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Djembe Buying Guide

Rhythm Traders Djembe Buying Guide

BUYING AN AFRICAN DJEMBE:


The djembe is the most popular drum from Africa. Known for its deep bass and crisp highs, it's also one of the most enjoyable! We'd like to share with you what we have learned in more than 20 years of traveling to West Africa, studying, selling, and repairing djembes. In addition to West Africa, djembes are now made in Thailand, Indonesia, Mexico, Los Angeles...you name it. You can find them at Marshalls, Cost Plus, and mixed-in with guitars and amplifiers at huge music store chains. Not to mention, everywhere online, including Craigslist and eBay.

With so many poorly made instruments out there, you need to know what to look for. We hope this guide is helpful...read on! Some of these points you may not fully understand in the beginning of your quest, but they will help you to ask the right questions at a store. A good salesperson should be able to address these questions and have answers for you.




The Djembes: Most Common Woods

From Left to Right: Djalla, Lenge, Acajou, Duki, Hare
Top: Bois Blanc
Front: Iroko

 

As a quick djembe buying guide overview:

  • A djembe should have 3/16" (4mm-5mm) rope that is round (not flat) and not frayed
  • A round bearing edge
  • 25 or more loops
  • Symmetry
  • Rings snug against the shell
  • A smooth interior
  • Medium to Heavy in weight
  • A Medium to thick skin
  • One row MAXIMUM of rope diamonds already
  • A 12-14" head (measure the head diameter 2 ways to see if it's round)
  • Make sure the top ring isn't slipping over the ring inside the skin
  • See if the very bottom ring is crooked
  • Rings should be wrapped with cloth, and not bent, rusted, or eating through the skin
  • Look for open cracks in the wood
  • Is a dark stain hiding any imperfections?
  • Skins should be free of holes and bug bites


No drum is perfect, and will most likely have 1 or 2 of the above conditions. By following our guide, you'll know a lot about your future drum and what to look for. Even if you don't know what to look for, a salesperson should. You should be able to walk into a store and say, "Can you talk to me about the skin on this drum?" Without wincing, the salesperson should be able to discuss with you the thickness, any nicks, bug bites, center spine, hairless versus hairy, the gap between the rings and the top, and how the drum is currently tuned. Their job is to educate you. If you are shopping online, it is even more difficult to make your purchase...so be SURE to ask a lot of questions.

 

About the Djembe shell:

This is THE drum. The skin, and other parts, can and will come and go, but what you are investing in is the shell. The top players in the world (Mamady Keita, Famoudou Konate, Fadouba Oulare, Adama Drame, and Soungalo Coulibaly) play drums from shells carved in Ivory Coast, Guinea, and Mali.

Keep in mind that although it's the outside that you see, it's the INSIDE of the drum that you hear. The sound is bouncing around and resonating inside the drum. Always be sure the inside of the drum is smooth. Any splinters, chunks, or unevenness you feel will deaden the sound of the djembe. The following are the most common woods and some features of the djembe shells made from them.

 
 

THE REDS:



The Reds: Djalla (left), Lenge (center), Rouge (right)

 
Lenge: Inside Shell
Note spiral pattern and interior ledge between bowl and stem
Lenge: Intricate Carving on Stem

Lenge: Djembe Drum Shell
Lenge: Carved Base
Note how it flares out

Lenge (Linke): Guinea/Mali
Color: Red
Weight: Medium Heavy
Overall sound, consistency, and durability are great. Increasingly rare, this is the "Cadillac" of djembe woods. They have a melodic quality, superior projection, best overall bass/tone/slap contrast, and long sustain. As with most Guinea shells, the chiseling pattern is on the interior of bowl and the stem is a spiral. Favored by Mamady Keita and Famoudou Konate.


 

Bois Rouge: Inside Shell Bois Rouge: Intricate Stem
See the chisel marks?

Bois Rouge: Djembe Shell
Bois Rouge: Intricate Stem Carving

Acajou (Bois Rouge): Guinea/Mali
Color: Reddish-Orange
Weight: Medium Heavy
One of the prized "redwoods" from the Guinea-Mali region, along with Lenge and Djalla. Acajou is often difficult to tell apart from the other redwoods. It is generally lighter (in color) with more orange, and will have light patches. As with most Guinea shells, the chiseling pattern is on the interior of the bowl and the stem is a spiral. Overall sound, consistency, and durability are great.


