West African djembe drumming & djembe music

West African djembe drumming & djembe music

Before djembe music

At some point in history a group of Mande people left the area between North Guinea and Bamako in Mali and headed towards the Senegambia region, and became the Mandinka people.

In Senegambia the Mandinka dance to a 3 drum ensemble of three drums, the kutirindingo, kutiriba and sabaro. These are very similar in appearance and playing style to the Wolof people who live in the same area.

The Maninka dancing of Mali and Guinea is accompanied with music by djembes and 1 - 3 dunduns.

The division between these 2 styles of centres around the crossroads town of Tambacounda in Senegal. To the west of Tambacounda the Mandinka ensemble is prominant, to the east the Maninka ensemble is used.

Tambacouna Senegal

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The effect of the ballets on djembe music

The djembe was brought on tour in the early 1950s by Guinean Fodeba Keita, founder of Les Ballet Africains. A lead drummer from Les Ballet Africains, Ladji Camara relocated to the United States in the early 1960's and there was immediately a great interest in this type of music.

There has also been a massive surge since the late 1980's when Seckou Toure (then president of Guinea) died. Former ballet troupes of Guinea, as well as Mali and Senegal began to settle in western countries to teach and perform.

Some dancing is viewed as play (tulon) or entertainment (nyenaje). Other occassions for djembe drumming and dancing are very serious. With a few exceptions drums are the instruments of choice for dancing.

Traditional djembe drumming

Traditionally djembe rhythms and their corresponding dances would have been associated with specific occassions, with each rhythm having a time and place. These days rhythms and dances may be performed at a wider range of events.

Djembe drumming is a communal event that demands participation from everybody there is the form or clapping, singing and dancing. By participating you honour the people being celebrated.

The most common occassions for drum and dance events of the Mande people surround two major lifecycle events: circumcision/excision ceremonies and marriages.

Many masks have own dances and associated rhythms, such as Konden.

Konden Mask dance & djembe rhythm

Here we can see the Konden mask in a village setting. The mask dances specific steps to a specific djembe / dundun rhythm.

There are certain rhythms that are associated with Agriculture (eg Konkoba), Ciwara with tilling the field and Kassa with clearing the field.

Here's an example of the ryhythm Konkoba being played after the workers and drummers had just returned to the village after a "Sila Kassa", which is a festival to clean the roads between 2 villages.

Old drumming traditions have been affected by Islam and European colonialism. Leading to certain secret power societies being broken up.

The different Mande intruments were usually played by people from different walks of life.

It is unusual for Jelis to play drums though the Xasonka dundun (also called Jeli dundun), is used to praise people. Jelis may also play the tama which is often used to announce guests and to escort the bride and groom at marriage celebrations.

djembe drumming music

West African djembe drumming & djembe music

Djembe drumming has no hereditary restictions on who may play it. The djembe is associated with the numu (blacksmiths) and many djembe players bear numu familiy names like Camara, Kante, and Doumbia. Playing djembe carries a certain stigma among horon (freeborn, nonartisanal) families.

There are hundreds of drums throughout West Africa but the djembe is one of few that is played with both bare hands.

Of all the drums played with the hands it has it's skin pulled tightest and can produce the widest range of notes from deep thundering basses to cracking slaps.

The popularity of djembe music continues to grow all over the world and people are learning how to play djembe in almost every country in the world.
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Sources: Mande Music - Eric Charry - ISBN - 0-226-10162-2

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Djembe culture articles

Our djembe culture articles aim to fill in some of the culture behind this music and these dances.

These include information on the history of the djembe, it's traditional role in Mande society, the Jeli's, African dance etc.


Djembe & drum equipment articles

Our djembe drum and equipment articles aim to provide you with the practical information you will need in order to look after your equipment, how to pick good drums and service them correctly.