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General acceptance of synthetic djembes? - Djembefola - Djembe Forum

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By Jeepz
Alright, I've got a question that might be heresy on this forum, or rather result in a one-sided discussion, but I've got to ask anyway.

What is the general acceptance of Remos and other synthetic djembes in the drum circle scene?

I've read a lot all over the 'net about 'authentic' djembes and that synthetics aren't worth the glue that holds them together, and that in order to get a full and true and rich drumming experience, you need to buy a wooden one with a goatskin head. Part of me thinks "djembe snobs", another part of me thinks "there's something to it", and yet another part of me thinks "I need durable and inexpensive, even if I sacrifice a bit in sound quality compared to a wooden one".

So, thoughts?
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By e2c
I think this is a very reasonable question, although you're probably barking up the wrong tree (no pun intended!) asking about drum circles here... ;) This site is more oriented toward West African drum/dance, though some folks do go to drum circles.

My personal take on Remo, Toca, LP etc. etc. "djembes" is that they're djembe-shaped, but are light-years off from the actual construction and sound of the djembes made in the geographical area where the drum originated: Mali, Guinea, parts of Senegal, Burkina Faso (and a few other countries). The drums I have (2 djembes, a kenkeni and a sangban) have a completely different sound and feel to the kinds of drums you're talking about.

You can see some great shots of drums owned by members if you poke around a bit here on the board.

Two great sources:

WULA Drums: http://www.wuladrum.com/

Drumskull Drums: http://www.drumskulldrums.com/

I've bought my drums from: http://www.botefote.com/ and couldn't be happier with the level of crafstmanship and the overall quality of the drums.

Here's a shot of a drum that looks almost identical to my Mali djembe:


If you're finding yourself interested in the music and culture (as opposed to just dropping in at the occasional drum circle), my suggestion is to get a good, well-crafted hardwood djembe from a reputable dealer. A lot of people buy a cheaper instrument 1st, then upgrade. It's less costly to go for a good instrument at the beginning - though a bad one will give you a real feel for what's lacking! but I'd hate to see you - or anyone - go through the hassle if it can be avoided.

I hope this is helpful :)
By Jeepz
It is helpful, thanks. First, I guess I use the term drum circle as a catch all, though I probably shouldn't. I'm so clueless about the opportunities for drumming here in St. Louis that I mean that more as "a place to gather and play". I understand there are two camps, if you will, those of the drum circle variety, and those more dedicated to the tradition and culture of West African drumming. Second, I'm not entirely sure what I want, where I want to go with my drumming interest. There is certainly some interest in the culture and roots of it, but really I'm looking to first satisfy an inner desire to play percussion. I feel like the rest will take care of itself, but then perhaps not as I'm struggling with the inner turmoil of what to buy.

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By e2c
I hear you - I didn't know exactly what I wanted to do when I 1st started studying percussion back in the late 80s. I'd heard different styles and sounds that I really liked, but I wasn't sitting there saying to myself, "Gee, I *really* need to learn [insert name]." I just wanted to play.

Having bought my share of dud drums (mostly darbukas), I'd hate to see someone go through that with djembe - or any other instrument, for that matter. By the time I was able to find a good teacher and start taking djembe lessons (in 2006), I knew the kind of sound and feel I wanted from a drum - so choosing was relatively easy. But if you're at the very beginning of it all (and have never played percussion), I can imagine that you're pondering a lot of things.

My suggestion re. getting a drum is to get to various stores and dealers and try out a lot of different drums before buying. You'll hear (and likely feel) the difference between the cheap ones (meaning badly-made) and the good ones.

One thing to keep in mind (which I learned the hard way!): A good instrument will be something you want to play. A poorly-made instrument won't - it's about the sound, not the looks.

if you're in or near St. Louis, there's the Dunham school, where some of the pioneers of W. African percussion in the US (like Senegalese drummer Mor Thiam) have gotten their start. I think that in general, you'll find better instruments are being used by drum/dance people.

If your primary goal is to play at a drum circle every now and then, a Remo will do just fine. But if you want to go further musically, it's not a good choice. (I think, anyhow.) The Remo heads are plastic, ad the shells are a compound of sawdust and other materials. They're extremely durable, but they don't have the sonic warmth of hardwood drums with natural skin heads, and (to me, at least) those plastic heads *feel* like plastic. (Even with the texture they add to them.)

Remo is the world's largest drumhead manufacturer, so you can see why they'd only use their heads on their drums. And they really do talk up the wondrousness of their "Acousticon" shells, but - I've played Remo frame drums, goblet-shaped drums (darbuka and djembe) and barrel-shaped drums made by them and .... they're really nice to have in a pinch, but they all have a "dead" sound/feel to me. (Some are definitely better than others; they've come a long way in terms of getting a less plastic sound from the heads, but still...)

