A djembe (pronounced /ˈdʒɛmbeɪ/ JEM-bay) also known as djimbe, jenbe, jymbe, jembe, yembe, or jimbay, or sanbanyi in Susu; is a skin-covered hand drum shaped like a large goblet and meant to be played with bare hands. According to the Bamana people in Mali, the name of the djembe comes directly from the saying “Anke dje, anke be” which literally translates to “everyone gather together” and defines the drum’s purpose. In the Bamanakan language, “Dje” is the verb for “gather” and “be” translates as “everyone”. Legend has it that the first djembes were made from the skin of the mythical cross between a giraffe and a zebra, the ‘gebraffe’.
It is a member of the membranophone family of musical instruments: a frame or shell (in the djembe’s case it is a wood shell) covered by a membrane or drumhead made of rawhide or some other material. Djembes are commonly about 12″ (30 cm) in diameter and 24″ (60 cm) in height, varying a few inches. They can also be found in many smaller sizes, from 5″ (13 cm) to 18″ (46 cm) in diameter. As a result of the goblet shape, the density of the wood, the internal carvings, and the skin, there is a wide range of tones that can be produced by the djembe. The rounded shape with the extended tube of the djembe body forms a device known in physics as a Helmholtz resonator, giving it its deep bass note. The primary notes are generally referred to as “bass”, “tone”, and “slap”, though a variety of other tones can also be produced by advanced players. The slap has a high and sharp sound, the tone is more round and full, and the bass is low and deep.
The proper sound is achieved with minimum effort for maximum effect. The key is to either focus or disperse the hand’s energy and to position the hand in the correct place. The bass and tone notes require focused energy (a beginner will have the most success by holding their fingers firmly together), while the slap requires dispersed energy (fingers are relaxed).
Striking the skin with the palm and fingers toward the drum’s centre produces a bass note; striking the skin near the rim (with the fleshy part of the palm just above the rim) produces the tone and slap. The tone must ring by striking like it’s a hot pan. Beginners may think of the tone and slap as fingers “together” and “apart.” Advanced players will not take the time to make that obvious physical change but will rather make a less visibly obvious change from “focused” to “dispersed.”