How to Play Djembe
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Here are some additional articles on learning to play the djembe:
Djembe Direct: How to Play the Djembe
X8 Drums: How to Play Djembe
Larry Swanson: Djembe Technique
Yankadi: Djembe Lessons
The Sounds of the Djembe: Bass, Tone, & Slap:
There are 3 basic notes on a djembe. They are usually referred to as bass, tone and slap.
The 3 basic notes we are looking at here are all open. That is to say that after you have hit the skin, your hand should bounce from the drum skin, allowing the skin to ring. Keeping your hand in contact with the skin will make different sounds and although they are valid you should re-visit them once you have mastered the concept behind the first 3 basic open sounds.
The bass is played in the center of the djembe with the whole hand and the fingers together. Some people prefer to keep each hand keep slightly more toward it’s own side of the center line down the middle of the drum.
The bass is often played more towards the rim of the djembe -- the sound produced is not as deep, but the hand has less distance to travel and therefore it is less taxing at speed. The bass is the deepest and fullest sound the djembe can produce.
The tone is played with the underside of your fingers. The joint where your fingers join your hand should be around the rim of the drum. All of the fingers should hit the skin flat and at the same time.
It may be useful to think of your hand as being a straight extension of your arm, like you were about to do a judo chop. Try to hold this straightness when learning to play a tone. The sound you are looking for is powerful and solid -- a "thud". Famoudou advocates keeping the fingers together (especially the first 3 fingers) to get the fullest tone.
Experienced players do not need to close their fingers. On Mamady Keita's Mogobalu DVD, he clearly demonstrates a tone with his fingers open. I suspect that less strength is necessary to keep the fingers solid and straight when they are kept together. As you get stronger, it becomes possible to create a clear tone with the fingers separated, but as you are starting out it is ideal to keep them together on the tone.
The slap is generally the most difficult note for beginners to successfully achieve. The hand and arm are relaxed and hit the drum in a slap-like emotion. The hand is in pretty much the same position as a tone. The very edge of the padded part of your hand just below (toward your wrist) where your fingers join your hand should hit the rim of the drum, though the majority of force should be in your fingers whipping onto the drum head.
If you put your hand on the edge of the drum in a rigid tone like motion and then relax your hand, you will notice that the fingers tend to turn in slightly towards the other hand. As a result the slap can give the appearance being in a different position to a tone. The tone and slap are played in the exact same position! The relaxed shape of your hand means that it is actually striking the drum at around a 15 degree angle, whereas the tone is straight down.
When you hit the rim with the padded part of your hand (below where the fingers join the hand indicated in blue), the fingers naturally spread out slightly when they hit the edge of the drum. The fingers should curl naturally and only the tips of the fingers should hit the drum. The image on the left is an exaggeration on a table to give you an idea. The curl is natural and are result of the whipping slap-like motion. Take care not to try and form this shape rigidly or you will probably hurt yourself.
In the above image with my hand on the table I have come in a bit too far with the padded part of my hand. This image only demonstrates how to hit the skin with your finger tips only. Your fingers should naturally bounce off the skin and we help them along by slightly lifting our hand from the drum immediately after they hit the skin. There are many different techniques for slaps taught. This is the one that I was taught to be correct, but it is at least the 3rd technique that I have learned.
All of the different techniques produce a slightly different sound, but I'm not too unhappy about this. I believe that this may stem from different techniques for other drums (such as bougarabou and conga) or perhaps teachers looking for fast results. It's important to try and keep the position of the tone and slap as close together as possible. This allows you to move easily and between the two at speed. A clear distinction between tones and slaps is unbelievably important. It is extremely worthwhile to spend time working on your basic sound techniques.
Mamady Keita has said never stop trying to develop your sounds. You will develop your technique faster by starting slower and aiming for sound quality. The faster you are playing the more there is a tendency for the distinctiveness of the notes to be reduced, so do speed up but only if you can keep top quality notes. It is also extremely important that you pay particular attention to your posture. Your body should be upright - like your spine is balancing a broom stick. Your arms should hang down naturally at your sides, and all movement should be from your elbows.
- Sore thumbs -- You may be playing too close to the center of the drum. There is also an element of your hand needing to learn to keep the thumb out to the way.
- Playing with your hands too parallel instead of pointing somewhat inwards.
1) Rotation of the wrist (causes sore wrists and forearm tendons, eventually leading to carpal tunnel syndrome)
2) Moves the thumbs towards the rings so you're bound to hit them a lot of the time.
- Hitting harder to make slaps - There is slightly more speed in a slap, but only because of your wrist whipping on the way down. You do not hit the drum harder to get a slap. The amount of force you use should be the same as the tone, and the whipping should occur naturally.
Here are some simple, yet fantastic exercises for developing your tones and slaps on djembe.
*Please take the above instruction as a guideline only, and seek out a teacher for further info.
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