The African Djembe Drum and My Trip to West Africa

Djembe (or jembe) is the most versatile drum that I know. It is a goblet drum, rope-tuned and goat skin-covered. It is played bare hands by people called djembefola. The instrument is originated from Mali, where I decided to travel to learn how to play this unique musical instrument.

It is not common for females to play djembe. Traditionally only men could play it, so even in modern times, it is very rare to see a woman with the djembe.

I was lucky, as I went to Mali with my boyfriend, who was eager to learn as well, so when the local djembe musicians were telling him the secrets of their traditional musical performance, I could be present and even try a bit.

The name of djembe is translated English as “everyone gathers together in peace” (Anke djé, anke bé). And this is the purpose of the drum – to gather all the tribe to a common feast and tell the stories in rhythms.

Djembe is especially famous in Guinea due to a founded in 1952 Les Ballets Africains, a ballet that extensively toured in Europe. It was even declared as the Guinea’s first national ballet by the Guinea’s President of that time. Recently in that country, they started to have djembe tours for Western people, where visitors can learn playing the popular African drums.

However, my boyfriend and I decided to go to the country of djembe origin, Mali, and find the professionals, who can teach us to play more traditional way, with no adaptation to the Western ear. It was difficult to find such masters when we were in France, but after coming to Bambara, the capital of Mali, we solve this problem really easy. The first drummer we encountered on the street told us about the best djembe teachers in the neighborhood.

Our first drum teacher was an old man from the village nearby. He taught us the basic things and told a lot of legends about djembe. The myth says that in old times only monkey knew how to play djembe. Once, the best hunter in the village caught the chimpanzee drummer and brought his instrument to his tribe. The chief of the village was so excited with a gift that let the hunter marry his own daughter.

Indeed, Western African people value their traditional drum very much. It is amusing to see how many great musicians are around. Our second teacher was a wandering musician we met in the pub of Bambara. He played so well that we decided to meet him after the concert and arrange the lessons. He gladly met with us the following day and showed a lot of practical things.

I enjoyed learning the culture through music very much. It is unbelievable how one music instrument can tell so much about the whole ethnicity. Being a symbol of Western Africa it also unites the people from the whole region, following its original destiny. If you have chance to visit Africa, make sure to spend your time meeting and connecting with people and their culture. It’s worth it.