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Red Tweneboa Djembe Review
   Tue Jan 01, 2013 5:53 am

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Red Tweneboa Djembe Review

Permanent Linkby michi on Tue Jan 01, 2013 5:53 am

Way back in March 2009, we had a discussion on Ghanaian djembes. This was followed in August 2010 by a similar discussion.

The upshot of these threads is that a number of experienced drum makers and players expressed doubt about the quality of Ghanaian djembes, the majority of which are made of a wood called Tweneboa. That wood is very pale (almost white) in color, has a spongy texture and low weight, and is very soft (soft enough to make a dent with a finger nail). In my opinion, (white) Tweneboa is utterly unsuitable for djembes. All the Tweneboa djembes I ever dealt with sound anaemic, lack overtones, and don't achieve proper volume. I would prefer an Indonesian mahogany or teak djembe over one made of Tweneboa any day.

Then, in May 2012, Benjamin Aidueno (aiduneo), the owner of West African Djembe, re-opened the topic. Some of his drums are made from wood known as red Tweneboa, and Benjamin claimed that these have far superior sound. Seeing that there really was no way to settle the matter other than by actually getting my hands on one of those drums, I suggested to Benjamin that he send me a shell, I would build it, and then report back on my impressions. (Due to quarantine restrictions, it is impossible to import a completed drum into Australia, so there was no option other than for me to assemble the drum locally.) Benjamin took me up on the challenge, and this is my (long overdue) report.


What is red Tweneboa?

The Latin species name for Tweneboa is Cordia platythyrsa. The tree occurs all over West Africa, including Ghana, Guinea, and Côte d'Ivoire (among other countries). The tree grows to 30 m in height, with a diameter of 1 m. Tweneboa is available in three different grades: white, yellow, and red. The different grades come from the same tree; white Tweneboa from the top section, yellow Tweneboa from the middle section, and red Tweneboa from the section near the bottom.

Obviously, the wood near the bottom of the tree is oldest and has the most weight to carry. This means that the wood is harder and denser than wood from the middle or top section. In theory, this also should make it more suitable as a djembe wood. (The density and hardness of the wood plays a big role in giving a djembe its voice; traditional djembe woods, such as Lenke, are at the upper end of of the hardness and density scales.)


Pricing and shipping

After I contacted Benjamin, he offered to send me a shell for review free of charge. I explained that I was more than happy to pay for the shell, which cost US$ 35.00, plus US$ 100.00 for (air mail) shipping. Obviously, if ordered in larger quantities and sent by sea freight, shipping charges would come down considerably per shell. You can contact Benjamin (who also runs his own freight forwarding business) via his website for wholesale pricing.

I ordered the shell on 18 June 2012. Benjamin got the shell posted two days later, and I received it well packaged and without any damage four weeks after that. Benjamin was very prompt in answering my questions and staying in touch via email. He also sent good-quality photos of the shell before I placed the order.


The shell

Here are two images of the shell, taken as soon as I received it.

Raw shell 2.JPG
Raw shell, heartwood side
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Raw shell.JPG
Raw shell, sapwood side
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Overall, the shape is in the Guinea style, but with a slightly rounded bottom and a small floating bottom ring, rather than the more common large bottom ring that sits in a carved ledge to hold it in place. The taper of the bowl is slightly stronger than for many contemporary Guinea shells (which often have almost vertical sides). Personally, I would have preferred to see the taper be a little less pronounced or, at least, to have the top section of the bowl closer to the vertical. Not because it would affect the sound but because, with a less severe taper, the rings stay closer to the sides of the bowl as the drum is tuned and the rings move down. Having said this, the amount of taper is perfectly acceptable and in no way affects the tuning of the drum.

Unfortunately, in the rush to get the shell to me, Benjamin forgot to include rings, so I ended up having to weld a set of rings myself. Benjamin assures me that this was an oversight and that his shells normally ship with rings as a matter of course.

The shell was entirely made of heartwood, except for a patch of sapwood on one side of the bowl. The sapwood extends only a few millimetres into the thickness of the bowl and there are no traces of it visible from inside. Structurally, this patch of sapwood is of no concern whatsoever; many people prefer shells with some sapwood because it adds interest to the look of the drum. Overall, the wood is a reddish dark brown with nice grain similar Gueni, but less dramatic.

I found minor splitting in the sapwood section, indicating that the shell still contained some residual moisture when I received it. These splits are caused by the shell being carved slightly off-center from the heart of the tree, so the growth rings intersect the edge of the shell at a very acute angle at the point where the edge of the drum is furthest away from the true center of the log. You can see the splits in the image, showing how the top layers of wood separated a little during drying.

