The djembe

How To Play Djembe

Djembe Lessons

Swing Timing

Swing timing is an important concept in djembe drumming, as it occurs frequently in West African rhythms. It also crops up in Western styles of music like jazz, blues and country. Yee haw!

It is a matter of slightly changing the length of certain notes and shortening the length of others to create a difference in how the rhythm sounds.

In practice this usually means where 2 notes are written with equal time lengths, the first is lengthened slightly and the second is shortened. When you play a series of these pairs of notes you get swing timing, also known as the shuffle.

Try this little exercise to help understand it better:

The 'one-and-a' Exercise

djembe-lesson-hand (6K)

Using one hand, tap each finger on a table, counting to 4:

  1. index finger on count 1
  2. the middle finger on 2
  3. ring finger on 3
  4. little finger on 4

Do it slowly and count aloud 'One-two-three-four'. When you get to 4 repeat from 1.

Important! Make the transition back to 1 smoothly (i.e. as if you are continuing on to 5).

Now, keep tapping at a nice slow pace, and in between each count, add the words 'and a'. Keep tapping your fingers only on every beat (i.e. don't tap out the 'and a', just say it). Like this:


Important! All the notes are of equal length. In effect, it is one long word: 'oneandatwoandathreeandafouranda'

When you repeat it, it is: 'oneandatwoandathreeandafourandaoneandatwoandathreeandafouranda' etc. Yowser!

On a chart, the beats represented by the words 'and a' are represented by '+' and 'e', like this.

1 + e 2 + e 3 + e 4 + e
tap tap tap tap
ONE and a TWO and a THREE and a FOUR and a

Congratulations, if you understood that, you have a grasp of the concept of triplets. Now to take it a bit further we're going to show you what happens in swing timing.

Swing Time

Tricky bit ahead! Tap the rhythm again, but this time leave out the 'and', counting 'one a-two a-three a-four'. It is important to leave the space empty where the 'and' used to be (it helps to say the 'and' in your mind).

So without changing the rhythm of the other notes, you end up with:

one (space) a two (space) a three (space) a four (space) a


One a-two a-three a-four

On the chart it looks like this:

1 + e 2 + e 3 + e 4 + e
tap tap tap tap

To get a better grip on it, and to avoid changing the timing, try adding just the first 'and', to make sure it still sounds the same as before, as shown below.

1 + e 2 + e 3 + e 4 + e
tap tap tap tap
ONE and a TWO a THREE a FOUR a

Viola, you have invented swing timing!

OK, so how does this all relate to African drumming? Well, if you see a chart marked swing, like this:

1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +
GU do go GU go do fact it is meant to be played like this:

1 + e 2 + e 3 + e 4 + e
GU go do GU go do

I can imagine you thinking 'That looks complicated!' but take heart, it's something that eventually becomes easier to feel than explain. Getting a hang of it is just a matter of practice.

For most people the above explanation is all you need to know.