And because they're mass-produced, you'll *never* get the attention to detail (sonic and design/"mechanical") that comes with a well-crafted traditional drum.

That said, there are a lot of supposedly "authentic" drums out there that are trash, which is why I put some links in my earlier post. WULA has some very good tips for choosing a djembe that apply to any drum, not just theirs.
By Jeepz
Great stuff, e2c.

Thought you might like to hear the next chapter in my drum search.

Went back to the store I bought my Remo from (don't know if I said I'd already purchased the Remo or not, but yeah, bought it Saturday, bit of an impulse buy). Asked if they had a return or exchange policy. They do, 30 days, so I'm off the hook. I told the guy "I'm just not feeling the mojo with the Remo." and started looking around at other drums.

I found a 12" djembe with the brand name http://www.kangaba.com/, made of solid wood and a goatskin head, rope tuned, obviously. It seemed well tuned, and even with my novice hand strikes it sounded sooo much more like I want my drum to sound. I could definitely hear the difference as the wood resonated the sound better. The wood and carving was nothing special, but nice and understated, and the rope wasn't garish, so I appreciated that. The skin felt nice under my hands. The 14" they had of the same brand was just too big and heavy for what I wanted, and the 9" wasn't in tune (I could distinctly hear the "overtones" that I've heard talked about when people talk about tuning) and I wasn't crazy about the rope anyway. The 12" is about $135 more than what I paid for the Remo, but my wife (who met me at the music store to hear the drums and listening to my feelings on the matter) said not to worry about price, rather focus on being happy with my purchase.

So, I've decided to take the Remo back, and then find a couple of other stores in town that might sell djembes and shop around and see what sorts of options (wood, rope, size, price) might be out there. The good thing is that when I'm finished shopping, if I don't find anything at the other places, I'll go back to the first store and hopefully pick up the one I found tonight. This sounds like what most people probably do when buying something like this, but I'm a bit impulsive and it just happened this way. At least I'm convinced I want one, I can get out of my impulsive mistake, and can take a bit of time to shop around (but not too much, I'm still on a budget AND I want one sooner rather than later - which means I'm limited to a local store rather than an online site).

Anyhoo, thanks for reading my ramble and stumble into the world of percussion. And thanks so much for your feedback, I plan to re-read yours and other threads and other sites to have a check list in place for Saturday shopping.
By Jeepz
Excellent! Thanks!

I'm hoping that a couple of local stores have some deals, I don't have $400+ for a drum right now. We'll see! I'm sure I'll be back here to let you know what I end up with.
User avatar
By e2c
I understand about the money - it's a lot, but.... when you're ready to make that kind of investment, it will be worth it.

If you keep those tips in mind, and continue shopping around, you should be able to find an instrument you feel good about. Keep in mind that the shell of the drum is the investment here - if the shell's bad, the drum's not going to work out well. But if it's good, you can always have it reheaded, etc. if necessary.
By Jeepz
e2c wrote: But if it's good, you can always have it reheaded, etc. if necessary.
I just assumed it a given that reheading and possibly restringing at some point were going to be necessary? I don't know how often I expected to have to replace a goatskin drum head, but I assumed it was a "regular" occurrence? About how much does a new head cost, and where is a good place to buy them? And I'm guessing I'll need to learn how to rehead my drum, just as I expect to learn how to tune, so I'm not worried about the labor or finding anyone to do that for me (unless you recommend I *not* do it myself).
By Jeepz
I'll look for it for when I'm in a NEED IT NOW panic :shock: The How To Buy from African Rhythm Traders has been very interesting. I'm going to try out some Meinl drums tonight (though the buying guide says the plantation mahogany isn't the best), compare them to the other wood one I've found (I forget the wood, but supposedly made in Mali, and shipped here by Overseas Connection), and hopefully have a new drum tomorrow! It won't be top end, but it'll be a start (and not synthetic), and really I just need a place to start.

Thanks again for all your input, e2c. It's been valuable.
By bubudi
if you didn't like the remo, you won't like the meinl. it sounds like the sound you're looking for is a natural wood and hide sound. there's a guy who sells full sized drums from the ivory coast that are reputed to be of good quality. $275 and comes with a case. http://www.goatskins.com . he also sells a dvd showing how to rehead a drum.
User avatar
By e2c
I think that in general, quality costs more. To me, there's just no comparison between a well-crafted, hand-carved shell and a mass-produced one.

Meinl is like Remo in that they're all about mass production/manufacturing. I hate to sound snobby, but I honestly have yet to hear a Meinl hand percussion instrument that I've liked.

Jeepz, you might want to check out the info. on Rhythm Traders' site about what all goes into a hand-carved djembe. (They've got links to videos of the carving process, which are on their YouTube channel.)
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