Frequently Asked Questions about African Drumming

Questions, questions...

Do you play bongos?

We have a whole page about that... ; )

I'd like to learn drumming - do you have beginners' classes?

If you've never played djembe before, an initial one-to-one tuition session is recommended (but not essential) to go through the basic tones. Or just come along to one of my classes, an hour of which is focused on new starters and beginners. A sense of rhythm is important, but no other musical background is necessary.

My child(ren) would like to learn drumming - do you have children's classes?

Yes, I now teach children's classes.

There are so many different types of drums - how do I choose what I want to play?

Not everyone should play djembe; there are lots of other cool African drums as well. In the Malinke tradition we mainly follow, new players would traditionally begin with the simpler accompaniment parts on dun duns, djembe and percussion, all the while hearing the more complex breaks and solos, and learning them by listening before attempting to play them themselves.

The deeper, more subtle melodic tones of bougarabous and kpanlogo are beautiful to listen to, and fit better with other instruments; the sharp, cutting sound of a djembe can often be too harsh to accompany quieter instruments, such as a solo acoustic guitarist singing mellow songs.

A good way to choose what you'd like to focus on is to come to my classes and try out various drums. Let me know in advance if there are any particular kinds you're especially interested in. Or just do what I do and play them all! :-)

I don't have a drum of my own - can I borrow one?

We have some spare drums and lots of percussion to play with. Use of dun duns is free, but djembe hire costs £1 at my classes (but is free for private tuition). Please text me (or email) before 4pm to remind me any week you'd like me to bring a drum for you (or ideally the night before in case I'm coming straight from teaching all day). Although even if I don't bring extra spares, there will usually be plenty of spare djembe in a class as someone is bound to be taking a turn on dun duns or percussion parts: claves, shakers, cowbells. These patterns are a vital part of the ensemble, and learning them will greatly help advance your knowledge of drum rhythms too; besides, they sound cool when they're all going together! Percussionists should usually stand up to play.

Soon you may wish to buy your own drum. It's best to learn djembe on a drum with a skin larger than 10" in diameter that can comfortably accomodate both hands playing the bass sound in the centre; smaller children's 'baby' djembes require a different technique for adults to get bass sounds, and so are not ideal first instruments.

Where can I buy a good djembe from?

I currently have some djembe for sale, so contact me once you've read this below...

Buying a drum that's right for you is like buying a pair of shoes which fit just right, a highly personal thing involving your intuition, and, like Cinderella, trying as many different alternatives as you can. It's tempting to rush into a decision, but patience will reward you. When you find the right drum, it will speak to you, and make itself known to you. It is said that there are three spirits within the djembe: the spirit of the tree it was carved from, of the animal whose skin was used, and the spirit of the maker. Traditionally, the highly skilled process of making a drum involves a sense of ritual and is not undertaken lightly; one even has to ask permission of the tree to cut it down (which is a good sound policy to prevent deforestation of rare hardwoods). A drum will take you on a long journey, opening up your life to new horizons over many years (the skin will eventually need replacing, but the drum itself should outlive you). So you need to bond with your drum, otherwise you may soon tire of it and not bother to practise. Wider, heavier drums made of denser hardwood often sound better but may be too heavy to wear standing up, so you need to choose your priorities. You ideally need to try it for size, shape, weight, feel and (most importantly) sound. Or at least get someone you trust who knows a good drum from her elbow. You can of course buy drums online, without having even heard or touched them and with very little idea (other than photos, and possibly sound samples of someone else playing) of what they're really like, but YMMV. Online reviews won't really help you here, because African drums are all unique, handmade objects, which vary greatly from instrument to instrument. It depends what you want. Beware: eBay is full of cheap "tourist tat" drums, also known as "buckets", as that describes their sound...

