Djembes are an African drum traditionally used by the Maninka (pronounced Mande-nka). On the banks of the Niger at the border between Guinea and Mali you will find Mande, the homeland of the Maninka people. This is the birthplace of djembes. Reportedly the word 'djem' (or more accurately 'jem') refers to the tree used to make djembes, while "be" refers to goat, the hides of which were used for the drumhead.
Djembe is the French spelling of the Maninka word. During the French colonization of western Africa, many native words were recorded using the French spellings. Today many Africans argue that use of the "djembe" spelling is a sore reminder of that colonial domination of their heritage. Today, Africans and supporters of indigenous peoples have been developing phonetic spellings for various African dialects. In the culturally sensitive phonetic spelling the French "d" is dropped. However, the non-African spelling may be more appropriate when talking about a drum who's popularity is exploding on an international, inter-cultural, scale. Interestingly, the term djembe was not popularly used in France. There, the African Drum is known as the Tom-Tom. They erroneously, believed that the Tom-Tom was beaten with the hands to send messages through the jungle. Actually, the drum used to transmit messages is constructed of a hollowed tree trunk, and beaten with mallets.
In 1958 Guinea took the lead in declaring its independence from French Colonial rule. From October 2nd, 1958 until 1984 Guinea was a dictatorship led by President Sékou Tourés. His government was a patron of traditional music. The most famous government sponsored ensembles of the day were Les Ballets Africains and the Ballet Djoliba. Les Ballets Africains became the national ballet of Guinea and was well accepted on its world-wide tour. His authoritarian rule has ended but the world-wide interest in the African djembes may be his lasting legacy. Unfortunately, though perhaps unavoidably, the ensemble created the disassociation of djembes from the culture that created it. By necessity the ensemble's world tour tried to present a variety of songs, rhythms and instruments from a large area populated by a staggering number of cultural groups. In doing so, the world received the djembe and not the jembe. The traditional rhythms and dances that were unique to djembe playing in villages, were replaced by performers playing a collection of instruments. Instruments that would never have been played together in a village were now presented to the world as African music. In villages dancing-in-the-round was the norm. However for shows this would not do. Dancers were removed to lines that did not block the view of the instruments and in many cases the dance was removed completely; something that would not have occurred in the villages. While the world embraced the physical appearance and the sound of this Maninka drum, the heritage it symbolized was lost.
How to Play and Care for Djembes
To play the djembe, sit on the edge of a chair. Cross your ankles and tuck them slightly under you. Hold the djembe between your knees or thighs so that the bottom of the drum rests behind your heels. Djembe players will find a wide range of sounds can be produced from this instrument.
There are commercial head conditioners on the market. However the best treatment for a skin head is use. The more a drum is played the better for the head. The natural oils from your skin will help to keep the head in condition. If you find the sound going a little dull you can re-tune the head using the cords.
Never use harsh chemicals to clean you drum or the head. When not playing your drum do not leave it in a car or vehicle. Keep your drum, like all instruments, away from sources of cold or hot air. Since the head and the body of this drum are natural materials, they will be affected by changes in heat and humidity; therefore try to avoid rapid changes in environmental conditions.