Djembes- maintenance and buying guide

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When the djembes are finished, they are left  in the sun for the skins to dry. They are then tuned up for playing

Drum Skins

As skins used for djembes (normally goat but sometimes calf or antelope) are perishable and have a limited lifespan, drums will need re-skinning eventually. Obviously the more you play, the more wear on the skin. Also, if you like to keep your drum tuned up high, it won’t last as long as a low tuned one. Thick skins will last longer than thin ones. Try to avoid any moisture coming into contact with the skin as this will weaken then skin and also de-tune it. Goat skins under high tension are vulnerable to sudden changes in temperature. I played outside with some fire performers in October and early November and simply bringing the drum into an averagely heated house was enough to split the skin. The drum was at quite high tension though. Please also look for any tiny holes or scrapes particularly along the playing rim. You can patch a small hole in the skin with an old shaved piece of goatskin and superglue.

Bass drums (dunun -dunumba, sangban and ken keni) have cow skin which are much thicker and tougher and therefore can be played with sticks. Cowskin is more difficult to work with and much more expensive but some players like to have cowskin on their djembes. It can be very tough on the hands but the sound is different and with a strong drum shell, rope and rings its possible to get a very high tension into the thicker cow skin.

I have photos from Guinea of my bass drums being made which I intend to post as a photo guide. Its a skilled and time consuming process and I feel very fortunate to have seen the musicians making my drums.

Re-skinning a djembe

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the goat hair is removed from the skin using a razor blade. Careful work by Alhassan Conde in Conakry, Guinea

Ianto Thorber is the author of the djembe guide and provides a very comprehensive guide to reskinning your djembe. Click on the link below

http://djembe-reskin.blogspot.co.uk/ 

From personal experience, if there is someone local who can do the job for you to a high standard then seriously consider paying them to do what they do well!!

If you want to learn and/or dont have much money then its an interesting and challenging process. If you soak the goat skin (so you can work with it) for a few hours before you start its possible to get the job done in one day – that is the new skin will be on the drum but we have to wait a few days until the skin is dry and then tuning up to playing tension will take another couple of hours.

As drum skins typically sell for £20-25, the person doing the reskin isn’t charging much for their skilled labour if they charge the market rate of £65-80.

So “How much should I spend on my first drum?” An obvious thing to consider is that I will need to reskin the drum perhaps in 2 years if I play regularly and keep the drum at a good level of tension in the skin (using tuning knots)

I spent £150 on my first djembe (full sized with 13″ head) from a teacher in Somerset in 2002 and it has been reskinned twice. I played it regularly for about 5 years until I got a new drum when I was in Senegal. So the drum cost me £1 per week for 3 years, which to me was a bargain! The two additional skinning cost me the equivalent of £1 per week for the next 2 years. My drum was really confortable to play and produced a good sound – big bass, and I could make my tones and slaps clearly.

So after 5 years, I had a drum which I could still sell for £100-£150, had given me hundreds of hours of fun. I was a very keen student and from very early on I felt I would be drumming for many years to come. The drums I provide for my students are of decent quality, varying sizes and origins – Mali, Gambia, Senegal and Ivory Coast and I hope give my students an idea of what to look for in drums….

I think it is very rare to find a playable full size drum for less than £150. Less than full size – say 10-11″ playing head and shorter body – which I bought for my own stock of workshop drums – are lighter, often very playable and cheaper and perhaps a sensible choice for a first drum.

My medium sized workshop drums were imported in bulk from Mali from the maker who was known to a friend of mine who was living there. They still cost me £100 each after taxes, shipping and ensuring the maker got a good price (he was able to build his house with the money!!)

Kambala make a decent affordable drum for beginners.Their bassam range, which has distinctive red rope and undecorated drum shells are available for £90-135 from many drum shops.

If you spend less than this, I feel you are taking a risk and possibly making a false economy.

What to look for?

Firstly a very basic introduction to how djembes work.

A drumskin is clamped between two metal rings and through a system of ropes, the skin is held securely against the body of the drum. Through increasing the tension in the rope which goes vertically around the body of the drum and by adding knots which go horizontally, the drum sound can be made higher. Decrease the tension (by removing knots for example) and the drum will sound lower. The wooden body of the drum is shaped to enable the skin vibrations to move the air inside the drum and be amplified – particularly by the flared bottom of the djembe to enable us to hear the sound of the drum.

Country of Origin

Most experienced drummers I know would choose a djembe from Guinea or Cassamance ( Southern Senegal) and some may choose a drum from Mali. These are the regions where the tradition of the djembe is strongest. Drums from Gambia or Ghana are, in my experience, not of the same quality. Kambala are based in Ivory Coast and provide a wide range of budget djembes of very playable quality for beginners and intermediate but I haven’t heard enough of their ‘pro’ range to comment.

Wood

There is an excellent article on djembe woods with pictures at

http://djembefola.com/articles/djembe-woods.php

Traditional woods are generally dense hardwoods ie heavier drum. The traditional woods include Lenke, gueni (or balafon wood), and djalla (bois rouge or african mahoghany).

On an ethical note, as the best wood for drums comes from older hardwood trees it is important that trees are replanted and valued. Various alternative woods are being used – sometimes of comparable quality but often because of easy availability – with new drums beginning to be made in the far-East from faster growing species. I am suspicious of cheap drums from Bali – because they are likely to have come from rainforest wood and the absence of a drumming tradition there.