Obviously buying a djembe in Africa is much cheaper due to our crazy world's economics, and the effort of shipping drums out. In the UK, adult beginners' drums cost around £90-£140, kids' sizes around £70-£80. In that price range, Kambala is a fairly decent brand who seem to have consistent quality, and are ideal for learning. But smaller children sometimes struggle to get their legs around the waist of their kids' drums, which are wider than many others. (I'd advise that young children need narrower drums as lightweight as possible.) Gold Coast Drums in London seem to sell a lot of djembe because they pay for Google adverts, but I've never really liked their drums. In general, avoid djembe with poor quality black rope, which doesn't hold tuning well.

Much nicer (and better priced) are the Senegalese djembe (and other wonderfully colourful African items) imported by Samantha at The African Emporium - she is based in Norfolk, but often tours the UK djembe festivals such as African Beats Camp, and I sometimes link up with them - contact me if you're interested but can't get to Norfolk. It's nice to support traders like her who know how to pack a shipping container properly and can source packing materials (that are otherwise scarce in somewhere like West Africa) to protect the drums and prevent damage during shipping. You can tell when you meet her that she's passionate about drumming herself and goes out of her way to get you a nice drum at a price you can afford. Her "standard" drums are nice and her dearer "master" drums are very high quality (that's what I currently play). She's in direct contact with the best master craftsmen in Dakar, who make drums in various national styles: Guinean, Ivory Coast, Senegalese. So you know your money is going directly to the people of the Malinke tradition that djembe drums came from, rather than some sweatshop in the Far East just churning them out for the Western market, or Ghanaian furniture makers cottoning onto the demand for djembe and mass-producing drums like they were tables.

Professional concert-grade master drums for soloists usually cost £250-400+, but beware: not all drums that cost lots are worth it, and these days the "pro" moniker is banded about on websites with gay abandon! You generally know when you're in the presence of an awesome drum, as you can feel its presence even before playing it - it just oozes vibe and character. That character is down to the skill of the maker, who pours his/her passion for the art of drum-making into the instrument, and in the right hands it really is an instrument, not something you just bang. It's not just about looks, or size, or fancy carving. Other factors, such as rope quality (the less stretchy it is, the stronger the tension will remain), the shape, and the construction are all important. Some djembe have three metal hoops rather than two, to further strengthen the tuning, and some soloist's drums are wrapped in layers of rope and tape to hold it solid. I prefer the richer sound of the Guinean style drums, which often have a rounded edge which is more comfortable for your hand to play, and spiral scalloped carvings sculpted inside the shell to improve the sound. These details all take time and effort to create, and distinguish a master djembe from a merely good one which may have been made by the same maker, but without the extra-special attention to detail that can only be lavished on a few instruments. Whether or not you need all that finesse is your decision. Not everyone is a soloist, nor do they need a drum that is tuned up very high in order to be heard over everyone else like the band leader needs to.

There are some excellent drum makers in England, such as African Drum Services, who produce very fine drums, often better than those made in Africa. American companies like Wula and Drumskull also import some mighty fine drums, for serious money. You will need to tune a concert djembe regularly for optimum sound.

Pro drums will require pro cases such as those from HardCase or Protection Racket, or have some custom-made. Otherwise there's no point in spending lots of money on a drum if you don't keep it safe. Cheap cases will fall apart through regular use - all of mine did, sadly even the nice ones I had custom-made in Senegal from beautiful (but not strong enough) African cloth. You need durable materials for cases, and realistically that means tough man-made fibres and heavy-duty straps/zips/buckles (unfortunately the zips and straps in Africa are mostly lame). Usually the weakest link will fail. Just like no-one ever got fired for buying IBM, if you buy a Protection Racket or HardCase, then you won't regret it. I like that Protection Racket are made in Cornwall and have lovely fluffy linings :-) At the very least (or in addition), get a drum hat, ideally reinforced with a cardboard pizza base.

