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The djembe

West African Djembe History

The jembe (pronounced 'jem-beh') is the goblet shaped drum used by the Maninke people of western Africa since around 1300.

It emerged out of the greatness of the Malian Empire, King Sunjata, and the Mandingo people, who by the 14th century controlled most of the western bulge of Africa.

The blacksmiths (the numu) first made it; playing it only during the smelting of iron ore. The drum has endured and evolved and is now a large part of daily life in present day Mali, Guinea, Senegal, Cote d'Ivoire and Burkina Faso.

Social occasions each have their own songs and dances, sung by the griot, or storyteller, accompanied by drummers, singers and dancers. Songs tell of great leaders, like the powerful king Sunjata, or praise certain professions, like the cobblers or hunters.

The jembe 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 jembes and a dunun player accompany the griot, or traditional storyteller. Women sing and clap hands, while moving in and out of the circle, showing off their skill as dancers. The jembe master or soloist, given the title of jembefola, 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.


An old djembe from the Nzérékoré region
in Guinea, as used by the Konon people.
Photo: Ponsard, Musée de l'Homme, Paris.

Although it is draped in myth and mystery, very little is known of the early history of the drum. In the 1950s the drum's 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 an album of African drumming songs, Drums of Passion. Although this didn't feature the jembe, it is widely acclaimed to be the first African drumming album and did much to establish the genre. It's a great album too!

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 such as Eric Charry, Marianne Friedländer and Serge Blanc in Africa to document the traditions of the jembe 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 jembe has found it's way into many genres and even features in rock bands such Ben Harper and Jason Mraz.

The jembe'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 and make a noise!

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

Next article: Stories of Origin