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Anyone who has ever heard a djembe played will have noticed that there are a lot of different sounds that come out of that one drum. Sometimes it’s hard to see how they are being made, especially if you’re watching an African djembe master, since their hands move so fast! The sounds range from a deep boom to a high pitched slapping sound, with various melodious sounds coming through in between. Sometimes it sounds like the drum is singing, and what a beautiful song it is.
You might also notice that any person who plays the djembe frequently will have very calloused hands. A Djembefola’s (djembe player) hands are his tools, and over time the parts that are repeatedly hitting the goat skin of the drum will callous over and become hardened. A famous Griote from Guinea, Mohammed Bangoura, has hands that are as “hard as the soles of the feet”, and that is not an exaggeration!
When you are getting started, it's best to keep it simple with the technique. There are three main sounds that can be played on a djembe: bass, tone and slap.
The bass sound (low-pitched) is achieved by striking the drum in the middle of the skin with a heavy hand, with the fingers held together.
The tone (medium-pitched) is played with the hand on the edge of the skin, using the wrist as well as the arm to propel the hand towards the drum. The fingers should be held together, hitting the drum in the form of a “flipper”.
The slap (high-pitched) is technically the hardest stroke to achieve. There are many types of slap, all of which are played near the edge. Ghanaians play their slap slightly further in than the tone as shown below.
Djembe drummers from Guinea, Mali and other countries where the djembe is indigenous, slap slightly further out, with the fingers pointing as shown below.
In both cases the fingers should be completely relaxed and whipped towards the head/rim of the drum by the arm and wrist. The best way to achieve the slap is through trial and error, and as every person’s hands are different so every person will have a unique sound on the drum. http://www.drumafrica.co.uk/articles/the-djembe/
While these are the main three sounds that can be made with a djembe, variations and additions can be made. There is a music that comes through the djembe, and each is a little bit different. Have fun with it!
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Tim Orgias | InRhythm