What you need to know: A starter on djembe woods
If you are new to the djembe world, you are probably thinking of buying your first djembe. Once you start looking at the various options, you quickly get confronted with a bewildering array of choices.
One thing you need to decide is what wood you want. Before you know it, you drown in many different names, such as Lenke, Tweneboa, Gueni, Acajou, and Dimba. This article will help you make sense of the different names of these woods and their properties.
First of all, you need to understand the difference between traditional and non-traditional woods. It is a safe bet that, over hundreds of years, many different West-African species of wood were tried as djembe woods. Most of them were discarded as unsuitable; only a handful of species survived the selection process and became traditional. The traditional woods are all tropical hardwoods that are both dense and hard. The high density and hardness are extremely important because they create the drum’s voice and affect its volume and sound.
This is not to say that non-traditional woods cannot be used to make high-quality djembes. Other woods that are of similar density and hardness from elsewhere in the world are suitable too; it’s just that they are not traditional.
As it turns out, there are only a few woods that traditionally are used to make djembes. The most commonly used are Gueni, Lenke, Djalla, and Dugura and, to a lesser extent, Iroko and Gele. Note that most woods have quite a few synonyms and spellings. In the remainder of this article, we use the Malinke name as the main designation.
The traditional woods can be broadly classified as red woods and brown woods.
The red woods
Lenke (Afzelia africana)
Also known as: Doussi
Lenke is the most prized of all the djembe woods. Not because it necessarily sounds better than the others, but because it is supposed to have spiritual properties that make it superior. Lenke is red-brown to orange in color and among the more commonly used species for djembes.
Djalla (Khaya senegalensis)
Also known as: Acajou, African mahogany, Bois Rouge
Djalla is not quite as hard and dense as Lenke but still at the high end of the scale. A common synonym for this wood is Acajou. However, depending on the region, another species, Khaya ivorensis, is also called Acajou, but that wood has very different properties. While the former makes for an outstanding djembe wood, the latter is quite light and soft and not particularly suitable for djembes.
If you buy an Acajou drum, try and make sure that you are getting the correct species. Working out which version you are dealing with is easy. The density of proper Acajou is about the same as that of Lenke. If you have shells of similar size and thickness made of Lenke and Acajou, they should have very similar weight. In contrast, the wrong Acajou will be about 25% lighter than Lenke. Also, you should not be able to make any noticeable dent in the wood with your fingernail. If you can, chances are that you have the soft version of Acajou.
Gele (Prosopis africana)
Also known as: Numu Yiri (Malinke, Bamana), Bois du Forgeron, Vene, Bele, Celen, Iron wood
Gele is a hard and heavy wood, second in hardness and density only to Gueni. It is often used as a synonym for Djalla, but is actually a distinct species. It is rare to find djembes made of Gele because the species is in severe decline throughout West Africa. In addition, carvers dislike the wood because it is difficult to carve and blunts tools quickly. The names Numu Yiri (Malinke and Bamana) and Bois du Forgeron (French) mean "blacksmith’s wood".
The brown woods
Gueni (Pterocarpus erinaceus)
Also known as: Keno, M’gouin (Malinke), Harre, Khadi (Susu), Balafon wood
Gueni varies in color from light brown to dark brown. It is the densest and hardest of all the traditional woods. In recent years, it has replaced Lenke as the most commonly used djembe wood. You may see Gueni referred to as Balafon wood because it is used to make the keys of that instrument.
Gueni leaves are sought after as animal fodder because they have a high protein content. All parts of the tree are used for medicinal purposes, such as to reduce fever and treat dysentery. The bark is smoked in a pipe as a cough remedy, and the resin can be used to dye cloth to a dark purple color.
Dugura (Cordyla africana)
Also known as: Dimba (Wolof), Douki (Fula), Bush Mango
Dugura grows in Senegal, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, and Mali. It has similar density as Lenke, but is a little softer.
Iroko (Milicia excelsa)
Also known as: Sine (Malinke), Odum, Kambala, African Oak, Chen d’Afrique
Iroko DjembeIroko is the lightest and softest of the traditional djembe woods. Iroko is used mainly for djembes made in Burkina Faso and Cote d'Ivoire.
Non-traditional African woods
Increasingly, djembes are manufactured outside the traditional countries of Senegal, The Gambia, Mali, Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire, and Burkina Faso. In particular, large numbers of djembes are made in Ghana, Nigeria, and South Africa. The traditional wood species are difficult or impossible to obtain there, so suppliers have turned to alternatives.
