African Instruments Guide: What Is a Djembe Drum?

African Instruments Guide: What Is a Djembe Drum?

As a professional composer and producer, I often use exotic percussion instruments, and I’ve always been fascinated by the unique sounds and rhythms created by African drumming.

One instrument that has particularly captivated my interest over the years is the Djembe drum. 

What is a djembe drum? This powerful percussion instrument, steeped in African culture, boasts a unique sound that has been celebrated for centuries. From the warmth of its goat skin to the camaraderie experienced in drum circles, the Djembe brings people together in a truly magical way. 


  • Djembe Drum: An African treasure with a unique sound and rich history, connecting cultures through rhythmic power and communal gatherings.
  • Cultural Roots: Djembe stands out in African drumming, deeply rooted in Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Guinea, and used in ceremonies.
  • Name Meaning: “Anke Djé, Anke Bé” symbolizes unity; goat skin, hardwood shell, and black rope create Djembe’s distinctive resonance.
  • Playing Techniques: Mastery of bass, tone, and slap sounds is essential; different woods, sizes, and materials offer diverse tones.
  • Influential Drummers: Mamady Keita, Fodeba Keita, and Abdoulaye Diakite shaped Djembe’s evolution, and lessons inspire new generations.
  • Global Impact: Djembe transcends Africa, enriching diverse musical genres; adaptable and unifying, it’s cherished worldwide.

What Is a Djembe Drum: A Vibrant Piece of African Culture and Drumming

African drumming is a rich and diverse tradition encompassing various percussion instruments, including bass drums and hand drums. 

The Djembe drum, however, stands out for its unique and versatile sound, which has captivated musicians across West African countries and beyond.

The Djembe is a traditional musical instrument deeply rooted in African culture, particularly in countries like Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, and Guinea. Its origins can be traced to national ballets, traditional music, and dance ceremonies. 

Where Does Its Name Come From?

What is a djembe drum: Where does its name come from?

The African Djembe drum gets its name from the phrase “Anke Djé, Anke Bé,” meaning “everyone gathers together in peace.” This sentiment speaks to the spirit of the drum and its ability to bring people together in drum circles and other communal gatherings.

The first Djembes are believed to have come from the Mandinke tribe in what is now Mali, in West Africa.

At the heart of the Djembe’s unique sound is the drum shell, typically crafted from a piece of hardwood and covered with animal skin, usually goat skin. 

Using natural materials like wood and goat skin contributes to the Djembe’s distinct sound quality and connection to the spirit of the tree and animal from which it’s made. This link to nature also extends to the black rope used to tighten the drum head, which plays an essential role in producing the different tones and sounds that the Djembe is known for.

In this article, I’ll introduce you to the Djembe drum in more detail: its construction and variations to its playing techniques and its significance in African culture. 

We’ll also cover the best Djembes available, synthetic skins, modern Djembes, and the proper way to play this enchanting percussion instrument with your bare hands. 

Types of African Drums: Discovering the Djembe’s Cousins

The African continent has many percussion instruments, each with unique characteristics and cultural significance. Alongside the Djembe, other popular hand drums include the Djun Djun and the Jebe Barra

These instruments complement the Djembe in traditional music settings and showcase the diversity of African drumming

By understanding these drums’ different sounds and roles, we can better appreciate the Djembe’s unique qualities and place in the rich tapestry of African musical traditions.

Traditional Djembes vs. Modern Djembes: Materials and Construction

The traditional Djembe is made from a piece of hardwood, with the drum head covered in goat skin. However, in recent years, the rise of synthetic materials has led to the development of modern Djembes. 

Synthetic skins and shells offer a more consistent and durable alternative to natural materials, which can be susceptible to changes in temperature and humidity. Remo Djembes, for example, are well-known for their synthetic heads, smooth finish, and sound quality. 

While some purists may prefer the authentic feel and sound of a wooden Djembe with a goatskin head, modern Djembes provide a reliable and affordable option for those looking for a good sound at a lower price point.

