History of the Djembe
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History of the Djembe: The djembe (pronounced JEM-bay) is also known as the djimbe, jembe, jenbe, yembe or sanbanyi in Susu. It is a skin covered hand drum shaped like a large goblet and is meant to be played with the bare hands. It is a member of the membranophone family of musical instruments: a frame or shell (in the djembe's case it is a shell) covered by a membrane or drumhead made of one of many products, usually rawhide. The djembe originated in West Africa, where it became an integral part of the region's music and tradition. As a result of the goblet shape, the density of the wood, the internal carvings, and the skin, there is a wide range of tones that can be produced by the djembe drum. The rounded bowl shape with the extended tube stem of the djembe body forms a device known in physics as a Helmholtz resonator, giving it the deep bass sound.
The primary tones are generally referred to as "bass," "tone" (or open tone), and "slap." Striking the skin near the center with the palm produces a bass note, striking the skin nearer the rim with the fingers flat produces a tone, and at the same position with the fingers relaxed so that the fingertips snap onto the head of the drum produces a slap. The slap has a high, sharp sound and the tone is more "round" and full. Other notes exist, and can be created by using various other hand drumming techniques. Traditionally, djembes drums are about 12" (30cm) in diameter, varying by an inch or two, but can be found in sizes from 5" (13cm) up to 18" (46cm) depending on the size of the player. A full size djembe is normally around 24" tall.
The djembe drum originally is a secular Mandé drum,though it is found throughout all of West Africa where it is one of the most common instruments. There is general agreement that the origin of the djembe is associated with a class of Mandinka/Susu blacksmiths known as Numu. The wide dispersion of the djembe drum across West Africa may be due to Numu migrations dating from the first millennium A.D. Despite the associations of the djembe with the Numu, there do not appear to be hereditary restrictions upon who can play the djembe -- as occurs with some other African instruments.
The djembe spelling with the "dj" comes from the fact that French has no hard "j" sound like that found in English. The "dj" is used to indicate the hard "j" pronunciation. The fact that the French spelling has been retained as traditional is largely due to the generally open policies in the French African colonies toward native culture and traditions, whereby the French were instrumental in studying and describing African drumming to the world. The djembe first made an impact outside West Africa in Paris of the 1940s and more widely in the 1950s and 1960s with the filming and world tours of Les Ballets Africains -- featuring a young Papa Ladji Camara and led by Fodeba Keita of Guinea. The "national ballet" movement, in which a number of drumming / dancing companies have adapted traditional African drumming / dancing events to the Western-style stage, has resulted in a huge surge of interest in African drumming, especially djembe drumming.
Some consider the djembe to be female, and the ashiko drum to be male. The djembe is actually much more closely related in tone and design to the family of drums known as sabar, which are played with one hand and one stick, most closelytied to the Bung Bung Baal, and N'der drums. Beginning in the late 20th century, the djembe became very popular in drum circles all around the world. In proper form, however, it's played in ensemble with the dunun drum, bells, and tama, with individuals playing different parts that lace together intricately to weave a rich rhythmic tapestry. Dancers are accompanied by a lead djembe drummer or soloist who will play rhythms which align with the dancer's movements as they make them, and whose playing will signal changes in the dance steps as well as the beginning and end of a piece itself.
The djembe is said to contain three spirits: the spirit of the tree, the spirit of the animal of which the drum head is made, and the spirit of the instrument maker. The djembe is also known as the magical drum, mushroom shaped drum, and the Devil Drum. It is legend that the djimbe and / or the tree from which it is created was a gift from a Djinn or malevolent demigod -- male counterpart to the more familiar Genie. Properly crafted djembe drums are carved in one single piece from hollowed out trees called Dimba, or Devil Wood, but are made from many types of african hardwood. Drums made from slats or segments of wood glued together are considered by traditionalists to have no soul of the tree. Properly made drums are not smooth on the interior but have a series of teardrop shaped divots inside that enhances the tonal qualities. The drumheads are typically made from goatskin, but more rarely can be antelope, zebra, deer or calf. In all cases, the female is preferred and adult cow is never used. In earlier times (and still in some rural areas) djembes were used to send important messages over long distances. A master djembe player is referred to as a djembefola.
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