 

Djalla Wood Djembe Djalla: Djembe Base Detail

Djalla (Jala, Diala): Guinea/Mali
Color: Dark Red to Purple
Weight: Medium Heavy
Along with Acajou and Lenge, Djalla is one of the highly sought after "redwoods" from the Guinea/Mali region. It is also very difficult to distinguish from the other "redwoods", except that Djalla tends toward the dark red and purple, and has fewer light patches. As with most Guinea Shells, the chiseling pattern is on the interior of the bowl and the stem is a spiral. Overall sound, consistency, projection, and durability are great. Djalla has exceptional bass/tone/slap contrast.


 

THE BROWNS:

Hare/Balafon (left), Iroko (center), Demba/Duki (right)

Hare/Balafon Wood Djembe Shell Hare/Balafon Wood Djembe
Hare/Balafon Wood: Intricate Base

Balafon Wood
(Hare, Khadi(Susu), Beng (Malinke):
Guinea/Mali/Burkina Faso
Color: Medium Brown with striped grain
Weight: Heavy
Overall sound, consistency, and durability are great. Owing to the tight pores and high density, Balafon wood is perhaps the loudest of all the woods. It will sometimes have a "ringy" quality that is best balanced out with a thick skin. As with most Guinea shells, the chiseling pattern is on the inside of the bowl and the stem is a spiral. In Guinea, balafons are made from this same melodic wood.


 

Iroko Wood Djembe Shell Detail:
Typical patterns from Ivory Coast
Iroko Wood:
Note the ring ledge

Iroko Wood:
Note rounded bearing edge and thicker shells
Iroko Wood:
Interior is smoother than Guinea Djembe shell

Iroko: Ivory Coast
Color: Medium-Brown
Weight: Medium
Always noticeable because of the ledge carved for the bottom ring so it won't slip. Iroko djembes and dununs are among the most consistent and highest quality in the world. Exceptional overall bass/tone/slap contrast. The more open pores give Iroko a very warm sound, and it is a good weight for carrying. Interior of bowl and stem are thicker, and smoother, than Guinea shells. The thicker shell enables a very comfortable and rounded bearing edge.


 

Demba/Duki Djembe from Guinea Demba/Duki Djembe from Senegal

Typical Demba/Duki Shell:
From Senegal
Typical Demba/Duki Shell:
From Guinea

Demba (Dimb, Duki, Dougoura, Teak): Senegal/Gambia/Guinea
Color: Medium to Dark Brown
Weight: Very Heavy
Density and tight pores make this a very bright drum. It has a "dry" sound; not a lot of bass response or sustain, but strong tones. Drawbacks include heavy weight, poorer than average bass response, many cracks, and chunky (not smooth) interior. Senegal is facing a tree shortage and carvers are now using trees cut down a decade ago, which were discarded at that time for low quality. Watch out for a greater than average amount of cracks and patches repaired with glue and sawdust. Demba-Duki shells from southern Senegal (Casamance), Gambia, and Guinea are the most consistent shells from this wood.


 

OTHER COMMON WOODS:

Bois Blanc Wood Bois Blanc:
Carving a Dunun
These are destined to be dununbas

Bois Blanc (White Wood, Mangowood): Guinea/Mali
Color: White
Weight: Light
Very rarely used for djembes. Bois Blanc is just a fancy name for "white wood", the preferred wood for dununs (dundun, jun-juns, dundunbas... the bass drums) Its light weight is ideal for these large drums. Open grain and soft wood absorbs the higher frequencies, while projecting the low end of the sound spectrum. Light weights make them easier to transport. Be leery of white woods, and light-weight woods in general, being used for djembes...they're better suited for bass drums.


 

Rubberwood Djembe Rubberwood Djembe: Stave Construction

Rubberwood Djembe: Interior

Rubberwood (Asian Oak, Siam Oak, Thai Oak): Thailand
Color: White, w/light-brown grain
Weight: Medium-Heavy
Rubberwood is what the majority of stave constructed (like congas) djembes coming out of Thailand are made from. Generally factory made, these drums are very consistent, but lack the "mojo of the motherland". Pro: The best sustainable choice because these are essentially obsolete latex trees that are given a second life in the form of drums. Also sustainable because it's milled into lumber (staves) and contributes virtually no waste. Con: Poor sound differentiation.


