What to look for when Buying a Quality Djembe Drum

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djembe drum from Mali

What to look for in an African Djembe

This page contains my personal ideas based on 25 years of building and playing drums. If you have a different experience or opinion, please let me know! As with any instrument it's quality will be determined by three main factors:

  1. Design
  2. Material selection
  3. Craftsmanship

Mali djalla wood djembe

Akajou Wood, Guinea Djembe

* Note the timing belt non-slip protector on the bottom!

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Djembe Design

Any goblet shaped drum will have a range of tones similar to a djembe. If what you are looking for is the sound of the traditional West African Djembe, then look for the design forms of the three main countries holding that classic tradition; Guinea, Mali, Ivory Coast. Other regional countries produce djembes (From Senegal to Nigeria) but few use or understand the traditional design principals. Since the djembe has grown in popularity, nearly any country from Pakistan to Indonesia which has skilled wood carvers now produce djembes. These countries carvers don't come from the same culture as djembe music does, and hence are often improperly designed as an instrument for West African Music. If you want the sound heard on master recordings look to the source.

Guinea produces some of the worlds finest djembes. Guinea djembes are known for their deep bowl, often half the height of the drum or more. The bowl has a fairly vertical side until rapidly curving in to meet the trumpet or stem. Looking inside the bowl, the contour sharply at bottom curves to make a nearly horizontal shelf at the trumpet. The opening is fairly wide, between 1/3 and 1/2 of the playing surface diameter. The trumpet is fairly straight but widening slightly to the base. Guinea is still blessed with ample forested areas and there are three main hardwoods preferred; Akajou, Khadi, Lenke or Lenge.

Mali djembes tend to have a rounder bottomed bowl, still often half the height of the drum. The bowl usually rounds completely to horizontal inside the bowl profile. Most have a more flaring trumpet, often stepped with carved decoration. Trumpet opening is about a third of playing surface diameter. Woods are often whatever is available as scarcity demands.

Ivory Coast djembes are most often carved of softer wood like Iroko. They have a deep tapering bowl and a characteristic ledge where the bottom rope ring seats. I have seen widely varying inside bowl profiles but most often they curve gently as a funnel to the trumpet opening. Opening vary from 1/3 playing diameter to slightly less. The trumpets flare to a wide base, often with two or three stepped "lobes". They often contain narrow angle chiseled bands.

Djembe design has been scientifically studied but is still pretty subjective. In my experience the essentials are a deep bowl, with a defined angular transition to the trumpet. An opening about 1/3 the playing surface is important, with a slightly larger one favoring clear tones and slaps, and a smaller one emphasizing bass notes. I don't think the flare of the trumpet makes too much difference alone but may be significant combined with overall design. While I love Guinea drums, and consider them the best, occasionally I try a rocking Ivory Coast, Mali, or sometimes a Senegal made drum, I re-appreciate them as well. Remember in West Africa many carvers have been regionally displaced, and the styles are no longer as well defined. A carver from Mali may end up in Senegal carving a Ivory Coast style drum!

Material Selection: African Woods

Most favor hard woods, in fact when it was still available, teak was one of the favorites. Drums are most often carved of stumps an logging scraps of whatever is available, with preferred characteristics of density, carvability, finish characteristics, and ease of drying. Drums are carved on green wood and then often the ends are dipped in glue or sealer to prevent cracking. Inspect the drum shell thoroughly. Knots are often beautiful but can contain weak spots or holes. Small surface cracks won't effect the sound or stability of the wood. Splits that span the drum thickness may open if not repaired. Many drums are carved of rotting wood so look for areas of discoloration or the pin holes indicating insect attack. I have repaired drums (one was almost split in two!) to perfectly usable condition. You should be judging the value and quality of the shell, and like a car, who wants one already needing repair?

NEW /read about African Wood Species
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Drum Shell Design Considerations

If you look inside a well carved drum trumpet you'll see a spiral of even gouge marks and an even thickness. Hardwoods are usually less than an inch thick, softer woods between 1-2inches. Theory has is that a too smooth inside, whether because of lathe turning, sanding, or stave construction, is inferior in sound production than the gentle spiral of hand carved tool marks. Balaphone wood is often so brittle that the carving is crude, but the density makes up for it in superior sound. The bottom edge should be beveled so it doesn't chip, and the playing edge is best with the tapered roundness of your thumbnail in profile. I believe the density of hard wood more often offers superior sound, yet many Ivory Coast drums of Iroko sound great. I will haul a heavy drum anywhere if I love it, but commonly advise people that if weight is an issue get a light drum! Better you have it along!

