Let me first start by saying thanks to everyone that have already added to this post. It has brought out some interesting subject matter and I am looking forward to putting my many thoughts down in regards to this topic. I also want to say...let's be careful here with our comments on what is right and what is wrong. It is very human to want to seek out what is right and wrong, but as we all know, in any event there are many factors and usually no one way to do things. I have always appreciated the words of my teacher and all around wise man, Abdoulaye Diakitae. He often says "I don't know a lot, but I know something." He'd say this in regards to djembe and the study of; point being that everyone involved with this music has a piece of it that is true and right and no one person has it all. This coming from one highly considered as a master of djembe and by some a grand master. This statement is said with the greatest of humility and is something that we can all learn from.
Secondly, I want to say that both Drumskulls and Wula should be very careful in how much we ourselves act as the "authority" on this topic. As a rule of thumb, DSD have always defferred questions such as these to those from the culture, as we always remember that though we are knowledgeable, we are only students of this music. We have always been ones to seek influence from the culture rather than try to apply our opinions on the culture. We believe this to be one major reason why we have so much support from the artists themselves and why we have had success throughout the years. We are simply a reflection of this amazing culture, receiving not giving. In this way we are careful not to apply our judgements and opinions on those who we work with in Africa. This has always been our approach, our foundation and in essence the basis for much of my response to come.
One advantage in responding to this is that at DSD we have since day one headed all of our djembes (with the exception of the latest Import Line) ourselves. That said, we have hands on experience from start to finish with literally thousands of drums and we have heavily immersed ourselves into what makes each drum sound it's best. It is very true that the shape of the shell is one factor in what makes an exceptional djembe. Other obvious factors include wood type, wood density, skin thickness, skin origin and heading procedure. Also consider that djembe music is just that, music. Like any music, all artists have a different preference on their instrument. If you pay attention you will find that some djembe 'masters' prefer smaller drums and some prefer larger drums. Some prefer thicker, denser wood and some will prefer a lighter weighted drum. Some prefer goat skin and some prefer cow skin. Some prefer thin skins and some prefer thick skins. Some prefer Lenke, some Khadi (Hare'), some Djalla, etc... You will find some Guinean players that swear by Ivory Coast or Malian drums and some Malian players that swear by Guinean drums for example. I've also seen a few Guinean players prefer Senegalese djembes. Point being that all these drums are carved differently by different carvers in different areas in different shapes, and all these drums are being chosen by professional players as their drum of choice, once again dispelling the idea that there is one right and one wrong.
In regards to DSD's Guinea shell preference:
At DSD we have a non-compromising take on quality. That said, our opinion on what makes a quality djembe is that it must have a full range of tonality, be extremely responsive, play fast and efficient and have strong projection. Furthermore we find that the best drums are those that are fun to play and therefore facilitate proper technique. We have found this to be the best option for all players, both novice and professional alike.
Over the years, DSD has preferred what is being called the "v-shape" style simply because we believe that it offers all of these qualities without compromise. In general we have found slightly "tighter" bowls with slightly smaller holes lend themselves to be extremely responsive. In addition we have found that thicker skins can greatly add to the range and quality of the bass and tone and therefore extend the overall tonality of the drum further from slap to bass. This then is why we primarily prefer to use skins from Senegal or Mali, those that generally run thicker than those offered in Guinea. We believe the option to mix shells from one country with skins from another is one of our great advantages at DSD and is a key element in the DrumSkull sound.
As stated by Tom, "The squared off V shape can help a beginner/intermediate to achieve more distinct slaps, but at some expense of tone quality."
On some levels this statement can be true which is why we opt to counter act this scenario through skin choice. That said, on a similar point, a drum with a larger bowl will also come with a price. The expense of a larger bowl can be a less distinguished slap, less efficiency, more overtones and difficulties in retaining tuning. Generally speaking we have found that larger bowled drums not only are harder on beginners, but also, not the preferred sound of a professional. Though it should be noted that this opinion may vary depending on if the professional in question finds his success in the ballet/performance rhelm or in the village/ceremonial rhelm.
One thing that it seems we all agree on is the importance that a squared off "shelf" at the bottom of the bowl plays. Though our shells have a smaller over-all bowl, you will find that the inside of the bowl is always intriquately "shelfed out". This in our opinion is a key factor for responsiveness, definitive seperation between bass, tone and slap, and projecion. Without this "shelf" the sound would simply slip through the drum and all dynamics would be lost.
One last point....
At DrumSkulls, our preferences are based on todays context of this music. We are building drums for students of this music today, most of which are learning from teachers that have been heavily influenced by ballet style drum and dance. This means that the music is geared faster and the drums need to meet those needs. In our opinion, this is why the drums have evolved to the "v-shape" form which we use, and evolved away from the larger bowled drums from the past. On that note I see nothing that supports the following statement...
"It is true that Guinea has moved toward the straight sided V shape form, but it is due to economization in the carving process and cost cutting, rather than considerations of sound. Also, this move has taken place over the past 30 years, approximately, and especially over the past 15."
A different perspective is that it is within those last 30 years that the ballet style of playing expanded and djembe was experiencing it's greatest amount of change and evolution. It is within this time period that the bowls became smaller and the drums became more geared for modern day use.
This is a great topic and one that I am happy came about. That said it is a discussion that is greatly focused on very intricate nuances. In going forward I encourage us all to embrace this music less with our head and more with our body. I'd also like to send my hearfelt thanks to Tom for his responses. Though there is some variation in our opinions, our goals are the same. I am genuinely happy to see other guys out there pushing this music in the same way we have done for nearly a decade and a half. I know the hard work that goes into it and the dedication of spirit. Ultimately this music is about community, and personally I am always happy to see that community grow!
Finally, I will not likely be sending further responses on this thread simply due to lack of time. That said, if any one would like to follow up on anything said, feel free to email direct at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks to all for your insights, thought and care on this topic.