Splits.JPG
Minor splitting in the sapwood
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Note that the angle at which I took the photo makes the splits appear much worse than they were. I could have built the shell as it was without any concern at all. Seeing that this was a demonstration project, I decided to seal the splits with epoxy, as shown below.

Split repair.JPG
Splits sealed with epoxy
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Wall thickness of the shell is much the same as any traditional djembe made from Lenke or Gueni, around 2 cm near the top of the bowl and around 2.5 cm at the bottom of the foot. This is in stark contrast to shells made from white Tweneboa, which have a wall thickness of 4-5 cm. The very soft white wood necessitates a thick wall to stop the bowl from collapsing during tuning. (Tuned to solo pitch, an average-size djembe requires around 500 kg of tension.)

The shell had no bearing edge and was simply cut off at the top. I prefer to shape the bearing edge myself, so this was fine with me. I have no doubt that Benjamin could also provide shells with an already-shaped bearing edge on request. Both bottom and top edge were perfectly level and at right angles to the axis of the drum.

The hole in the waist has appropriate dimensions (just large enough to fit a closed fist through the hole), and the bowl was nicely hollowed out, with a nearly horizontal section near the edge of the hole. (There was none of the lazy carving that I see on so many Ghanaian drums, which leaves the bowl in essentially a funnel shape.)

The interior of the bowl and foot have a very regular and clean spiral pattern carved into it, just as you would see on a top-quality shell from Guinea. In addition, the shell came treated with shea butter, so there was no need for me to apply an extra coat of oil. Moreover, the shea butter had been applied carefully, so there was no coating of excess fat on the shell. (Many drums from Guinea are over-treated with shea butter, which leaves a layer of residue that can attract bacterial or fungal growth over time and needs to be removed before building the drum.) Overall, full marks for quality of carving and craftsmanship here. I really cannot fault the shape and interior finish in any way.

Spiral.JPG
Bowl interior
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The outside of the shell is made just as well, with a very smooth (about to 80-grade sandpaper) surface finish. That is considerably better than the finish of many Guinea and Mali shells I receive. The carving on the foot is absolutely impeccable. Perfectly regular spacing, with clean, sharp edges and corners. No slip of the chisel or any other blemish here.

Carving.JPG
Carving
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On close inspection, I found very faint perfectly horizontal tool marks around the foot and the bowl. This suggests that the shell was almost certainly made on a lathe, with the interior surface texture applied afterwards. Personally, I have no problem with the use of modern tools for shell manufacture. For one, it eliminates the need to painstakingly shape the shell with hand tools (which is back-breakingly hard labor). Second, it ensures that the shell is perfectly round, at least initially; there may still be a slight deformation of the bowl as the shell dries after it is made.

In size, the shell is what I would call medium, with 34 cm (14.4") in diameter and 61 cm (24") in height.

One noteworthy point is the weight of the shell. Without rings, the shell weighed in at 5.3 kg. This is extremely light for a full-size drum. For comparison, a Lenke shell of the same size and thickness typically weighs around 9 kg, and a Gueni shell around 10 kg. So, this shell is truly a flyweight as far as djembes go, lighter even than Indonesian mahogany shells (which weigh around 7.5 kg for the same size, due to their much thicker walls).


Build experience

I decided to leave the shell alone for a few weeks, to allow the wood to acclimatise and dry out completely. During drying, the wood shrinks, which causes the bowl to slightly decrease in diameter. If a shell is not allowed to dry fully, rings that initially have a perfect fit turn out to be slightly too large once the bowl has dried completely.

The surface finish of the shell was definitely good enough to build the drum as is. However, I was curious as to what sort of finish I could achieve by sanding and polishing the shell with wax, so I went to work with my sander. During sanding, it quickly became obvious that, despite being harder than white Tweneboa, red Tweneboa is not a true hardwood. I frequently had to change sandpaper because the softer sanding dust quickly clogged the paper. The task was made more difficult by the shea butter treatment, which caused the sawdust to adhere to everything (including my hands and clothes) in an oily layer. This is in contrast to a true hardwood, which produces dry sawdust that does not clog the paper as quickly.

I kept sanding down to 400-grade paper, at which point I decided to stop. Sanding with still finer 800- and 1200- grade would have been infeasible given the soft wood and would have used far too much of my time (and sandpaper). Overall, the sanding exercise did improve the finish and grain, especially after polishing the shell with wax (see below). Despite my best efforts, it proved impossible though to get the same beautiful silky sheen that I get by sanding a true hardwood (such as Gueni) with 1200-grade paper and polishing it.