Playing Techniques: Mastering the Djembe’s Main Sounds

What is a djembe drum: Mastering the Djembe's main sound

Learning the proper techniques for playing this percussion instrument is essential is the secret to unlocking the full potential of Djembe’s versatile sound.

The Djembe can produce three introductory notes: the bass sound, the tone note, and the slap. 

The bass sound is achieved by striking the center of the drum head with a flat palm.

The tone note is produced by hitting the edge of the drum with the whole hand. 

The slap is created by striking the rim of the drum with the fingers in a quick, snapping motion. 

You can create a wide range of tones and rhythms by mastering these techniques and experimenting with different hand positions.

Learning from the Masters: Celebrating Influential Djembe Drummers

The history of Djembe drumming is filled with legendary players who have shaped the instrument’s evolution and inspired future generations of musicians. Some of the best-known influential figures are Mamady Keita, Fodeba Keita, and Abdoulaye Diakite

By studying their techniques and contributions to African drumming, you can better understand the instrument’s history and unlock new possibilities for your own playing. 

In addition to learning from these masters, joining a local drum circle or taking lessons from a skilled Djembe player can be a valuable way to hone your skills and immerse yourself in the vibrant community of African drumming.

Choosing the Right Djembe: Factors to Consider

When selecting the perfect Djembe for your needs, there are several factors you should consider: The type of wood, the drum size, and the drum head’s quality

Authentic Djembes, such as those made by the Africa Heartwood Project, are crafted from hardwoods like Iroko, Lenke, and Djala. These woods produce a unique sound and ensure the drum’s durability and longevity. 

The size of the Djembe can also impact its sound, with larger drums typically creating deeper bass notes and smaller drums offering a higher pitch. The slap sound playing technique makes the highest pitch you can play with a Djembe drum. 

The quality of the drum head, whether it’s made from goat skin or synthetic material, will play a crucial role in determining the instrument’s overall sound quality. 

The Cultural Significance of the Djembe Drum

What is a djembe drum: The cultural significance of the Djembe drum.
Mastering the Djembe’s Main sounds: From basic notes to complex rhythms, the Djembe can produce an amazing range of sounds in the hands of a skilled player.

Beyond its unique sound and construction, the Djembe drum holds a special place in the hearts of many West African communities. 

Traditionally, the Djembe has been used to accompany rites of passage, ceremonies, and celebrations, serving as an instrument of traditional dance and communication. 

It’s believed that the powerful rhythms produced by the Djembe can ward off evil spirits and bring blessings to those who gather to dance and make music. This connection to the spirit of the animal and the tree from which the Djembe is made further emphasizes the instrument’s importance within African culture. 

The Global Impact of the Djembe Drum

The unique sound and vibrant spirit of the Djembe drum have transcended its West African roots, capturing the hearts and minds of musicians and audiences around the world. Today, Djembe drumming can be found in North America, Europe, and beyond. 

You can hear the Djembe drum used in the music world today in a wide range of music genres. It’s often combined with classical guitars and other acoustic instruments.

People from all walks of life celebrate the joy of making music and sharing in the Djembe’s powerful rhythms. The Djembe’s global appeal is a testament to its versatility. It can seamlessly blend with various musical styles, from Latin percussion to classical and even acoustic guitars. 

Incorporating the Djembe into your musical repertoire enriches your playing and contributes to the instrument’s continued growth and evolution.

Frequently Asked Questions

What type of wood is traditionally used for the Djembe drum shell?

Traditional Djembes are made from a single piece of hardwood. Common types of Djembe woods used for the drum shell include Iroko, Lenke, and Djala. Each type of wood contributes to the unique sound and durability of the instrument.

What is the Djembe drum traditionally used for?

Traditionally, the Djembe drum is an instrument of dance. It’s been used to accompany rites of passage and other ceremonies and celebrations. It’s also believed that the rhythms of Djembe drums can protect you from evil spirits and bless everyone gathering to dance and play.