As well as the traditional African wood+goatskin/calfskin/cowskin designs, you can get "modern" synthetic djembes made by Remo, LP, et al, (and now countless cheap Indonesian and Far Eastern knock-offs), often made out of fibreglass with plastic skins (which have a more tinny pingy sound and tendency to ring). IMHO these don't sound as good as proper African drums, lack the soul and connection with that culture, and strangely often cost more. Their only advantage is being waterproof and more tolerant of our English climate than animal skins. These kind of drums were available from the excellent drum shop Talkin' Headz (which used to be in Woburn Sands near Milton Keynes). In Bedford, The Music Centre shop (on Tavistock Street near Kwik Fit) also sells synthetic djembe upstairs in the drum department. Maybe go and try them and see what you like the sound of. Or better still, come to my classes and have a go yourself on lots of different traditional drums to get an idea what you're after.

Adults need a djembe 10" or larger in diameter to fit both hands in the middle; smaller (children's) drums require different technique for large adult hands, which means re-learning how to play a proper drum, so avoid playing on drums that are too small. Kids aged 10+ can use adult drums, but younger children (despite usually thinking they want to play the BIGGEST drum ever!!!) won't be able to hold adult drums properly with their legs, so need smaller ones to suit their leg length.

What sort of seat do I need? What is the ideal height?

The ideal height for an adult to sit playing a djembe is a normal dining/office chair, preferably without arms and definitely not on castors! Children aged below 11 need smaller drums and hence lower chairs, the kind you find in Primary Schools, or low benches, otherwise they can't hold the drums tilted properly. Congas need a higher chair or added cushions. I used to use a portable fold-up 3-legged camping/fishing stool which only cost about a fiver from camping shops, and is easily folded up and carried over the shoulder; it's best with a cushion for added height/comfort, but you need to make sure it allows the correct posture and doesn't tilt you backwards like many folding garden/deck chairs do. These days now that I play so much, I use a good quality fold-up drumkit throne for comfort and durability, ensuring good posture wherever I play.

Your forearms should be roughly horizontal with your hands laid on the drum held tilted between your legs. If your arms are tilted upwards or downwards too much you may get lower-back or neck-pain.

If you find yourself stranded without a suitable chair (or a strap to play standing up), it's best to lie the drum sideways on the ground and straddle it with your knees on the ground (but not on wet grass!).

I can't seem to get any bass sound.

A djembe (and many other one-skinned open-ended drums such as kpanlogo) needs to be tilted to allow the bass sound to exit the stem. Sit on the edge of your seat with the drum in front of you, flat on the floor. Then bring the drum close between your thighs (keeping it flat on the floor) and wrap your legs around it, so that they are hugging it. Children may have trouble getting their legs around a drum that is too big, or if sat on too big a chair (they need kids' chairs or low benches). Then bring your feet backwards, pushing the foot of the drum underneath your chair so that it tilts to let the sound out. Don't lift the drum off the floor - ensure it is tilted but still resting on the ground. You should be able to comfortably hold the drum with your legs, ideally using your feet to stabilise it (either wrapping your legs around it and crossing feet in front of the stem, or with feet apart gripping either side of the stem.)

Some traditions (such as kpanlogo drums) employ a technique of lifting the drum with the legs to alter the pitch of the bass sound for special effects and accents. This requires strong legs! This principle is also used by darabuka and French horn players inserting their hand into the stem/horn. You may find that playing djembe standing up with a strap gets an even better bass sound, especially when standing in the corner of a room facing the centre using the corner to accentuate the bass frequencies.

How do I make a djembe strap?

Malc playing lead djembe at Hertford Castle with Secret BassAll you need is a 5m length of polypro webbing strap material which I got from a climbing/camping/outdoor shop (also John Lewis' haberdashery department) for a few quid. Old car seatbelts might work too, if you can get a long enough piece (or tie two together). The strap threads in through the ropes so is great for drums without tuning lugs on. Many online articles show how to strap yourself into rhythm machine mode and provide comfortable drum support allowing you to walk and play freely. The bass sound will be signficantly improved without obstruction by the ground; this is particularly important when playing outdoors on grass.

How do I produce the basic tones?

Making a djembe sound correctly is more of an art than a science but here are some pointers:

All of these sounds can also be closed (damped) by keeping your hand on the skin instead of letting it bounce off. Alternatively, conga technique calls for slaps to be trapped by the other hand pressing the skin tight for an ultimate crack sound; djembe also uses trapped slaps for special effects.

