In America the djembe is said to come from Latin Percussion, a corporate entity whose influence spans the breadth of the percussive world. This is like saying that milk comes from the store. While modern technology has made the djembe accessible and in some ways, more convenient, in truth, the djembe hails from Africa and is an instrument born during the reign of Sundiata Kinte in the Old Mali Empire. The djembe is said to be a magical instrument; full of life. The significance of that magic is lost in our corporate environment.
It is said that the djembe was given to the Numu blacksmiths, of the Susu people by a Djin; a Spirit of Nature. The blacksmiths were considered master magicians; able to transform rocks to iron then tools and weapons. The significance of this task should not be taken lightly as modern science has yet to uncover many of the secrets of the smelting techniques used in the Old Mali Empire. Because of their ability to create transformation, blacksmiths were responsible for such ceremonies as naming and circumcision; those ritual which transform a person into a complete being. Given their close ties to nature and their abilities to work with the energies of transformation a spiritualist can understand why they were given and taught the construction of the djembe; or the ability to transform several life forms into another.
The djembe is considered a life form; a feminine essence, which contains three spirits: The spirit of the tree from which it is hewn, the spirit of the animal, usually a goat, from which the head is made, and the spirit of the craftsman who made it. Trees are considered a source of life. We all know their importance in creating the oxygen which we breathe and producing fruit which we eat. There are some trees, like the cottonwood, which will tell a person where there is underground water. Traditional djembes are made from specific trees, Lengele, Lenke and Neem known for their healing properties as well as their physical attributes. The spirit power of the particular tree is said to be carried in the djembe and is dispersed to the people when it is played.
Goats are a primary sacrificial animal used for food and offered to God (as one defines this) and Spirits of Nature. The spirit of the animal is released to the source and the body is consumed. The skin, which still carries the spirit essence of the animal, is then cleaned of fleshed, dried and stretched and used on the drum. I was told by one master drummer that the color of the skin has significance. The speckled skins are used for healing ceremonies and solid white for secular purposes. The dark skinned animals have a different purpose. A master drummer often has several drums used for varying purposes.
The spirit of the maker is contained in the drum, and it is here that traditionalist can become touchy about the origins of their drum. A maker with a positive spirit imparts positive energy into the drum. one with a negative spirit imparts a negative energy into the drum which can harm the player. It is for this reason; the imparting of power into a drum, that in the “old days” a drummer made his own drum. There are ways of imparting medicine into a drum to counter negative energies and many traditional drummers carry medicine in their drum to protect themselves when playing.
The traditionalist’s arguments against the use of commercially produced djembes are based in spiritual belief. Such djembes are said to not carry the Spirits of Nature in the drums. Commercial drums are made from dried slated wood from many different trees and it is said that the body of the drum becomes confused having multiple personalities in the drum. Traditional drums are carved from one solid core of wood with one identity, one accompanying spirit. The drum is carved when moderately dry and is regularly “fed” with oil to maintain the moisture in the drum. The skins on commercial drums are chemically treated and the spirit essence of the animal is no longer present. Many traditional drummers will not play such a drum, perceived as devoid of life energy and disconnected from nature.
Commercial djembes have their function in our society. They are light weight, relatively inexpensive, and easily tunable. However, a person seeking to learn traditional drumming is encouraged to buy a traditional hand-made drum. On the practical level, they sound better and produce a wider range of tones. More importantly, the drum becomes personal and one can become aware of their connection to nature through the use of such a drum.
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