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[EDIT: I'm not sure how I feel about this topic now. I'll leave the thread up since others posted to it, but I'm realizing that high tuning isn't up for debate, it's the standard now. I feel silly for posting it. Although the points I made are still accurate, it's beside the point because it's not where the music is at. I'll try tuning my drum back up and see if I get used to it. Maybe it needs a new skin or a slightly different pitch to sound it's best.]

This topic is a tangent from another thread, so to avoid threadjacking I started a new one.
It was inspired by a couple things The Kid said about high tuned djembes which made me wonder:

Is the high tuning thing a fad? (I mean how it seems to have become the norm to crank them until they sound really loud and bright and crisp automatically)
Could it be similar to how music sped up in the early part of the last century? (when people favored loud brash instruments like trumpets)

Any thoughts? I was very drawn to the high sound from videos on youtube, until I actually cranked mine up. At first I was like "ahh finally it sounds legit" then I was like "hey wait a minute, where'd all the expression go? and people like this? ....really?! "
To be clear, I didn't crank it until the bass disappeared - it was there, in fact it exploded all the more, but wasn't as rich, round, full or deep, lost sustain, and it was kind of meh. The tones and slaps were loud and bright and clear, but not as adjustable or chewy or interesting.

The Kid mentioned the concept of high tuning being like creaming off the top.
It makes it easy to get that thunderous sound, but I can get plenty of that sound out of my drum on medium tuning with accurate playing. The thing is, I can get other sounds too. Whereas on high tuning there's not a lot of room to maneuver, it's got less range, and less nuance. It's always crisp.

On the flip side, I like medium tuning better than low tuning, if I had to pick.
It's got a bit less range and bass, but it's more clear, more resonant, and projects better, and I think it hits a good balance between the two extremes, versatile and flexible.

I'm not saying high tuning doesn't have a place. I dig the roll of a cranked djembe in a loud drum circle. It's fun. But I wonder if it's becoming expected to crank djembes up (they come sold like that now) and if so, what the harm is to the music?
The Kid mentioned that it's good to practice both, but what about beginners who get a cranked Djembe to start with and learn to think that's how it's meant to be?
Last edited by batadunbata on Sun Aug 20, 2017 7:09 am, edited 1 time in total.
I think the forum is stuffed with exactly this discussion, distributed in many threads.

The music has gotten much louder, higher, and faster over time. I think the reasons have to be found in technical developments and modern needs or taste, since it reflects a general development in this world.

First there is the development of the iron djembe. Those old leather djembes with skin attached to the shell with leather rope that had to be warmed on a fire were much lower tuned. There are many instances from early recordings were the solo drum is tuned lower than the accompanying drum and my hypothesis is that low is, very generally speaking, more important than high in most of West African music because the njamas, the ghosts, reside in the earth and not in heaven. But the kid will give me a hard time with this hypothesis, so I move on to other points here :)

Rainer Polak writes about the last leather djembe player of Bamako, Namory Keita, who refused to use the iron djembe (with rings) exactly because of the effect you described. For him, the possibilities and subtleties of the sound of a djembe got lost (old kora players also complain that much of the warm sound characteristics get lost when you use pegs for tuning the chords, BTW) - so Namory Keita wouldn't even like your djembe much, he would think it's way to high! The thing is that in languages where the difference in tune can provide different meanings to a word, the sensitivity for tune is much higher. The same is true e.g. for China, where many more music students have absolute hearing than in the West. Since djembe music "speaks", i.e. reflects the language of the djembefola in Africa, the range of expression is not just one of musical taste, but of necessity, whereas most of my own students do not even give much importance in decently differentiated tones and slaps.

With the iron djembe, tuning became an issue. Another development were the ballets, where bigger ensembles made it more difficult for the soloist to be noticed. They played for a different audience, as well, and in the West higher sounds are more important than lower. So a high tuned djembe got more attention, as you were immediately drawn to those videos on youtube.