Finished shell.JPG
Finished shell after polishing
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The relative softness of the wood also was evident when I shaped the bearing edge. Shaping the edge was quick and easy work; I completed the task in about two-thirds of the time it would have taken with a Gueni shell. The image below shows the completed bearing edge.

Bearing edge.JPG
Completed bearing edge
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Skin and finishing

I asked Benjamin about what thickness of skin to use, and he was adamant that I would get the best sound with a thick skin, so I picked the thickest Guinea skin I could find in my stash. Not a super-thick skin, but on the thick side of medium (or the thin side of thick, if you prefer). That skin was a little small, so I finished the drum in the Mali trimmed-off style instead of the Guinea fold-over style.

I built the drum with 32 loops, using a double-loop cow hitch on the crown ring to prevent the skin from slipping.

I tuned the drum gradually over two weeks, to give the skin time to settle in and stretch slowly. Before mounting the skin, I pre-stretched very thoroughly, both to prevent the rings from coming down too low, and to soften the skin so it would play in more quickly.

Completed drum.JPG
Completed drum
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Sound

This is the most difficult part of this review, seeing that sound impressions are subjective and that much of the sound of a djembe is due to the individual skin. In my opinion, a good 40% of the sound of a djembe depends on the skin. (I have had all of my personal shells sound fantastic with one skin and only so-so with another skin.) Given that I have only one data point for this shell, it is impossible to generalize.

I've attached a recording of the drum. Keep in mind that I do not have professional recording equipment or an appropriate studio, so the recording is only of amateur quality and can only give a rough impression. (I find that, even with professional recording equipment and an excellent stereo system, no recording can do justice to the sound of a djembe anyway.) Also remember that I am not a professional player and someone with better technique will be able to extract better sound. For what it's worth, I made the recording with a Sony PCM-M10 portable recorder at a distance of 1 m, with the recorder set about 15 cm below head height. I took the recording after playing the drum for about eight hours, so the skin is not properly played in yet, and the sound will continue to improve over the next few weeks.

Tweneboa sound sample.mp3
Tweneboa sound sample
(1.29 MB) Downloaded 13376 times

My first impression when I played the drum was "nice, good tones, slightly long sustain in the bass, not much ringing, and not many overtones in the slaps. Not particularly loud."

That first impression captured the essence, but I found that the sound improved considerably after playing the drum more and getting more stretch out of the skin. In particular, the extra tuning reduced the sustain of the bass and brought more sharpness and liveliness to the slaps without causing the tones to lose their darkness.

The extra tuning also improved the volume of the drum. Subjectively, I'd classify the loudness as "slightly above normal" (with "normal" being a good-quality Guinea drum made from a traditional wood). The drum doesn't achieve quite the same projection as a traditional shell (but is not on the whimpy side as far as volume is concerned either).

The other thing I noticed is that the overtone spectrum of the slaps does not reach quite as far as with my other Guinea drums (Djalla and Lenke). In comparison, the slaps sound a little more "one-dimensional" and not quite as rich. It is likely that much of this is due to the particular skin (and it not being played in completely). I suspect though that the slightly lower volume and reduced overtone spectrum are at least in part caused by the softer wood. This lines up with my experience of the harder and denser woods being both louder and creating a richer overtone spectrum.


Verdict

I took the drum to a jam session with a few friends, all experienced players. The verdict unanimously was "that sounds very nice." We compared the drum to a bunch of others we had around, from medium quality to top-notch professional quality, and it held up remarkably well. While it couldn't match the sound of an MK signature series, Drumskull, or Wula, it was well above average quality, and people were more than happy to play it.

Overall, I'd say this is a good drum, and I would be happy to play it regularly. I have heard numerous drums from Mali and Guinea that did not sound as good (while having also heard many that sounded better). So, when compared to drums made from a traditional wood, I'd say that this djembe sits somewhere in the middle. Definitely not bad, but also not outstanding.

Given the low density of the wood, a fairer comparison is to play the drum side-by-side with an Indonesian copy. Here, there is a clear winner. The Tweneboa shell sounded better than anything I have heard from Indonesia, with better projection and better overtone spectrum, despite its lower weight.

The low weight (5.6 kg including rope and rings) is a stand-out factor. Many people (especially women) prefer a light-weight drum. If you want something that is easy to lug around, this drum fits the bill perfectly while making only a small compromise on sound. On the down-side, when played standing up, the drum is a little too light for my taste; there isn't quite enough mass in the shell to stop it from moving too much when played standing.

