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How small of a djembe? - Djembefola - Djembe Forum

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User avatar
By Marc_M
Hi everyone -

I am looking to buy a small practice djembe that I can take on extended trips without taking up too much room. I bought a small djembe last summer, but I find that there is a bass overtone that tends to ring overtop when I play tones and slaps. I have found the same of many other small djembes as well.

Apart from the obvious size matters jokes, my question is how small a djembe can one go before losing the benefit of distinct sounds? (assuming I have an average adult sized hand for a man). Are skins other than goat better, or less so?

Any experience and advice would be helpful.

Thanks :)
User avatar
By michi
Somewhere around 12" is when things tend to go bad and I would not go smaller than that for good sound. Once you go smaller, the bass tends to pretty much disappear, and the bass frequency moves up so far that you get sympathetic vibrations at the tone frequency. This means that tones always have some bass in them, and basses always have some tone in them.

Smaller than 12" also makes it difficult to play with clean technique with adult-size hands—you tend to get too crowded.

For height, I would draw the line at 22". Any shorter than that, and drum tends to disappear between your knees when you play it sitting down, so you have to rest it on some support to get it to proper playing height.

In my personal opinion, goat skin sounds better than synthetic skin. But, for a travel djembe, synthetic skin has definite advantages: it's impervious to changes in humidity, and it will last longer than a goat skin. Synthetic skin is also more resistant to the odd knock, so it's less easily damaged.


User avatar
By freefeet
10 inch bougarabou. A good one will easily punch out more bass than a good 12 inch djembe. If you want to keep the high harmonics of a good djembe slap then put a thin goat skin on it - you won't lose the bass, it'll still sink the room.

A boug won't do what a big djembe can voice wise, but if i have to chose a small drum so far for all round performance then 10 inch boug. They rock!!!!
By Tokapelli
my drum is pretty small but i dont think it sounds bad. Everybody at the drum circle was pretty impressed with it and they have some nice drums. Its about a 9-10 inch head, only about a foot and a half tall. I have to strap it to my waist with a belt so it doesnt dissapear in between my knees but its a pretty comfortable way to play anyway. It has a pretty thick skin, and the inside of the bowl is pretty rugged too so i think that helps take the ringyness away. Its a pretty powereful little drum.
By bubudi
i agree with what michi said, but will add this clarification: unless you have smaller than average hands, you will need to make adjustments from the regular technique to get the three distinct basic sounds from a djembe that is smaller than 12". the djembes don't really lose bass when they are smaller (although the bass is higher in pitch), but the technique to play the basses with regular sized hands is different - somewhat closer to the rim, and the tones and slaps should also be closer to the rim... very soon, it will become habitual to play that way and you may find it difficult to readjust to regular djembe technique if you are not also frequently playing regular sized djembes.

the same applies to people with bigger hands - a 12" djembe would require a similar adjustment of technique for them. some big-pawed djembefolaw play djembes with 15" heads. they might also find a bit of a readjustment time when they find themselves having to play a regular sized djembe. it's good to regularly play different djembes to help you to get accustomed to the various adjustments you need to make. i find if you regularly do this, it will become automatic, and you will not need to think about it - just like the masters can play any student's drum with perfectly clean sound, no matter the size, shape of bearing edge, etc.
User avatar
By Marc_M
Thanks for posting everyone - those are very helpful. I think I will check out a few drums with everyone's input in mind.

I like Freefeet's suggestion for a bougarabou. I found a 12" dia. bougarabou at Rhythmtraders and some at Drumskull and I'll look around for a few small djembes and decide. Thanks again.

User avatar
By e2c
We're relatively fortunate compared to conga players, since congas have pretty standardized head sizes and if you want/need higher-pitched drums, you can't avoid going to a smaller overall drum and head size.

Have been watching some docus of various groups of people from Guinea (Fula, people from the forest region etc.) drumming and most of the drums these folks play have very small heads in comparison to djembes. (Kinda like the difference between the size of bongos vs. congas...)

I'd like to get a closer look at the drumming I've seen in some of these docus, including how people with different hand sizes adapt to the drum head diameters...
By Tokapelli
So a guy at the drum circle last night let me jam on his 15" djembe from Guinea, and WOW! The only drum i had played until last night was my little 10" djembe, and until last night i thought that sounded pretty good. Thats what my previous post in this thread was saying, that despite its size it was still a good djembe, and it is alright, but the difference between that and a REAL djembe is like night and day. The bass was sooooo low, it just resonated, beautiful, and the highs, CRACKIN! It was like the thing was pulling the music out of my hands, or out of the depths of my soul really. It was pretty nuts, im going to have to make an investment i guess. Ive heard those drums played before of course, but i had to play it to really feel the difference. So sorry for speaking too soon about my little drum, i didnt even consider the fact that i didnt really have anything to compare it to.
User avatar
By e2c
bubudi wrote:
...the technique to play the basses with regular sized hands [on small djembes] is different - somewhat closer to the rim, and the tones and slaps should also be closer to the rim...
Yes - it's very much like technique for darbuka, the larger-sized drums especially. (Both djembe and darbuka are goblet-shaped drums, after all...)
By bubudi
e2c, yes, it's not unlike a dohola, but the main difference is that dohola and darbuka are played more horizontally and hence the wrist flicks on the non-dominant hand, that i don't see in any kind of traditional djembe technique.
User avatar
By e2c
Wrist flicks? (I guess I don't think of myself doing that, when in reality, that part of my technique helped me hugely in being able to easily play slaps on djembe.)

I wasn't thinking of doholla (aka a kind of bass darbuka; they're huge!), more of the larger darbukas that are kind of standard these days (sunbati). I play sunbatis myself.

You know, lots of Turks - and some Syrians - hold the darbuka between their legs or put the drums in upright stands, so their playing technique differs from Arabic and is much closer to djembe.
By bubudi
i've seen the gnawa play darbouka that way, but that is not surprising given their roots. i've only ever seen amateurs from turkey play darbouka vertically. that definitely requires a technique closer to bongos. i see the wrist flicks in the more traditional darbouka technique as being quite different from traditional djembe slap technique.
User avatar
By e2c
What you see (wrist flick) is different, yes - but it actually is very helpful (overall) in terms of hand and wrist flexibility for djembe. If you can already create a slap sound, it's just a matter of adjusting hand position to do it properly on djembe... however, if one can play a slap, one can play a slap, imo. :) (Though I think my slap comes mainly from frame drum playing, where a lot of different slaps are used.)

I don't use "wrist flicks" on djembe, except for when I want to play a slap a little differently, or else during times when I'm playing the drum with darbouka technique (for myself; just having fun).

Also, I think the term "wrist flick" is a bit deceptive - some people don't flick the stationary hand at all; they lift it and bring it down on the rim of the darbouka. That's probably not an optimal way to play, but some of the older Middle Eastern players were taught to play in that way and have passed it on. (I've mostly seen it with a few folks from Lebanon and Americans who were taught by them.)

The Gnawa have their own way of playing frame drums, too... but I don't think it's confined to them. I've seen a bunch of "unusual" (to most Westerners) techniques used by other N. Africans - people who also play in the "classical" Arabic style. The blending of cultures in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia has produced some pretty remarkable things!

(btw, i believe we've been around the block on this topic a few times... maybe a video would clarify what I'm trying to describe, but I don't have a decent camera, so you'll just have to take my word for it. Cool? ;))
Last edited by e2c on Sat Mar 05, 2011 11:47 pm, edited 5 times in total.
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