Rhythm Traders Djembe Buying Guide

Buying an African Djembe


The djembe is the most popular drum from Africa. Known for its deep bass and crisp highs, it's also one of the most enjoyable! We'd like to share with you what we have learned in more than 20 years of traveling to West Africa, studying, selling, and repairing djembes. In addition to West Africa, djembes are now made in Thailand, Indonesia, Mexico, Los Angeles...you name it. You can find them at Marshalls, Cost Plus, and mixed-in with guitars and amplifiers at huge music store chains. Not to mention, everywhere online, including Craigslist and eBay.
 
With so many poorly made instruments out there, you need to know what to look for. We hope this guide is helpful...read on! Some of these points you may not fully understand in the beginning of your quest, but they will help you to ask the right questions at a store. A good salesperson should be able to address these questions and have answers for you.
 
Djembes: The Most Common Woods
The Djembes: Most Common Woods

From Left to Right: Djalla, Lenge, Acajou, Duki, Hare
Top: Bois Blanc
Front: Iroko
 

As a quick djembe buying guide overview:

A djembe should have 3/16" (4mm-5mm) rope that is round (not flat) and not frayed
A round bearing edge
25 or more loops
Symmetry
Rings snug against the shell
A smooth interior
Medium to Heavy in weight
A Medium to thick skin
One row MAXIMUM of rope diamonds already
A 12-14" head (measure the head diameter 2 ways to see if it's round)
Make sure the top ring isn't slipping over the ring inside the skin
See if the very bottom ring is crooked
Rings should be wrapped with cloth, and not bent, rusted, or eating through the skin
Look for open cracks in the wood
Is a dark stain hiding any imperfections?
Skins should be free of holes and bug bites

     

    No drum is perfect, and will most likely have 1 or 2 of the above conditions. By following our guide, you'll know a lot about your future drum and what to look for. Even if you don't know what to look for, a salesperson should. You should be able to walk into a store and say, "Can you talk to me about the skin on this drum?" Without wincing, the salesperson should be able to discuss with you the thickness, any nicks, bug bites, center spine, hairless versus hairy, the gap between the rings and the top, and how the drum is currently tuned. Their job is to educate you. If you are shopping online, it is even more difficult to make your purchase...so be SURE to ask a lot of questions.

    About the Djembe shell:

    This is THE drum. The skin, and other parts, can and will come and go, but what you are investing in is the shell. The top players in the world (Mamady Keita, Famoudou Konate, Fadouba Oulare, Adama Drame, and Soungalo Coulibaly) play drums from shells carved in Ivory Coast, Guinea, and Mali.

    Keep in mind that although it's the outside that you see, it's the INSIDE of the drum that you hear. The sound is bouncing around and resonating inside the drum. Always be sure the inside of the drum is smooth. Any splinters, chunks, or unevenness you feel will deaden the sound of the djembe. The following are the most common woods and some features of the djembe shells made from them.
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     The Reds

    Lenge (Linke): Guinea/Mali
    Color: Red
    Weight: Medium Heavy

    Overall sound, consistency, and durability are great. Increasingly rare, this is the "Cadillac" of djembe woods. They have a melodic quality, superior projection, best overall bass/tone/slap contrast, and long sustain. As with most Guinea shells, the chiseling pattern is on the interior of bowl and the stem is a spiral. Favored by Mamady Keita and Famoudou Konate.

    The Reds: Djalla (left), Lenge (center), Rouge (right)
    The Reds: Djalla (left), Lenge (center), Rouge (right)
     
    Lenge: Inside Shell Note spiral pattern and interior ledge between bowl and stem
    Lenge: Inside Shell
    Note spiral pattern and interior ledge between bowl and stem
     
    Lenge: Intricate Carving on Stem
    Lenge: Intricate Carving on Stem
     
    Lenge: Djembe Drum Shell
    Lenge: Djembe Drum Shell
     
    Lenge: Carved Base Note how it flares out
    Lenge: Carved Base
    Note how it flares out
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    Acajou (Bois Rouge): Guinea/Mali
    Color: Reddish-Orange
    Weight: Medium Heavy

    One of the prized "redwoods" from the Guinea-Mali region, along with Lenge and Djalla. Acajou is often difficult to tell apart from the other redwoods. It is generally lighter (in color) with more orange, and will have light patches. As with most Guinea shells, the chiseling pattern is on the interior of the bowl and the stem is a spiral. Overall sound, consistency, and durability are great.

    Bois Rouge: Inside Shell
    Bois Rouge: Inside Shell
     
    Bois Rouge: Intricate Stem See the chisel marks?
    Bois Rouge: Intricate Stem
    See the chisel marks?
     
    Bois Rouge: Djembe Shell
    Bois Rouge: Djembe Shell
     
    Bois Rouge: Intricate Stem Carving
    Bois Rouge: Intricate Stem Carving
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    Djalla (Jala, Diala): Guinea/Mali
    Color: Dark Red to Purple
    Weight: Medium Heavy

    Along with Acajou and Lenge, Djalla is one of the highly sought after "redwoods" from the Guinea/Mali region. It is also very difficult to distinguish from the other "redwoods", except that Djalla tends toward the dark red and purple, and has fewer light patches. As with most Guinea Shells, the chiseling pattern is on the interior of the bowl and the stem is a spiral. Overall sound, consistency, projection, and durability are great. Djalla has exceptional bass/tone/slap contrast.