Unfortunately, the alternatives are inferior in sound due to their lower density and hardness. Djembes made out of these woods will sound OK and can be a good alternative if you are on a budget. However, be aware that they will never sound like the real thing and that, if you are serious about playing, you will likely trade up to a traditional shell at a later point in time.
Melina (Bombax costatum)
Also known as: Bumu, Bois Blanc, Kattupa, Whitewood
Melina is found in a number of West African countries as well as Ghana, Togo, and Nigeria. It has low density and is very soft, making it inferior as a djembe wood. However, Melina is frequently used for dunun and krin, for which it is well suited.
Bete (Mansonia altissima)
Also known as: Aprono, Mansonia, African Black Walnut
Bete grows in Cote d’Ivoire, Benin, Ghana, Cameroon, Nigeria, and Togo and is sometimes used as a djembe wood. In terms of suitability, it is borderline, with the same density as Iroko, but softer.
Tweneboa (Cordia platythyrsa)
Also known as: Bon, Ebe, Ebois, West African Cordia
Tweneboa grows in Cote d’Ivoire, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Ghana, and Cameroon. It is almost white in color and extremely soft, almost spongy in texture. These properties make it poorly suited for djembes. Despite this, it is a popular wood for djembe manufacture in Ghana. Due to their low density and hardness, djembes made of this wood typically have very thick walls. (The wood has to be carved thicker to avoid having it collapse when the drum is tensioned.)
Non-traditional non-African woods
The bulk of djembes created outside of West Africa come from Indonesia. Almost inevitably, these are made from plantation Teak or Mahogany. Quality of manufacture varies widely, from excellent to extremely poor. A well-made Indonesian djembe can be a good option if you are on a budget. However, as for non-traditional African woods, the Indonesian alternatives never sound quite like the real thing.
Various drum makers around the world experiment with different local timbers, sometimes with outstanding results. So, do not reject a drum simply because it is made of a non-traditional wood. A well-proportioned djembe will sound good provided that the wood has similar characteristics as the traditional woods.
|Wood||Spellings and synonyms||Density||Monnin Hardness||Color|
|Lenke||Lenge, Lengue, Lingue, Linke, Doussie||0.8g/cm³||7.7 (medium)||red|
|Djalla||Djala, Diala, Jala, Acajou, Acajou d’Afrique, Acajou du Senegal, African Mahogany, Bois Rouge||0.8g/cm³||5.9 (medium)||red|
|Gele||Guele, Vene, Bele, Celen, Iron Wood, NumuYiri, Bois du Forgeron||0.9g/cm³||8.0 (hard)||red|
|Gueni||Goueni, Gouenou, Gonee, Guin, Goni, Keno, M'gouin, Nbeng, Beng, Harre, Hare, Hari, Kare, Kari, Khari, Khadi, Balafon Wood||0.9g/cm³||9.5 (hard)||brown|
|Dugura||Dougoura, Dimba, Dimb, Demb, Dim, Dougi, Doukie, Duki, Bush Mango||0.85g/cm³||6.7 (medium)||brown|
|Iroko||Sine, Odum, Kambala, Mvulu, African Oak, Chen d’Afrique||0.6g/cm³||4.1(soft)||brown|
|Melina||Bumu, Bois Blanc, Kattupa, Whitewood||0.5g/cm³||2.4(very soft)||white|
|Bete||Aprono, Mansonia, African Black Walnut||0.6g/cm³||3.8(soft)||brown|
|Tweneboa||Bon, Ebe, Ebois, West African Cordia||0.5g/cm³||1.3 (very soft)||white|
There are a number of factors that affect your choice of wood.
Hardness and sound
The sound of a djembe is partly related to the hardness and density of its wood. In terms of hardness, from hard to soft, the traditional woods can be arranged as follows:
Gueni, Gele, Lenke, Dugura, Djalla, Iroko
Of these, Gueni and Gele can be called hard, Lenke, Dugura, and Djalla medium, and Iroko soft. (These are relative terms—all of them are classified as hardwoods.)
Density is closely correlated with hardness, so the weight of these woods closely follows the same order. Note that, if you study density and hardness figures for wood species, they only provide an average, and different sources disagree on the actual figures. In addition, the growing conditions of a tree, the age at which it was felled, and which section of the tree the drum was carved from change these figures by as much as 15% in either direction, so the above scale is only a guideline. (A hard sample of Djalla may well be harder than a soft sample of Lenke.)
The hardness of the wood affects the sound of a djembe. In general, the harder woods (Gueni and Gele) tend to result in drums that have bright sound with longer sustain. Djembes made of these woods (all other factors being equal) will have loud sharp slaps with a rich overtone spectrum. At the same time, the tones will not be quite as full-bodied and dark as those of a drum made from a softer wood.
