Gathering Together in Peace and Music
That West Africa is a musical powerhouse is a fact that needs not be said. The history of most forms of popular music today has some roots in West Africa. The jazz and blues genres pioneered by Black Americans in the 1920s drew significantly from the polyrhythmic structures of West and Sub-Saharan African music. And in the predominantly oral communities of the region, stories, myths, and histories were often told through music. Musicians, and by extension storytellers, have traditionally been living repositories of culture. And the most democratic of these musicians was the djembefola, the djembe player.
Griots may be best translated to English as bards and held a very important position in West African oral societies as advisors to royal personages. Griots traditionally formed a strongly endogamous caste, meaning that they married only among each other and their occupation was restricted by bloodline. Griots frequently trained for years under a master before acquiring virtuoso levels of skill with their preferred instrument. These instruments included the kora, khalam, goje, balafon, and ngoni and tended to be, unlike the djembe, restricted to griots.
This 10 inch djembe drum is crafted out of the finest mahogany and comes with a bag to ensure that it remains free of any damage.
There are many theories and views on how the djembe originated. It is a rope-tuned skin-covered goblet-shaped drum meant to be played with bare hands. It is traditionally carved from a single piece of African hardwood covered with an animal hide as the drumhead. There is some consensus that the drums were pioneered by blacksmiths of the Mandinka caste, the largest subgroup within the Mande ethnic group. These blacksmiths, called Numu, migrated in waves across West Africa in the first millennium AD. Since it is closely associated with the Mandinka, the geographic range within which the djembe has traditionally been played coincides with the extent of the erstwhile Mali Empire, but the absence of written records makes it hard to confirm or deny whether the drum predates the Empire or not. There are a number of creation myths associated with the djembe.
In one popular myth, the djembe was created accidentally out of a mortar used for pounding grain. The story goes that the village fool's wife punctured the base of the mortar when he just happened to have a goatskin around, creating a powerful percussion instrument. Another tale is a little more elaborate. According to this legend, a long time ago, the drum belonged to the chimpanzees, who played it in the trees. The sound of the drum enticed a trapper, who decided that he must acquire it. This trapper, So Dyeu, was skilled in his craft, and ultimately succeeded in capturing the drum from the chimpanzees. According to this story, this is why Chimpanzees continue to try to mimic the sound of the drum by beating their chests but are unable to truly replicate it.
The myths make for interesting and entertaining folk stories, but the true origins of the djembe, and how the Mandinka incorporated it into their society may not be uncovered easily. At any rate, we know a lot more of how it is used. The djembe is a formidable instrument and is particularly loud for its size. On a drum that is tuned for it, a skilled player can easily elicit a sound as loud as a jackhammer. The three basic sounds that a djembefola creates are the bass, tone and the slap, which vary in pitch from low, medium, and high respectively. A skilled djembefola can, however, create up to twenty-five distinct sounds, the complexity of which may easily fool an inexpert listener into believing that he listening to a multitude of instruments. In a traditional ensemble, one would likely see a soloist, one or two accompanying djembe, and one to three dundun (bass drum) players. The dundun are played with sticks and are responsible for keeping rhythm. Traditionally, two or three metal plates called sekeseke may be attached to the sides of the djembe. The entire ensemble is likely to accompanied by clapping and dancing.
Until the 1950s, the djembe was little known outside of West Africa. The tours of Les Ballet Africains led by Fodeba Keita greatly contributed to wider exposure to this excellent instrument. Around the same time, Babatunde Olatunji released his iconic Drums of Passion. Although it did not feature the djembe, the album did much for African drumming as a whole, and very soon percussionists all over the world were beginning to take a great amount of interest in the djembe. The djembe has since seen use by the likes of Paul Simon, Cirque du Soleil, and Tool. It is possibly the most versatile and dynamic drum ever created to be played by bare hand. According to the Bambara people of Mali, the name of the instrument comes from the phrase "Anke djé, anke bé" which translates to "everyone gather together in peace". For hundreds of years, the djembe has allowed people to do just that.