 

Indonesian Djembes are beautiful on the outside Plantation Mahogany:
Absolutely smooth and symmetrica
l

Plantation Mahogany: Indonesia (Bali)
Color: Medium Brown
Weight: Medium Light
In the past decade, we've seen more lathe-turned machine made djembes coming from Indonesia. While exterior carvings are often intricate and beautiful, the inside is cut by a lathe, and is completely smooth, lacking the chiseling that gives African djembes their bass/tone/slap contrast. Pro: Grown using sustainable and often certified growth practices. Con: Poor sound differentiation.


 

MORE TIPS ON BUYING A DJEMBE:

ABOUT THE SIZE: The best size for a lead drum is about 13" diameter head and 25" tall. A supporting drum is slightly larger in diameter. Drums larger than 14" head diameter are hard to keep in tune because there is more skin surface area. Those skins also pop easier because the thinner edges of the skin are on the edge of the drum.

A common myth is that the bass on a larger drum is boomier. However, this is not always true. Sometimes the bass on a 14" (or larger) drum is so low that it can't be heard. Our ears have a specific range. Huge drums may rattle windows, but be hard to hear. In large groups, the bass is the first thing to drop off anyway. Moreover, some smaller djembes can have a lower bass than a huge djembe if the drum has a smaller throat diameter.

24" should be about the minimum height. Anything shorter, and you'll be hitting your legs and bending over too much.

ABOUT CRACKS: Small cracks near the top and bottom of the drum are normal. They occur during the open-air curing process as the wood loses water and acclimates to the environment. Once these small cracks are filled with wood-putty, they rarely open up. But be aware of huge patches, as they may be covering a knot or a structural problem.

ABOUT THE SKIN: Skins from Guinea, Ivory Coast, Mali, and Senegal are best. They are fresher and are from leaner animals, which translates to stronger, less brittle skins. Careful about skins from Pakistan, Thailand, or Indonesia (Bali)...most are thin, unreliable and prone to breakage. The spine should be centered on the drum. Hair that was removed with a razor blade is preferable to that which was removed by chemicals.

ABOUT SKIN THICKNESS: We recommend medium to medium thick skins. In general, beginners prefer a thin skin because the slaps come easier. The thicker the skin, the harder you have to work for definition between tones and slaps. But, as players improve, they go to thicker skins for better tones and minimal excess ring.

ABOUT THE ROPE: Next to the shell and skin, this is the most important component of the djembe because this is what keeps your drum in tune. We recommend a 3/16" (5mm), double-braided polyester. Most rope from Africa is flat, thin, weak, very stretchy, and often nylon. Many drums strung in Africa are not capable of staying in tune in North America because of the weak rope and our ever-changing weather. If a drum was strung in Africa, be sure it has imported rope. If you buy a drum with African rope, think about changing the rope during the next re-heading.

ABOUT THE RINGS: Rings should be as absolutely tight as possible. There is no reason for rings to stick out more than 1/4" from the drum. If they do, it will cause slipping of the skin, warping of the rings, and an uneven gap. 1/4" round-bar is standard. Wrapping rings with cloth prevents rusty rings from bleeding through. The cloth can also help you fine-tune snugness, by controlling the ring diameter with the amount of cloth used.

ABOUT THE WEATHER: Natural skins are affected by temperature and pressure. Expect the pitch of your djembe to go up in warm or dry weather, and back down in cool or moist weather. Don't fully tune a drum under wet or cold conditions because it could burst the skin when the temperature and humidity change.

ABOUT RE-HEADING: The tighter you keep your drum, the shorter the life span of the skin. Average life span is 2 to 3 years. Professional players change them about once a year. We sell replacement skins, rings, rope, and instructions for the "do-it-yourselfer".

 



Copyright © Rhythm Traders.
All photos were taken by and are property of
African Rhythm Traders and cannot be reprinted or used.

ABOUT OUR DJEMBES:

We personally select our djembes from Master Carvers in Africa. They're hand carved from a single piece of wood. Our drums have a comfortable bearing edge and are rubbed with an oil finish to enhance the grain and protect against cracking. Unlike many djembes on the market, we string up our Master Series Djembes ourselves, using strong African goatskins and custom cord engineered specifically for the djembe. This is a 2 week process, done with proper tools to get the vertical ropes extremely tight.

Our carvers in Ivory Coast and Guinea, in West Africa, work only for us and know our high standards.

TUNING AN AFRICAN DJEMBE:

So, for all of you who ever wondered how to tune your djembe, but were too afraid to ask.... We've created this step-by-step guide for you, complete with photos, to help you keep your djembe sounding terrific!

DJEMBE TUNING INSTRUCTIONS

 

 

 

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