Whether you’ve been to a party with a couple of hipsters, traveled to West Africa, or just visited a local street corner with busking musicians, there’s certainty in my mind that you have already seen a djembe drum before.
In a hurry? We recommend the Meinl Percussion ADJ3.
Djembe drums are becoming more and more popular as hipster culture has re-emerged and as more manufacturers are making them at affordable prices. Picking out a djembe can be difficult since there are few music stores that carry a wide selection. Factors such as size, sound quality, craftsmanship, and cost are very important when buying.
Top Djembe Brands
The best djembe brands will generally include the following:
- Meinl – excellent quality, best bang for your buck
- Remo – standard synthetic djembes
- Africa Heartwood – most authentic djembe available
- Terre – huge selection of different types of djembes
- madedrums – authentic djembes
- Toca – synthetic djembes
Without further ado, let’s check out the djembe drums:
Without a doubt, the best djembe for beginning players is made from Meinl. No, you’re not getting a cheap drum labeled as “home décor,” this is an actual instrument with real tone. While you may not be happy that it isn’t handmade, the price justifies the sound.
One of the greatest features of Meinl’s djembe is the fact that it doesn’t look manufactured. In fact, each shell is hand-carved. So yes, while you do get a premade head, each drum will be unique and a little different.
- Hand-carved from one solid piece of mahogany
- Hand-picked goat-skin heads
- Pre-stretched tuning ropes
- Carved ornaments
- Includes a carrying case
At this price point, this is the closest you’ll get to an “authentic” sounding djembe. It’s well worth the money you’ll spend on it. Take a listen to the drum below.
I love Meinl. They make fantastic products and this one is no different. It’s finally nice to see a company putting out amazing products at such an affordable price.
Remo’s MONDO djembe is very mondo. In fact, this is most likely the largest drum on the list and will produce a big, yet bright sound. The drum features a Skyndeep head, which is Remo’s own synthetic “recreation” of an authentic head that is both weatherproof and warm in tone.
The MONDO also is key-tuned when made, so you won’t have to worry about it sounding poor upon arrival. You can easily get big boomy bass tones or high pitched slaps with Remo’s djembe.
The drum does stay in tune quite well, even in humid climates. If you’re going to be taking your drum with you outdoors and in all kinds of weather, this one’s perfect as it will stay strong in the worst of elements.
Personally, Remo has never excited me too much with world percussion. I think they fall flat a little bit, and this is no exception. I understand the idea of weatherproofing and synthetic drum shells, but these are usually very inauthentic and do not sound very good.
This djembe from Africa Heartwood Project is the first “authentic” drum on the list. The drums from AHP are imported straight from Africa and are tested and inspected prior to shipping to your doorstep.
Surprisingly, the drum isn’t that expensive.
Just from overall appearance, you can really tell how authentic it looks. Nothing looks perfect and every drum will be different with its own unique character.
Each wood shell is hand-carved and the head is made from natural West African goat skin.
The Africa Heartwood Project supports local artisans in Africa and is a non-profit organization.
Authenticity is a big deal for me. I love the drum! Everything about it seems real. If you’re serious about unique world percussion, don’t get a synthetic Western-made drum.
The origin of the djembe and other African drums
The first thing that comes to mind when most people think of music from Africa is the sound of energetic, rhythmic drums. Drums are the central player of the music itself as opposed to simply an accompaniment.
Drums are the very heart and soul of the Saharan rhythm. In fact, the most universal instruments which connect us together in a non-verbal yet powerful language are hands down, drums!
There are many types of African drums. The most popular and widely used of these is the Djembe (pronounced gem-bay), which has its roots in Guinea and neighboring Mali, West Africa where it was known to first have been made and used by the local Mandinke tribe.
Descendants of the Mandinke comprise the majority of Guinea and 42% of Gambia making them the largest ethnic group in these nations. They are also found in smaller numbers all throughout Africa.
What is a djembe and how is one made?
The djembe is a large drum that is shaped like a goblet with the lower half serving as a base for the larger frame and head.
The traditional way of making the instrument involves the use of a hollowed out tree trunk for the solid part of the drum and goatskin to form the head.
A great deal of hard work goes into making the instrument in this manner for after gathering all of the raw materials, the carving itself can take up to months.
Craftsmen seldom use more than their bare hands and an ax to form the shape of the drum.
A hammer is used to smoothen rough edges and add finishing touches.
Artistic masterpieces are created on the finished surface which personalizes the drum, reflects the drum-makers heritage and, as later mentioned, depicts the events and purposes for which the drum is used.
Cheaper, mass-manufactured djembes
Synthetic versions of the djembe substitute wood for fiberglass and synthetic fibers in place of goatskin.
There is a compromise in sound due to such an exchange; however, both the traditional and synthetic djembe are preferable in different settings.
The former is known for its craftsmanship and rich sound while the latter is the best choice when a brighter sound is needed to produce a distinction amidst other instruments.