Over the last 20 years, many thousands of “tourist drums” have been made and sold, for souvenirs rather than instruments to play, which alongside the increasing popularity of the djembe has led to a depletion of the best species of trees for drum-making across W Africa.

Many cheap drums are made of very soft or light wood which is easy to carve and they are often highly decorated but have a poor sound.

Rope

As the rope carries the tension in the skin, it must be strong. If the rope is thin , adding tuning knots will lead to rope breaking or fraying. If the rope is stretchy, the drum will not hold its tuning. In addition to the ‘verticals’, rope is required for the ‘top and bottom loops’. In total about 25 metres per djembe. Some makers use inferior rope on the top and bottom loops to save money but this can lead to more rope breaking or stretching.

Many tourist drums are not designed to be tuned so poor rope is fitted.

Good rope is pre-stretched 4-5mm with a central core. it should not have any fraying and look out for any places the rope has been knotted together. Online, 25m of good drum rope will cost £1-£2/metre so its worth checking the rope on a potential new drum.

Skins

Drums which are to be played and tuned up require a skin which is thick and strong enough to reach playing tension. Any nicks or holes however small are potential tears when the drum is tuned up. A scar on the skin is probably OK though.

Rings

One ring is inside the skin and one more is on the outside (with the 20-30 rope loops tied onto it). A third ring goes around the bottom again with rope loops. The metal rings are made for each drum and should be designed to fit the drum closely but allow some movement – the top ring will move down (tightening the skin) as the drum is tuned up. Ideally the top ring should be level all the way round giving equal tension all the way round the skin. The bottom ring should be level too.

The rings are welded and obviously the weld can be the weakest point. When one of my drums was being tuned up with new 5mm rope, the weld actually broke! The tension carried in 5mm rope is greater than 4mm and enables the drum to be tuned higher. As long as the skin, rope, rings and wood can cope with the higher tension.

Buying tips

Check the wood body for any cracks or repairs. A good repair using araldite and sawdust can be as strong as the wood but you should check out the body as it may affect the sound. Look also for cracks that go right through the wood or any signs of repair (pins or nails for example).

Check the skin for holes or damage of any sort. (Hold the drum up to a light and look from underneath)

Feel round the playing rim. This is where your hands are going to be in contact most of the time. Any rough or sharp or uneven areas may be uncomfortable to play on and possibly my cause the drumskin to split or tear. These can be easily sanded down when the drum is reskinned but its obviously best to have a smooth flat ring to play on when you buy a drum.

I prefer a more rounded shape to the playing edge – which is comfortable on my hands. Initially its hard to know the difference but I recently played for 2 hours on a different drum and despite it being a nice drum, the playing rim was very square and quite painful to play for that length of time.

Check the rope for any fraying or any joining knots.

Are the rings level, top and bottom?

How does the drum sound?  If it sounds high, check if there are a lot of tuning knots already in the drum, this can mean an old skin and also means that there wont be much room to put more knots in the future (drum tension decreases with time).

It should be possible to get to playing tension with just the uprights alone, so when you add tuning knots you can hear the increase in pitch. It is rare however for drums to be sold in this condition.

If the drum is low, check to see if there are any tuning knots in the drum. Look at the thickness of the rope – very thin rope should be regarded with suspicion. Is the rope the same for the loops as the verticals? Remember thin rope can break or stretch when you try to tune the drum.

Finally and possibly more importantly – Is the drum the right size for you?

Size – drum head (the playing diameter) 10-12″ for medium 13-14″ for full size. Height of drum should be in the region of 24-28″ if you want to sit and play with the drum touching the floor. Can you hold the drum comfortably between your knees?

If you are familiar with my method for playing tones and slaps (learned from Nansady Keita) place your hands on the drum to play tones (line of knuckles on the rim with the fingers pressing into the skin). Your thumbs should not be touching and when you play are you playing tones or is there bass as well? If there is bass, then the drum head is probably too small.

Buying online unseen/unplayed/secondhand

Buying Online If you decide to buy online (eg brand new drums from a reputable site), make sure you have an option to return it if it doesnt suit you or particularly if there is any problem with the condition not listed in the description. Many music shops will order drums in and have drums to try.

I sometimes look at Ebay and while there are hundreds of drums sold as ‘djembes’ very few are even worth considering. Just from looking at photos, I often see problems with uneven rings, ropes, joining knots, worn skins or cracks in the body.

Pay very close attention to any measurements given- photos can make tiny drums look normal size!! A full sized drum has a 12-14″ playing head, anything between 10-12″ may also be worth investigating. Full sized drums are typically 26″ from base to playing rim and even my own workshop drums are 24″ tall (12″ playing head).

OK then, where can I buy a decent drum?

The best drums come through the best teachers and players. Nansady Keita and Iya Sako both sell exceptional drums. In addition Drumroots in Manchester import high quality shells and skins and then build drums using top class rope. The West African drumming yahoo group sometimes advertises drums for sale – either from drummers who are upgrading or from people returning from African drumming holidays.

Knock on Wood – a long standing company run by Ianto Thorber have a comprehensive website and selection of drums. They have a warehouse near Harrogate which is available to visit by appointment and most of their business is done online.

They stock both the Kambala range of djembes and a new range of Eco-djembes made in the Far East from sustainable woods. You hear the eco- played next to other drums by its designer, American drummer Michael Pluznick on youtube.

It is very likely I will add to this article and also make a separate links page for people interested in buying djembes and bass drums.

Thanks for reading.

Bye for now.

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