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The djembe

West African Djembe History

Photo: Ponsard, Musée de l'Homme, Paris.

The djembe (pronounced 'jem-beh') is the goblet-shaped hand drum from West Africa.

Early History

Its exact origins are largely unknown, but it is widely acknowledged that the drum originated with the Mandinka (Maninke) people of western Africa in around 1300 AD.

At the time, the Mandinka people, under command of the great King Sundiata, ruled over much of west Africa. The king was widely celebrated as a hero, having conquered an empire stretching over modern day Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire, Gambia, and Senegal.

Mandinka society was divided into castes of professions. The blacksmith caste ('Numu') were the first to be associated with the djembe, and played it only during the smelting of iron ore.

The Malian empire in around 1300 AD
Image: Wikipedia user Astrokey44

It is believed that the drum dispersed through west Africa with the migration of the Numu.

Over time, the instrument's popularity grew beyond the Numu caste and players became known as djembefola ('one who plays the djembe').

It is now a large part of daily life in present day Mali, Guinea, the Gambia, Senegal, Cote d'Ivoire and Burkina Faso.

Social Context

In west African society, certain instruments such as the balafon, the kora and the ngoni are subject to hereditary restrictions, meaning that they may only be played by members of the griot (historian/storyteller) caste. The djembe is not a griot instrument and there are no restrictions on who may become a djembefola.

In daily life, various events are accompanied by unique songs and dances, usually sung by the griot, accompanied by drummers, singers and dancers. Songs tell of great leaders, like King Sundiata, or praise certain professions, like the cobblers or hunters.

The djembe is primarily the instrument of dance used at marriages, baptisms, funerals, circumcisions and excisions. Songs are also played during the ploughing, sowing and the harvest, used for courtship rituals and even to settle disputes among the men of the village.

In a typical ensemble, two djembes and a dunun player accompany the griot. Women sing and clap hands, while moving in and out of the circle, showing off their skill as dancers. The djembe master or soloist leads the pace of the dance, increasing the tempo when good dancers enter the circle. A single song is played for most occasions, usually lasting a few hours.

Since 1950

In the 1950s the djembe's increased popularity outside of its homeland is credited to the world tours of Les Ballet Africains led by Fodeba Keita.

Around that time, a Nigerian percussionist named Babatunde Olatunji released Drums of Passion, an album of African drumming songs. Although the album did not feature the djembe, it is widely acclaimed to be the first African drumming album and did much to establish the genre.

As the global thirst for drumming grew, djembe ensembles were showcased to a Western audience and musicians soon found they could make a decent living away from home performing and teaching.

While players moved to Europe and America, ethnomusicologists moved to Africa to study the drum in it's natural environment. Much has been done by researchers like Eric Charry, Marianne Friedländer and Serge Blanc in Africa to document the traditions of the djembe and transcribe the rhythms.

In Africa artists such as Youssou N'Dour, Salif Keita and Baba Maal incorporated the drum into African pop music and toured the world with much success.

Today, the djembe has found it's way into many genres and even features in rock bands such Ben Harper and Jason Mraz.

The djembe's spirit of togetherness is not lost in translation either. Enthusiasts from all over the world regularly get together in drum circles to celebrate the joy of community that the djembe is so well known for.

The drum of a thousand voices it seems, has arrived.

Next article: Stories of Origin