

About the djembé

The djembé is a skin-covered drum made form wood that is played with the bare hands. Originating in what is now Mali and Guinea, the djembé has a great history for the peoples there and has much significance both musically and culturally. The djembé has its origins with the Mandinka blacksmith caste (known as numun).

The djembé shell is constructed from a solid piece of wood, and traditional woods include the Lenke (or Lingué), “African Mahogany” (Acajou), Bala wood, or Melina wood. Goat skin is stretched across the top, and rope woven between and metal or leather “rings” are used to attach and then tighten the skin, achieving a range of sounds.

Traditionally, three sounds are created on the djembe; from low to high: the bass, tone and slap. Players of the djembé in West Africa (know as djembéfola) spend many years perfecting the technique of the djembe. The music played on the djembé is complex and has evolved over many centuries, and typically the djembe accompanies three bass drums: dununba, sangban, and kenkeni. Together, these drums can create complex polyrhythmic patterns.

The djembé has received much widespread attention in recent decades, due to the rise and success of several of the national ballets (performance troupes) that have come from West Africa. These troupes have also had their stars; djembefolas like Mamady Keita, Famoudou Konate, Fadouba Oulare, and many others have continued to perform and teach their music to students around the globe.