The same development took place in feast music in Bamako. The ballet musicians there also did play with there djembes on feasts and in addition did compete with the djeli musow, the griotte singers, for attention and money. The higher tuned djembes shifted more in the range of those singers who stroke back with megaphones, which made even higher tuned djembes necessary. The incorporation of Western amplified electronic instruments even added to this. When there is an arms race, subtleties of expression are the first victims.
Last edited by djembefeeling on Thu Aug 17, 2017 10:27 am, edited 1 time in total.
It is a development due to the advances in materials and mounting techniques. It gives players ability to create more volume and more clean distinctive sounds. Some can say the spectrum of sound is diminished as the tune goes up but the possibility of hyper fast playing with crazy skills presents itself too.

When you hear the Mansa Camio style stuff it is low tuned djembes and village style drumming more so. It is all about the rhythm and the bass structure and the development in the music of rhythm families. In that sense it is more rhythmically sophisticated imo even though it is the older style.

Some more modern playing is based around speeding up the rhythm and then making blistering fast solos to woo everyone and keep the dancers happy with very energetic fast pace. The lead soloist is driving the other players to keep up and support his soloing. It is an impressive experiment in sound really. Pushing the limit of endurance and strength as players. It can get samey as the actual structure and swing/ feeling of the under lying rhythm is lost as the rhythm speeds up. I think space should exist is any music which is to become timeless and unique. I guess the transient nature should be considered too. We can't capture experience. Similarly we can't say music was better 50 years ago because they used low tuned djembes. We simply don't have any tools to compare. I would think todays standards are pretty high really.

Speed and more skill and expression is a development in other instruments like Balafon, kora etc. In Aly Keita's village the bala was used on occasions during the year. The kids weren't allowed play as it was a sacred instrument for these occasions. So the kids went to the elders as they wanted to learn and play the balafon. The elders showing there wisdom, decided to break tradition and build the kids some balas and teach them how to play. Now Aly is world renowned Musician. People like him who train every day excel and may surpass the original ceremonial playing which inspired him.

Same with Tiomani Diabate and his son. They are developing the sound handed to them and adding and enriching it. Tiomani admits sometimes he is suprised by the virtuosity of the sons playing and claims not to be able to do some of the tricks he has developed. But he also lets the son know that there is a lot he doesn't know and understand and must train hard before Tiomani teaches him more. Kora is a complicated instrument i would think plus the whole Djeli repertoire of music and storys must be massive. I have seen some clips where Sidiki's jaw dropped watching Tiomani. The mutual respect is something special anyways.

Also looking at the Bala and Krin playing , speed is fun and makes people happy and gets people moving. I'd have to say speed in African music is traditional. I see today as unique as we all get to experience a little bit of everything and can hear sounds from all over the world and get really into music traditions if we want. Expecting a tradition to stay rigid and not change or develop new styles is counter productive. The original system would not have been created with such a dogmatic approach. Still it's nice and important to preserve traditions and enjoy new emulations at the same time.
my hypothesis is that low is, very generally speaking, more important than high in most of West African music because the njamas, the ghosts, reside in the earth and not in heaven. But the kid will give me a hard time with this hypothesis, so I move on to other points here
I'd say that is an interesting concept. I'd like to hear more to understand the theory. I don't know anything about the Njamas or West African Spirit lore. Similarly though in Ireland in folk lore the spirits are seen as residing in the underground and hills, and caves and water sources are entrances to the kingdom. When Christianity took over they changed some names, like they would call a sacred source of a river as the devils mother, rather than the fertile women as the pagans saw. You couldn't have people worship something that represented a part of a womans body especially not the forbidden fruit, now could you. The change saw people worship in day light rather than night time too. The moon got demoted and sunday was for worship. You could work for the land lord the rest of the The concept of one God would supersede the older concepts of spirits.

I would think huge changes in belief systems happened in West Africa with the Islamic concept of one God taking over from the animists view of many gods or spirits. I can't imagine the animists did just say that spirits resided underground. I have a feeling in the stories from Ireland that the spirits were banished to the underground by the Christians or the spirits being underground was a metaphor.

So i would have though the older religions of West Africa would look upwards and have many stories relating to the sky moon and stars and a concept of highness. I don't see that system as grounded really. But maybe you are right. I don't disagree with you just trying to look at it from different perspectives to see how logical it is.

Moving on, the mono cord is pretty high tuned and is seen as a sorcerers instrument or something which communicates with spirits. I'm pretty sure i heard that in the 'visit to Ali Farka' documentary. You should check that anyways, some good spiels on the Spirits in the River, ceremonies and possession.