Softer wood (Iroko) has the opposite sound characteristics: slaps don’t achieve quite the sharpness and projection of the harder woods, but the tones tend be full and rich. Overall, Iroko djembes sound “warmer” and “drier” than their hard counterparts.
Not surprisingly, Lenke, Dugura, and Djalla fall somewhere in between. The bass of a djembe is unaffected by the type of wood. Bass tones are too low to have much of an overtone spectrum that would change with hardness, and the frequency of the bass is determined by the size and shape of the drum only. (The pitch of the bass is unaffected by tuning.)
One thing that is often overlooked is the weight of a drum. A djembe made of Gueni will weigh almost twice as much as a djembe made of Iroko (assuming equal size, proportion, and wall thickness). If you play sitting down, weight is not a major factor. But don’t forget that you will frequently have to carry your drum. Depending on size and type of wood, a djembe may weigh as little as 8kg (18lb) or as much as 15kg (33lb). Weight matters not only when it comes to carrying your drum, but also for performances where you may want to play standing up. (A one-hour performance with a 15kg drum is a lot more demanding than the same performance with a 10kg drum.)
You should match your drum to your physique. A good weight for playing standing up is 10-11kg. This is heavy enough to keep the drum in place while you are playing, but light enough to not exhaust you. Note that drums that are too light are difficult to play standing up because they have a tendency to move around too much as you hit them. (This is another reason why light non- traditional woods, such as Tweneboa, are poorly suited for djembes.)
Sapwood and heartwood
A tree has two distinct types of wood. Heartwood forms the center of the trunk and is no longer alive. It carries they weight of the tree and provides structural integrity. Sapwood forms the outer layer of the trunk and carries nutrients. As the tree grows, sapwood near the centre of the tree dies and gradually becomes heartwood.
Sapwood is softer than heartwood and has lower density and higher moisture content, so it is not as strong as heartwood. In a djembe, you can recognize sapwood by lighter-colored patches on the widest part of the bowl.
The most prized shells are made entirely of heartwood. However, many shells have some sapwood on the bowl. Its presence is not a defect and can look very attractive, adding interest to the look of a shell. If you have a shell with patches of sapwood, these patches will be near the top of the bowl, at its widest part. Check the width and depth of the patches and look on the inside of the shell. A patch of sapwood on the outside may be much smaller on the inside, or not reach the inside at all, in which case it is of no concern. If the sapwood extends all the way through the width of the shell to the inside, a patch around 8” (20cm) wide and deep is also no problem.
Djembe with small patches of sapwood
However, be wary if a large part of the bowl is sapwood that extends all the way through the thickness of the bowl. Especially with thin-walled shells, this can affect structural integrity. Over a number of years, such shells can develop cracks in the sapwood and, in extreme cases, the bowl may eventually collapse under the pressure.
Check any sapwood for damage from borers. Many species prefer the softer sapwood to the harder heartwood, so any damage is more likely to occur in the sapwood sections.
How important is the wood, really?
While the type of wood does influence sound, there are other factors as well. These include type and thickness of the skin, tuning, the shape and proportions of the shell, and playing technique. What all this means is that, when it comes to choosing a drum, the particular wood is probably the least important selection criterion. Relative to all the other factors, the choice of wood contributes probably no more than 10% to the overall sound quality (assuming that the drum is made from a suitable wood). True, the species of wood does influence sound, but it is subtle and easily overwhelmed by the other factors.
What matters most is whether a drum "speaks" to you. Many players talk about how they were drawn to a particular drum and “fell in love” with that drum. You may also have a liking for a particular style of carving, or be enchanted by a particularly striking grain pattern. Do not ignore such impressions when it comes to making a choice. It is important that you like your drum and are happy with it.
If possible, buy a drum that is made of one of the traditional woods or an alternative wood of similar density and hardness. Whether that drum is made of Gueni or Lenke really is of little importance in the grand scheme of things. Instead choose with your ears and your heart, and you will likely be happy with your choice.
MY THANKS GO TO BUBUDI FOR REVIEWING THIS ARTICLE AND SUGGESTING IMPROVEMENTS. MY THANKS ALSO TO DRUMSKULL DRUMS, DJEMBE-NERD, AND TROG FOR SUPPLYING DJEMBE IMAGES.
MICHI HENNING IS A DJEMBE PLAYER AND TEACHER IN BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA, AND A FREQUENT CONTRIBUTOR TO DJEMBEFOLA.COM.
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