It is widely believed that the Djembe (pronounced JEM – Beh) has its origins with the "numu", a social class of professional blacksmiths from the Mandinka (Maninke) people of western Africa in around 1300 AD. It is believed that they were the first to carve this wooden instrument. It is said that the term “djembe” originates from the Bambara saying “Anke djé, anke bé” which translates to “everyone gather together in peace".
For the most part, African history isn’t written down, but is passed down through stories and traditions. The origin story of the djembe is no different, there are multiple stories of how this popular drum came to be.
The most commonly told story is that a village idiot’s wife was pounding grain in her mortar one day when she pounded through the bottom. Her husband happened to be in the vicinity with a goat skin, which they stretched over the hole in the mortar to make the very first djembe.
According to Madinka legend, the djembe is said to have come about through a genie (known as a djinn) who gifted the tree to a Madinka blacksmith and taught him how to carve it into a djembe.
In West African society, certain instruments such as the balafon, the kora and the ngoni are subject to hereditary restrictions, meaning that they may only be played by members of the griot (historian/storyteller) caste. The djembe is not a griot instrument and there are no restrictions on who may become a djembefola (djembe player).
In daily life, various events are accompanied by unique songs and dances, usually sung by the griot, accompanied by drummers, singers and dancers. Songs tell of great leaders, like King Sundiata, or praise certain professions, like the cobblers or hunters.
The djembe is primarily the instrument of dance used at marriages, baptisms, funerals, circumcisions and excisions. Songs are also played during the ploughing, sowing and the harvest, used for courtship rituals and even to settle disputes among the men of the village.
In a typical ensemble, two djembes and a dundun player accompany the griot. Women sing and clap hands, while moving in and out of the circle, showing off their skill as dancers. The djembe master or soloist leads the pace of the dance, increasing the tempo when good dancers enter the circle. A single song is played for most occasions, usually lasting a few hours.
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Tim Orgias | InRhythm