How can I improve my playing?

One key thing that every player (regardless of level) must do is focus on making their tones and slaps sing. And in your timing, be a rock so that others can follow you. Once you've figured out what you're playing and can repeat it, listen to the other parts to see how you lock into them, to avoid drifting.

Even if you already attend regular drumclasses, you could also consider taking priivate tuition to work on things in isolation.

I can't get the slaps and tones to sound properly.

Assuming you're holding and striking the drum correctly and tilting it to let the bass out (and have of course been practising religiously for thirty years :-) there are still many factors which affect how a drum sounds:

Is it OK to play djembe while wearing rings on your finger(s)?

No, playing any hand drum while wearing a ring will hurt the drum skin, but more importantly, you'll damage your own fingers, much like hitting a metal door usually hurts after a few hundred goes. Try using soapy warm water to ease off the ring. We could always take you round the back of the woodshed with the axe, but this might impair your counting abilities which you'll need for the more complex rhythms. If you really can't get it off, or if your spouse has promised Death at such action, try playing something that uses a stick, such as dun duns, Ashanti or Adowa drums, or percussion such as cowbell, claves, shekere. If you only have a ring stuck on one hand, consider some of the other Ghanaian drums, some of which are played using one hand and one stick.

Some people suggest wearing plasters or bandages around a ring, but while this may protect the drum skin a bit, your hand is still getting a bashing, and your tone will be impeded. While I'm happy to lend my instruments, I've had too many drums damaged by rings. Of course, it's your decision if you (ab)use your own drum.

Wristwatches and bracelets/bangles should also be removed as they get in the way when playing the djembe bass notes.

My hands hurt!

Don't be alarmed if your hands start tingling a bit after an intense session. They may look like they've been through a few rounds with Frank Bruno, and the skin will feel all zingy and sensitive - this is normal. What isn't good is if you are getting bruises or cuts from rings or incorrect technique such as slamming the heel of your hand against the drum rim. You shouldn't get injured by hand drumming unless you are in some all-night marathon competing against sound systems (been there, done that! :-)

Can you re-skin my djembe for me?

I can't, but I know a man who can in North London, another man who can near Bristol, and a lady who can in Milton Keynes. Bear in mind that the cost of an afternoon's labour to reskin a drum (usually at least £50) may make it non-viable for drums of low value such as small children's drums.

Can you tune my djembe for me?

Why not do it yourself? If you can't, ask the people above.

What's an echauffement?

This term comes from the French word for 'heating up', and means a manic roll played by the leader/soloist to signify the imminent end of a song or section, in which case it's usually followed by a Signal as the last bar of a four-/eight-bar group. It can also be used (without a Signal) to speed up the tempo, or to inspire dancers to new frenetic heights. There are various types of echauffement, mostly barrages of repeated tones and slaps in certain patterns, for example, these are commonly used for 4-beat and 12-beat rhythms respectively:

4/4 Count   || 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &  | 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &  ||

12/8 Count  || 1&a2&a3&a4&a | 1&a2&a3&a4&a ||

Sometimes specific rhythms have a special echauffement, decorated with rolls, flams and other flourishes. Often the dununba and/or sangban join in underneath with special variations of their own. It takes practice to produce the djembe tones and slaps with suitable distinction to be able to clearly lead an ensemble.

There are times when I think I may never get as good as I'd like to be!

I get this feeling too (probably everyone does), so don't worry. The antidote to this feeling is usually... more practice! It's natural to want to improve your abilities, but don't beat yourself up for not reaching some level soon enough; you may actually be better than you perceive, but stuck in some kind of Trough. We're all on a journey and may never actually reach the ultimate destination we'd hoped for, but it's a lovely scenic route to enjoy cruising along with friends! :-)

I still have more questions!

Try the excellent Jim's Notes and Djembe List Frequently Asked Questions.

You might also like to see some photos of me drumming in Senegal and read my drumming journal and drumming links.


[ Kpanlogo, djembes, seourouba, dun duns (behind) and bongos ]