Playing Djembe, Dunun and other African drums have grown in popularity over the past decades. However, often in a limited class time teachers fail to express the importance of good technique. Good technique allows you develop your sound and playing ability whilst avoiding injuries. Poor posture and hand position amongst other things can seriously affect your playing.
Starting at the beginning
Developing good technique and a mastery of the three basic sounds of the djembe is essential to playing a good accompaniment. Traditionally a player will start with first accompaniment and progress to the more difficult second and perhaps third accompaniments over time. Some will go on to become soloists, others will keep playing accompaniment, like in all forms of music. The same can also be said for Kenkeni/Kersedeni drum from the dunun family which makes a constant pattern without variation, unlike the Sanban (tenor) or dununba (big dunun/bass).
Djembe, it’s like Shakespeare, kind of.
My first teacher Tomas Camara from the Djoliba in Guinea often spoke of technique and the basic patterns as the ABC or alphabet of rhythm, after this, more complex rhythms were about memory and solos the expression of your own creativity. You may know how to recite Shakespeare, but who wants listen if you have a dull monotone voice.
I would like to go over some of the basics of good technique. Your school teacher was right when they told you sit up straight in class. Being seated correctly or standing correctly when playing your drum is very important. You should get a drum to suit your size typically with a 12” or larger head for an adult. If you are standing you should have a cross-over style strap that distributes the weight of the drum well. Especially when standing you should avoid leaning over the drum. Instead sit/stand up straight and let the hands/elbows do the work.
There are several styles of techniques for playing djembe. Amid the confusing array of youtube lessons out there it can be difficult to discern the good from the bad. Personally I suggest being economical with your movements to develop speed and to be loose and get the hands away from the drum in order to develop a clear sound. Think of the drum as a hot plate, get your hands away (there are advanced techniques that use muted notes, but we will get there later). I like to use the analogy of bouncing a basketball. When you are standing up straight and bouncing the ball you can maintain a slow but steady bounce, if you lean down and shorten the travel space between the ground and your hand the ball will naturally bounce faster.
Djembe Technique – Posture
Sitting Down with your djembe
Sit down at a good level on your chair with the drum between your knees. Tilt the drum slightly away from you so that the sound can escape through the sound hole at the bottom.
Position for playing djembe
Your arm should fall at a natural angle, if you have to scrunch up your shoulders to reach the drum then your seat is too low or the drum is too big. The playing surface of the drum is really like a slice of a pie that uses approx. one third of the drums surface. If you focus within this area you will already be more economical with your movement.
Djembe Technique – Sounds of the djembe
Bass note of the djembe
Often the essential reference point of a rhythm when we start to play. The bass is achieved by hitting the drum with a flat hand and closed fingers in the centre of the drum, removing the hand quickly to allow the sound to resonate.
Tone note of the djembe
On the side of the drum we have the tone and slap. The tone is achieved by hitting the drum on the edge with the fingers up to the point where they join the palm of the hand (personally I play about a cm into the hand). The fingers are closed and all parts of the finger hit the drum at approx. the same time. Again it is important for the hand to leave the drum quickly to allow the sound to escape.
Many players focus on getting their slaps right, and there are a variety of different slaps. However, tone is the earthiest sound of the drum, to me a woody sound that reflects the marriage of the tree and hide. At the very beginning of our playing we often hear only a definition of the rim note and bass, achieving a good tone will naturally set itself apart from the other sounds.
Slap note of the djembe
Here is where you may find varying suggestions, with ideas of cupping hands, sideways swiping motions etc.. These ideas may be present, but it’s equally possible that they emerged from a mix of other drumming styles. For example Kpanlogo players from Ghana use a cupping motion that they have brought to djembe playing when it was introduced there.
In my own technique the tone and slap are in a very similar place and the difference of sound is created by a slight intonation of the hand. With the hand slightly angled back (very slightly), the hand will hit the side of the drum at the point where fingers meet hand (again some go further into the hand for the slap). As the fingers are loose and relaxed they will continue to travel and the tips of the fingers will hit the drum making a kind of lashing movement. Teachers tend to exaggerate the movement to explain the difference between tone and slap, but really it is quite a subtle difference.
I would say go in slightly into the hand for very large or low tuned drums to achieve good definition. Many teachers demonstrate that the fingers should be splayed far apart, but again with good djembe technique good sound definition can be achieved through slighter movement.
Djembe Technique – Exercises to develop you djembe sounds.
Finally here are some of my favorite exercises to develop your djembe sounds. Make sure to only proceed to a higher tempo once you have gained clear sound definition.
Thanks for reading. I wish you well on your djembe adventure.