What Is Three Of The Most-Played Musical Instrument In Africa An Introduction to the Djembe

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An Introduction to the Djembe

Among the group of membranophone instruments is the djembe. Typically made from wood it is shaped like a large goblet over which is stretched an animal skin. One of the most popular drums of West Africa, when struck properly it produces a deep bass sound thanks to its shell shaped body.

The drum’s history can be traced all the way back to the Mali Empire of the twelfth century and to the tribes of either the Mandinka or Susu (also known as Numu). When the blacksmiths of the Mandinka tribe crossed Africa the djembe, or sanbayi as the Susu call it, went with them and as a result it became widespread. The people of these tribes believe that the instrument contains three spirits, one of the person who makes the djembe, one from the tree from which the wood is taken, and one from the animal whose hide is used for the drum. Today, people prefer to use goatskin to cover the drum and they decorate it by carving designs into the wood and attaching braided rope to give each one a unique appearance and flair.

Interestingly, the word djembe is not African but French. The French colonised parts of Africa and studied the music styles of the people as well as their instruments. As they do not have a hard ‘j’ in their language they chose to use ‘dj’ and it is this spelling that has gained the greatest recognition. There are currently many accepted spellings of the drum including jembe, djimbe and yembe. In the 1950’s and 1960’s the djembe became well known in and around Paris primarily as it was used extensively by the ballet ensemble Les Ballet Africains. From then on the drum has grown in popularity around the world, especially amongst drummers who appreciate its unique sound.

In Africa the diansa, or drum rhythm, is traditionally used in celebrations such as at weddings and baptisms and to commemorate full moons as well as the changing seasons. Some have even suggested that African peoples have used the sound produced by the drum in order to send messages over long distances, making use of the different sounds to communicate different meanings like a type of musical code language.

The people of Africa also use other instruments to accompany the djembe, typically bells and dundun drums. The Wolof tribe from Senegal uses the djembe as part of an elaborate dance performed by their women. While the instrument is played the women dance the ‘Sabar’, a provocative dance meant to attract and entice their men.

There are three basic ways to create sound using a djembe. The first is by hitting the centre of the djembe with the palm of an open hand, creating the ‘bass’ note. Hitting the edge or rim of the drum with the fingers flat produces the second sound called a ‘tone’, and thirdly using a similar action on the rim of the drum but with fingers relaxed is called a ‘slap’.

The djembe is now made by specialist drum makers all over the world and is sought after by students, tourists, professional musicians and hobbyists alike. Musically it is hard to resist moving to the driving beats of a well-played djembe, and even novices to drumming enjoy the primal energy of handling a djembe.

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