BillyRadd Music

Monday, June 13, 2011

Djembe Fever

A Handmade Piece of Africa

First, a bit of background is in order.

A typical modern handmade djembe in an individual work of art crafted in West Africa from the wood of the Lenge tree due to its acoustic and spiritual qualities among the Malinke people, whose traditional philosophy states that nyama (spiritual energy) is present in all things, whether living or dead, but many other types of hard wood may be used, depending upon those available to the drum makers. Some West African hardwoods used for musician-quality djembes carved in Mali, Senegal, Guinea, and Côte d'Ivoire include djalla, dougi/dimba, khari/hare/gueni, and acajou.

The djembe's drum head, located on one end only (the large end), is traditionally made of the shaved skin of a goat, but cow hide or antelope skin is sometimes substituted.

Prior to the twentieth century, the skin was commonly attached with animal sinew or intestine, or by stretching a cut strip of rawhide. But, today many synthetic materials have replaced the original organic materials traditionally used to make djembes. The good news is that many modern incarnations of the drum still retain the sound and esthetic qualities displayed in the original models.

Anita bought her djembe, made in Côte d'Ivoire, a few weeks ago and she has graciously allowed me to practice on it as well. We also purchased one of our drum teacher Billy Zanski's practice DVDs to work out with since it really helps us to get into the groove of the West African rhythms while reviewing the correct techniques.

One of the things I always notice after a few moments of banging away on the djembes, whether Anita's personal model or the ones that Billy Zanski of Skinny Beats Drums lets us use for lessons at his shop, is the smell of the goat skin drum head. It has a definite kind of "gamey" smell that took a bit of getting used to over three weeks of classes and practice.

But now, I have to admit that I kinda like that goat skin smell since I relate it to learning a new instrument (new to me , that is). It is said that each djembe contains three spirits: the spirit of the tree it was carved from, the spirit of the animal from which the drum head is made, and the spirit of the instrument maker. The djembe that Anita bought (a colorful detail of which is pictured above) has the maker's initials B.T. MS. along with the date it was made clearly painted on the inside of the drum at the base.

I like that a lot, too.

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