The synthetic djembe is also much longer lasting and under proper care, can last for decades.
The djembe’s role in traditional cultures
In the traditions of Africa in which the djembe is prevalent, its music conveys a message “spoken” by the djembefola and sets the ambiance in a variety of ceremonies and events.
It is often played by African men, known as djembefolas, though anyone from any caste is permitted to play the instrument.
Different types of djembe, carved with unique designs reflect their purposes: face masks, hunting animals, or people engaging in life events such as a wedding scene are used based on which event is taking place.
Certain djembe were used in healing ceremonies as it was believed that the sound of the djembe could raise a person’s energy as well as chase away evil spirits. These are usually the ones with the “guardian” faces carved on the side.
It is played solo as well as in duets or large groups of people accompanied by dancing and important rituals for the prosperity and well being of the community.
How is the djembe played?
In order to play the djembe, the djembefola first holds it between his legs with his feet hugging the base. There are three main sounds produced by the djembe. From lowest to highest pitch, these are the bass, tone, and slap.
The contrast in sound is created by striking the hand against the head of the drum at different distances from the center. The farther away from the center, the higher the pitch of the sound.
Therefore, the bass sound is produced by striking the center of the drum, and slap by slapping the very edge.
A musical concept called “swing” is very important in African music. It is basically the result of playing a repeated pattern of these three main sounds in a relaxed and steady way so that they blend together into a flowing rhythm.
Both performer and listener “swing” into that rhythm and enjoy the music being played. Oftentimes, the bass sound is often used to “punctuate” the message played on the djembe, marking the end of a chorus or pattern before another round or pattern is played.
When did the djembe reach Westerners?
After thousands of years of popularity in much of Africa, the djembe began to take the world stage at the end of the 1960s thanks to performance groups from Guinea and Mali who shared their traditional music with the US.
One of the first groups was a dance company by the name of “Les Ballets Africains” which promoted African dance and culture.
When the group reached great success on Broadway in 1959, many Americans grew interested in this novel type of art they have never seen or heard before.
Due to their interests, Ladji Camara, a djembe maestro and member of “Les Ballets” was able to gain a following of students who learned how to professionally play the djembe.
Present day djembe players and overall popularity
Djembe music continues to be on the rise in the present day and has now been warmly received in all six of the world’s populated continents.
The Djembefola Documentary
The two artists hail from Guinea and Mali, respectively. Their renowned accomplishments include Keita’s creation of an award-winning documentary called “Djembefola” and Coulibaly’s invention of “Flez”- a combination of djembe along with other traditional African instruments, the acoustic guitar, and vocal music.
Both legends have contributed to the growth of djembe music, its preservation for future generations, and its inclusion in today’s modern music industry. You can watch the documentary below.
The djembe in popular culture
Perhaps the most compelling reason why the sound of the djembe resonates with so many people is its inclusion in the soundtrack of Disney’s “The Lion King.”
In addition to several classical instruments such as the piano and flute, a wide array of instruments from all over Africa can be heard in this film centered in the jungles of Kenya.
Most certainly, one of the many percussion instruments someone would be able to pick up on is the djembe which is played alongside its cousins the “djun djun” and talking drums.
“The Lion King” has been produced both as one of the greatest Disney animations and as an award-winning best musical re-enacting the original version of the movie.
Over 140 million people worldwide have watched either one or both movie versions, continuing to be inspired by it today and touched by the spirit of African culture and the djembe.
The djembe is still popular in a world of commercialized music
It is indeed a marvel that in an increasingly urbanized world in which electronica competes with many of the more traditional instruments, the djembe makes a proud statement of its past, present, and future.
From its birthplace, in the forests of West Africa, it has made a journey across the globe into the ears and hearts of so many people.
To those who understand, it speaks of their roots, their hardships, their victories. To those who at least listen, it speaks of the soul, of rhythm, of the unification that music provides.
For in the Mandinke tradition, all of life is “foli” or “rhythm.” There can be no movement without rhythm.
Things to consider when getting a djembe
Not all drums are created equally. Some are mass-produced in a factory while others are hand-made with care. Here are some things to consider before buying:
While the size won’t necessarily change how you play the drum, it definitely will change the tone. The larger the drum, the deeper sounding it will be.
If you’re looking for a fat, bass-rich drum, go for something bigger. You will most likely pay a little more, however.
A big drum can also be a little tough to play for younger children. Keep that in mind if you plan on getting one for your child.
Djembes can be made of either wood or a synthetic material. There’s no reason that one is better than the other, however, wooden drums will sound much more authentic than synthetic ones.
If you’re just looking for something fun and aren’t too serious about playing, you can stick with a cheaper, synthetic drum.
Do you own one? Let us know which one you have down below in the comments. If we messed something up or missed anything, please don’t hesitate to bug us.
Thanks for reading! 🙂