    Djalla Wood Djembe
    Djalla Wood Djembe
     
    Djalla: Djembe Base Detail
    Djalla: Djembe Base Detail
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    The Browns:
     
    Hare/Balafon (left), Iroko (center), Demba/Duki (right)
    Hare/Balafon (left), Iroko (center), Demba/Duki (right)

    Balafon Wood, Hare, Kadi (Susu), Beng (Malinke): Guinea/Mali/Burkina Faso
    Color:  Medium Brown with striped grain
    Weight: Heavy
     
    Overall sound, consistency, and durability are great. Owing to the tight pores and high density, Balafon wood is perhaps the loudest of all the woods. It will sometimes have a "ringy" quality that is best balanced out with a thick skin. As with most Guinea shells, the chiseling pattern is on the inside of the bowl and the stem is a spiral. In Guinea, balafons are made from this same melodic wood.
     
    Hare/Balafon Wood Djembe Shell
    Hare/Balafon Wood Djembe Shell
     
    Hare/Balafon Wood: Intricate Base
    Hare/Balafon Wood: Intricate Base
     
    Hare/Balafon Wood: Intricate Base
    Hare/Balafon Wood: Intricate Base
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    Iroko: Ivory Coast
    Color: Medium-Brown
    Weight: Medium
     
    Always noticeable because of the ledge carved for the bottom ring so it won't slip. Iroko djembes and dununs are among the most consistent and highest quality in the world. Exceptional overall bass/tone/slap contrast. The more open pores give Iroko a very warm sound, and it is a good weight for carrying. Interior of bowl and stem are thicker, and smoother, than Guinea shells. The thicker shell enables a very comfortable and rounded bearing edge.
     
    Iroko Wood Djembe Shell Detail: Typical patterns from Ivory Coast
    Iroko Wood Djembe Shell Detail:
    Typical patterns from Ivory Coast
     
    Iroko Wood: Note rounded bearing edge and thicker shells
    Iroko Wood:
    Note rounded bearing edge and thicker shells
     
    Iroko Wood: Note the ring ledge
    Iroko Wood:
    Note the ring ledge
     
    Iroko Wood: Interior is smoother than Guinea Djembe shell
    Iroko Wood:
    Interior is smoother than Guinea Djembe shell
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    Demba (Dimb, Duki, Dougoura, Teak): Senegal/Gambia/Guinea
    Color: Medium to Dark Brown
    Weight: Very Heavy
     
    Density and tight pores make this a very bright drum. It has a "dry" sound; not a lot of bass response or sustain, but strong tones. Drawbacks include heavy weight, poorer than average bass response, many cracks, and chunky (not smooth) interior. Senegal is facing a tree shortage and carvers are now using trees cut down a decade ago, which were discarded at that time for low quality. Watch out for a greater than average amount of cracks and patches repaired with glue and sawdust. Demba-Duki shells from southern Senegal (Casamance), Gambia, and Guinea are the most consistent shells from this wood.
     
    Demba/Duki Djembe from Guinea
    Demba/Duki Djembe from Guinea
     
     Typical Demba/Duki Shell: From Senegal
    Typical Demba/Duki Shell:
    From Senegal
     
    Demba/Duki Djembe from Senegal
    Demba/Duki Djembe from Senegal
     
    Typical Demba/Duki Shell: From Guinea
    Typical Demba/Duki Shell:
    From Guinea
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    Other Common Woods:

    Bois Blanc (White Wood, Mangowood): Guinea/Mali
    Color: White
    Weight: Light
     
    Very rarely used for djembes. Bois Blanc is just a fancy name for "white wood", the preferred wood for dununs (dundun, jun-juns, dundunbas... the bass drums) Its light weight is ideal for these large drums. Open grain and soft wood absorbs the higher frequencies, while projecting the low end of the sound spectrum. Light weights make them easier to transport. Be leery of white woods, and light-weight woods in general, being used for djembes...they're better suited for bass drums.
     
    Bois Blanc Wood
    Bois Blanc Wood
     
    These are destined to be dununbas
    These are destined to be dununbas
     
    Bois Blanc: Carving a Dunun
    Bois Blanc:
    Carving a Dunun
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    Rubberwood (Asian Oak, Siam, Thai Oak): Thailand
    Color:  White, w/light-brown grain
    Weight: Medium-Heavy
     
    Rubberwood is what the majority of stave constructed (like congas) djembes coming out of Thailand are made from. Generally factory made, these drums are very consistent, but lack the "mojo of the motherland". Pro: The best sustainable choice because these are essentially obsolete latex trees that are given a second life in the form of drums. Also sustainable because it's milled into lumber (staves) and contributes virtually no waste. Con: Poor sound differentiation.
     
    Rubberwood Djembe
    Rubberwood Djembe
     
     Rubberwood Djembe: Interior
    Rubberwood Djembe: Interior
     
    Rubberwood Djembe: Stave Construction
    Rubberwood Djembe: Stave Construction
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    Plantation Mahogany: Indonesia (Bali)
    Color: Medium Brown
    Weight: Medium-Light
     
    In the past decade, we've seen more lathe-turned machine made djembes coming from Indonesia. While exterior carvings are often intricate and beautiful, the inside is cut by a lathe, and is completely smooth, lacking the chiseling that gives African djembes their bass/tone/slap contrast. Pro: Grown using sustainable and often certified growth practices. Con: Poor sound differentiation.
     
    Indonesian Djembes are beautiful on the outside
    Indonesian Djembes are beautiful on the outside
     
    Plantation Mahogany: Absolutely smooth and symmetrical
    Plantation Mahogany:
    Absolutely smooth and symmetrica
    l
     
    MORE TIPS ON BUYING A DJEMBE:

    ABOUT THE SIZE: The best size for a lead drum is about 13" diameter head and 25" tall. A supporting drum is slightly larger in diameter. 
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