I have been re-skinning djembes for the last couple of days. My previous experience is doing one with help several years ago; and watching and helping an extremely skilled guy – Mark Reynolds who lives near Hull – re-skin and repair about 15 djembes, a large dunumba and a ken-keni.
Here are examples of some of Mark’s Reynolds’ work. The djembe front left was a tuning up job not a reskin.
The process has been shrouded in mystery and also slightly intimidating to me for a long time and I had 3 medium Kambala Bassam drums (with red cord) and a Senegalese full sized djembe to do.
The method I used was similar to the one advised by Ianto Thorber in the reskinning guide elswhere on this site with little variations and changes which I observed from Mark.
The main point I want to make here is that reskinning a djembe is a straightforward process if nothing goes wrong!
The Kambala Bassam drums were new but had been stored in a house loft which had big changes in temperature – enough to break the skin which were tuned up.
However, the rope was perfect and I used some pre-shaved skins for the drums which were very easy to handle. An extra help is that there is a ‘shelf’ cut into the base of the djembe where the bottom ring sits which helps a crucial stage of the work – it is critical for the bottom ring as well as the top ring to remain level
Essentially, everything has be level and even – the top rings, the bottom ring, the tension around the drum, the two top rings have to fit snugly over each other and the rim of the drum which we want to be flat and smooth.
From a drum skinning perspective, the things that take the most time involve getting the skin level using the rings and the rope work.
Sanding the rim of the drum while the skin is off is good to do – it will be more comfortable to play and a rough spot can tear the skin when tension is applied during tuning up.
Typically the drum has 15-20m of rope for the 30 or so verticals which go round the drum with the remainder for tuning later with horizontal Mali weave. If there is a knot anywhere in that length caused by a break in the rope, it will have to be untied and retied several times during the skinning process. Also if there is fraying or damage at any point, the rope might break, which can be dangerous for the person pulling hard on the rope and also might waste a lot of time due to lost tension and the necessity to tie a knot from then on. In addition to being awkward and slightly risky, it adds a hour or more to the time taken.
Sometimes there are cracks in the body of the drum which can only be seen when the skin is off the drum and sometimes there are repairs to the shell, for example if the carver made a hole in the side of the shell by accident and has repaired it. One of my other drums had a hole in the shell which was stuffed with sandpaper!
Often, the ring which is inside the skin is just bare metal rather than wrapped in fabric. Wrapping prevents rusting and potentially any damage for any spurs or spikes on the ring. It will make the ring slightly thicker which means it holds the drum tighter to the rim. Typically to wrap the ring properly takes about an hour.
Thinner rope can be stretchy and so, if used – to save money – for the top ring or bottom ring loops or the main length, it might break when tuning is happening or it wont hold tension for long making tuning to playing tension difficult.
I have seen some Ghanaian drums where there are two verticals of thin rope instead of one making 60 verticals in all! Each one will be pulled several times during the work!
A friend of mine used an average of 2 skins per drum using a batch of poor quality skins some years ago, when skins were difficult to come by.
Paying a smaller amount for a drum might be a false economy when it comes to re-skinning it due to the problems listed. A friend has started charging £10-15 per hour on top of the skinning for any extra rope or wood work done which could quickly exceed the cost of the drum.
Most of the work I have described is unseen work and often not charged for in the £60-80 charged for a drum reskin. The price is for a drum with a new skin in playable condition even if 2 skins were needed, for example.
When you pay more for a drum – particular if you buy from an African teacher – Nansady Keita or Iya Sako for example, they will sell you a drum that they are confident will serve you well and they have set the drum up themselves. The rope will be strong and there will be a good skin and the shell will be sound. It will also be easy to reskin as the rings and ropework will be correct and efficiently done. It will also serve you well for many years.
You also support precious traditional skills and artists as well as getting a top quality instrument.
My first drum reskinning (thanks to Mark Reynolds for your insight and sharing your skills)