In terms of craftsmanship, the quality of carving and finish are excellent, better than that of many drums I see from Mali or Guinea.

Finally, on price, this drum compares very favourably to shells made from a traditional wood. If you are looking for a drum that provides good sound at a budget price, you should take a closer look.

Michi.
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Last edited by michi on Fri Jun 28, 2013 9:16 pm, edited 12 times in total.

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Comments

RE: Red Tweneboa Djembe Review

Permanent Linkby aiduenu on Thu Jan 03, 2013 11:06 am

michi wrote:
The Latin species name for Tweneboa is Cordia platythyrsa. The tree occurs all over West Africa, including Ghana, Guinea, and Côte d'Ivoire (among other countries). The tree grows to 30 m in height, with a diameter of 1 m. Tweneboa is available in three different grades: white, yellow, and red. The different grades come from the same tree; white Tweneboa from the top section, yellow Tweneboa from the middle section, and red Tweneboa from the section near the bottom.


Michi.


Point of correction

As you rightly said twineaboa has 3 types red/dark, Yellow and white. but in my life time i have never seen a single twineboah tree with 3 colors as indicate from your review from en.wikipedia.org this is a nwes to me by the way what i know for sure is that, Red/dark twineboa come from an old single male tree which will be about 10-35year or more, and can grown between 30-45m by height and 1-4m in diameter, and you can be identify it by the looks of the leaves, the leaves of the male tweniboah has bigger with rededish color at the top of the tree whereby the yellow twineaboah also comes from one old female single tree and it also can be identify by the looks of leaves smaller sizes and also with yellowish color at the top of the tree.
White tweniboah always come from a young twineboah tree which is about 2-3years old not fully grown tree and mostly very soft.



michi wrote:On close inspection, I found very faint perfectly horizontal tool marks around the foot and the bowl. This suggests that the shell was almost certainly made on a lathe, with the interior surface texture applied afterwards. Personally, I have no problem with the use of modern tools for shell manufacture. For one, it eliminates the need to painstakingly shape the shell with hand tools (which is back-breakingly hard labor). Second, it ensures that the shell is perfectly round, at least initially; there may still be a slight deformation of the bowl as the shell dries after it is made.


Michi.



Well my drums are 99.8% hand made we do every construction by hand and we do use sander to do the sanding, I have never ever use lathe machine in production and all my client who has paid me a visit to my workshop will bare me a witness. Maybe the tool mark you see could have come from the way we sand the drums during production.
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Re: Red Tweneboa Djembe Review

Permanent Linkby michi on Fri Jan 04, 2013 10:00 am

Thanks for the clarification Benjamin. So you are saying that red and yellow might come from one tree, and yellow and white from another, depending on age? I wasn't aware that the same tree doesn't produce all three colors of wood. I didn't get the information from Wikipedia, by the way. Instead, it comes from this post:

http://launch.dir.groups.yahoo.com/grou ... sage/18921

As I said in my review, I can't know for certain whether the shell was made on a lathe. All I noticed were a few faint perfectly horizontal tool marks, such as you would get when turning a shell on a lathe. But, as you say, it's entirely possible for the marks to have come from the sanding. The marks are only visible if you look very closely, and in no way detract from the beauty of the shell. And, as I said, I have no problem with lathe-turned shells. I see no reason why you couldn't make them that way. They'd certainly turn out perfectly round and, adding the interior texture later will work just as well.

At any rate, I got a fine shell from you, and I have to say that I'm surprised and very pleased at how well the drum turned out!

Michi.
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Re: Red Tweneboa Djembe Review

Permanent Linkby Kaitaro on Sun Jan 06, 2013 11:27 am

The recording sounded good. Nice review. Good looking djembe.
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Re: Red Tweneboa Djembe Review

Permanent Linkby bubudi on Mon Aug 05, 2013 12:13 am

great work on the review michi, and congratulations to benjamin. red tweneboa drums of this caliber should definitely be a consideration for people on a budget or looking to get their first drum, or to anyone looking for a good lightweight alternative.

benjamin, what percentage of the price of the drum, approximately, do the carvers get by your estimate? also, are these tweneboa trees being replaced in the forest after they are cut down, please?
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Re: Red Tweneboa Djembe Review

Permanent Linkby drtom on Fri Aug 04, 2017 5:40 am

A very thorough and excellent review. Thank you.
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