I would have though the eye of horus on top of a pyramid would be more evidence of the theory of highness. I would have though that wouldn't be isolated conceptually from other parts of Africa back in the long ago. Sure one of the Mande kings tipped of to Mecca on holidays. He nearly bankrupted Egypt on the way throwing gold around.

I read Nigeria had a Cow God in the sky who birthed humanity from the Milky-way, The Dogons theories would also be looking upwards so really i would think it was acknowledged as spiritual up there. It's hard for me to imagine people who were out hunting at night and whatever not considering the space above as a spiritual place really considering they saw spirits in the earth. It would not be much of a stretch really.
Of course, things are not extremely one sided. Without high there is no low, without low there is no high. You have to exaggerate for clarity when you cut things short.

Centuries of islamasation of West African societies did for sure change a lot. But it used to be a moderate and tolerant form of Islam, animism was still in place in all things of tradition like feasts and drumming. Almost everything on ground is spirited, has spirits, places, trees, animals - just the things that made an impact on peoples lives. I think the concept of an abstract heaven we strive for in Christianity is mostly alien to West African cultures. But I know too little about them to be sure.

In the end, African dance movements tend to be down to earth while our ballet dance tends to go high, arpeggios here usually go from low to high while on kora it's usually the other way round. And my hyothesis is that the tone is, or at least used to be, the basic sound of the djembe, not the slap. But to avoid thread hijack, let's return to batas question.
batadunbata wrote: what about beginners who get a cranked Djembe to start with and learn to think that's how it's meant to be?
We did discuss that as well. It has both advantages and disadvantages. It is easier to generate clear sounds out of a cranked djembe, but they are hard on your fingers and hurt. In the end, most beginners prefer not so high a tuning, they love the bass most. I think the tuning is not as important a question for beginners as to talk them into the one or the other. It is more important they go with what they like.
I agree with both of you, many good points, thank you for contributing your thoughts.
As a side note on balafons, I notice djembe easily drowns out balafon playing. Dissonance seems to win out over clear notes, so djembe has to be played carefully to complement balafon IMO.

I apologize if this topic has been covered repeatedly. I have read multiple posts about it, but it struck me after I tuned mine up and I lost so much subtlety, I was kind of shocked that it's become common to do so.

I knew that the iron rings are new, so they used to be lower, and they tuned by fire every 30 minutes or so, etc.
So it's all nontraditional at this point. And relative.
But it evolves, as The Kid pointed out. And part of evolving is noticing what effect changes have.

So what I'm getting at, I suppose, is the idea that in general tuning has gone a bit too far, and lost ability to be a highly expressive versatile instrument.

Sure, the djembe is not a kora, the kora is much more flexibly expressive, but a medium tuned djembe can speak more than a high tuned one, and yet still "be heard" in a large setting, if space is allowed by the other players. So it seems like a big loss to go past that point, to me.
djembefeeling wrote:And my hyothesis is that the tone is, or at least used to be, the basic sound of the djembe, not the slap.
This might in a way sum up what I'm getting at. Sure, you can crank it up, and just play bass/tone/slap, and have a good time, but there is also a world of depth and communication in tone variations. It's where the drum speaks in my experience. (I'm not sure I would even differentiate tones and slaps in this aspect, as slaps are just a form of tones IMO. I think of the slap dynamic as a kind of effect, and you can use a lot or a little, for emphasis and variety etc. Just like when adjusting force of strike for loudness, and adjusting the time before pullback for sustain. At first it's important to practice differentiating, to develop sensitivity and control, but after that theres a range between the two extremes to explore.)

With the trend toward wider diameter, higher tuned, Guinean style djembes, projection and differentiation between tone/slap/bass has been amplified, while differences in tones has been reduced. I'm not arguing Malian vs Guinean, or tone vs projection. I love both. But if the crowd goes too far in one direction, eventually people forget where they started out and what was lost on the way.
I hear a lot of djembe playing, and I mean most, where tone variation is almost nonexistent. It's usually just bass/tone/slap. Ok, more skilled players will use a couple different main tones, and a high rim tone, and slightly adjust the force of the bass or slap strikes, but that's often the extent of it. Which is a great place for a beginner transitioning to intermediate, or dance rhythms. But there's more to djembe than that.