The drum is also believed to have a spiritual connection to the tree that it was made from.

Where does the name of the Djembe drum come from?

The Djembe drum gets its name from the Bambara people of Mali, who use the phrase “Anke Djé, Anke Bé,” meaning “everyone gathers together in peace.”

Can synthetic Djembe drums produce the same sound quality as traditional wooden Djembe?

While synthetic Djembes, like Remo Djembes, can produce a consistent and durable sound, they may not fully replicate the authentic sound and feel of a wooden Djembe with a goatskin head. 

However, they provide a more affordable and low-maintenance alternative for those seeking a good sound at a lower price point.

Are there any differences between an Ivory Coast Djembe and a Burkina Faso Djembe?

Although the overall construction and design of the Djembe drum are similar across different West African countries, there may be subtle variations in the types of wood used, carving styles, and decorative elements. These regional differences can contribute to slight variations in the sound and appearance of the instrument.

How can I maintain the sound quality and longevity of my Djembe drum?

Avoid exposing your Djembe to extreme temperatures and humidity to keep it in good condition. These factors can cause the wood to crack or the animal skin to stretch. 

Regularly check the tension of the black rope and adjust it as needed to maintain the desired sound quality. You should also gently clean the drum head with a damp cloth to remove dirt or oils from your hands.

Is replacing the goatskin head with synthetic material if damaged a good idea?

If the goatskin head of the drum becomes damaged, you can replace it with another animal skin or a synthetic material. While synthetic heads offer greater durability and resistance to changes in temperature and humidity, some players may prefer the authentic sound and feel of a goatskin head.

How do I find a reputable source for purchasing a real Djembe drum?

When looking for a genuine Djembe drum, consider purchasing from an organization like the Africa Heartwood Project, which works directly with artisans in West Africa. 

Additionally, you can research sellers and manufacturers with a strong reputation for quality and authenticity that are known to sell real Djembes. Some even offer free shipping and affordable prices!

Can the Djembe be used in different music genres, such as classical or Latin?

The versatile sounds of the Djembe drum allow it to be incorporated into various musical styles, including classical music, Latin percussion, and even acoustic guitar ensembles. Its adaptability has contributed to its growing popularity among musicians and audiences worldwide.

What kind of equipment would I need to record a Djembe drum?

At a minimum, you’d need a computer, a quality studio package, an audio interface, a pro microphone, and some headphones. You would also need to find a nice space where the acoustics work well for a Djembe drum sound.

Ideally, you should also get your studio room acoustically treated and get a pair of quality studio monitors, but for purely the purpose of recording, you don’t have to have that.

What is the role of the black rope in the construction and sound of the Djembe drum?

The black rope is used to tighten the drum head, which is crucial for producing the different tones and sounds that the Djembe is known for. Proper tension ensures a firm connection between the drum head and the bearing edge, resulting in the desired sound quality.

How can I learn more about Djembe drumming and connect with other fans of the instrument?

The best way to learn more about Djembe drumming and connect with like-minded individuals is to consider joining a local drum circle, participating in online forums or social media groups, or attending workshops and classes led by experienced Djembe players. 

Sharing your passion and learning from others is a great way to enhance your skills and deepen your appreciation for this captivating percussion instrument.


We’ve covered a lot. We learned about the rich history of this amazing percussion instrument and how it’s been adopted worldwide by many different cultures and musical styles. 

The Djembe drum is a captivating percussion instrument that has captured the hearts of musicians and audiences with its unique sound and cultural significance. 

As you explore this amazing percussion instrument the world has inherited from African drumming traditions, you should learn about the factors contributing to your chosen Djembe’s sound, quality, and authenticity. 

I highly recommend you learn the correct playing techniques for the proper sound. 

Whether you opt for a traditional authentic Djembe with goatskin heads or a modern Djembe, the most important aspect is finding the instrument that works for your playing style and fits the sound you’re after. The best Djembe drum for you will fill all those requirements.

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