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The History of Djembe Drumming in America-Part I

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What is the “djembe?”  We have seen it slung around the neck and shoulders of long-lean Africans from Mali snapping away at the head  in measured precision.  We have heard it in drum circles; out of tune and flat sounding, played off beat in ecstatic frenzy. We have seen its belly opened and oiled;  a ritual feeding to the spirits who keep this drum of power.

The djembe is a goblet shaped drum made primarily of hardwood and carved from one singular log.  It generally stands less than three feet tall with the  head averaging 16 to 17 inches in diameter.  The bowl of the drum is covered with a goat skin that is sandwiched between two iron rings and streteched tauntly over the bowl.  The rings holding the skin are connected to the drum by ornately woven rope pulled through a third ring at the base of the bowl. 

The djembe is  relatively light weight although the larger djembes can weigh 45-50 punds. It is short  enough to be carried in a bag the size of a medium to large gym bag.  Consequently, the djembe is easily carried and transported.  This portability  factor adds to its popularity, especially with women and youth.

The  Djembe, like all hand drums has three distinctive notes; the bass, tone and slap. The slap, the high pitched note of  of this drum, played by a master, has the sound of pop-corn or bullets splaying through the night.  It is this sound, vitural sound  stilettos, that sends people screaming. No other drum, even the ngoma seems to produce the range and clarity of the djembe.

The name, djembe, according to Master Drummer Abdoulai Djakete,  is a combination of  the Bambara words ” Djebe Bra”, which means to “call the people together”.  Certainly, that is what this drum does; gather people’s attention and bring them running.  The relatively small size of the drum is deceptive, as its shape allows for the projection of a lot of  volume.  Simply put, this drum is loud and part of the mastery of playing it is learning to play distinctly without unnecessary volume.

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