What to look for when Buying a Quality Djembe Drum.

Djembe Drum, look for sound wood, construction, rope and rings.

look for wood, construction, rope and rings, goat skin head and craftsmanship.

Rope and Rings

Rings are usually of either light weight rebar, or 1/4 steel rod. A snug fit to the trumpet leaves the maximum room for tuning diamonds. A snug fit at the head makes for easier tuning, reduces possibility of head slippage or damage, and secures maximum head life. Hand made wire, wrapped into cable can be used but is not preferred. Copper tubing, or thinner than 1/4 inch steel just aren't strong enough. Generally there is a "rope" ring and a "hide" ring at top. A three ring system with a blank ring between to more securely grab the hide is touted as superior. It does work well but no better than a well built two top ring system.

I prefer a double weave polyester rope from 5/32 to 3/16" for djembes. You can pay a premium for "low stretch" ropes, but the difference between a good quality polyester rope is only a percent or two of stretch and strength is not as issue. A ropes "hand" is how soft, flexible, and durable the outside cover is. Not too important unless you are a builder. Avoid polypropylene or nylon ropes. Most drums from Africa come with "kambala" style rope. This is a black, barely adequate polyester rope. You can identify it as it tends to flatten out from round under tension. It can cut easy and should most often be replaced if you change heads. Sometimes a lighter rope is used on the rope rings. That can be OK, just check to be sure it seems large and strong enough. Look for any signs of rope wear or weakness.

Skin or Head

A good quality goat skin head is critical. Djembes need to be tuned tight enough that a finger pressed in the middle of the skin will barely deflect it. Sometimes defects like bot marks(scars or thin spots from insect bites) or whip marks (line scars) have no effect, other times they are where a tear will start.

Guinea skins tend to be exceedingly tough and relatively thin. They can be tightened unbelievably tight for a piercing slap. Mali and Ivory Coast skins are "softer" and hence have a softer sound to me. They are often white or brown, where Guinea skins range more to black or brown with black dorsal stripe. A lot of folks want a spotted skin, beautiful but no relationship to sound quality!

Common wisdom is a female goat is best, but the main issue is that the skin be of relatively consistent thickness across the spine. Male Goats often have very thick skin along the spine, and a sometimes powerful smell that makes them less preferred. A Pakistani or domestic goat skin is likely chemically treated and as such the hair folicles have been burned out leaving a sponge like surface. I believe the density of a shaved, untreated head is best.

Mainly, look for a skin that is without nicks or scar flaws, or any weak spots. It should not have any folds where it passes through the rings, and a smooth even wood bearing edge will help extend head life. Whether it is hair, on or off, or wrapped over the rings or cut flush is all personal preference. A very heavy skin will give you a very dry slap with little over tones but it is very hard to fully tune and it is like hitting a board to play.

Mali hair on professional goat skin head.

A professional djembe players hand is like your foot, heavy with callous. They can make your drum sound better than you ever can, both because of technique and hand density!

mali shaved goat skin head

Summary, ....
So what exactly do I look for?

The main thing is to look at overall craftmanship, that is the clue to the value of an instrument. To prioritize factors to look for, here is my call:

Buying a Quality Djembe Drum, goat skin head and craftsmanship.

Important Factors When Buying a Djembe :

  • Is the wood sound and free of major cracks and blemishes?
    (Remember this you cannot change! )
  • Is the overall design and shape appropriate?
    (A tiny bowl on a big stem, a sharp playing edge, or a severely restricted trumpet opening will never allow proper djembe sound.)
  • Is the head assembled with care and craftsmanship? (Are the rings snug? Is the skin wrapped smoothly and not pulled over an inch down or unevenly?)
  • Is the skin of good quality and free of defects?
  • Who is selling it? Do you trust what they tell you about the drum?
  • Is the drum carved thin enough to be easily transported?
  • Is the rope of adequate size and quality?
    (Is it frayed or cut? Rope can be easily replaced)
  • How does the drum feel and sound to you?
    (Can this drum be your music buddy for some time to come?)
  • Does the drum give you the sense of overall craftsmanship?

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This page was last modified on 04/29/15 04:33:28 PM