Djembe Care and Maintenance
A quick overview:
* Keep your drum tuned and your skin conditioned
* No rings or sticks near the drumhead
* Be aware of temperature and humidity which will affect pitch and longevity
* Store your drum in a good bag or case
* Treat a skin popping as an opportunity to improve your drum!
Your drum should always have a lot of contrast between bass (middle of the drum) and tone (edge of the drum). If these two sounds start to sound the same, it’s probably time for a tune. In general, drums need to be tuned a couple of times per year, sometimes more if the head is new and undergoing an initial stretch which would lower the pitch. If you have a synthetic skin, your drum is not affected by temperature, moisture, or altitude. You can skip most of this section. If your drum is mechanically tuned, you just have to worry about the occasional tension-rod stripping out, so apply household old to the rods/screws to keep them turning smoothly. But for everybody else, read on!
Most of you have djembes with natural rawhide goatskins which expand and contract constantly. Sometimes people think if they tighten the drum they will lose their bass. Luckily, it’s the opposite. The bass sound is built into the size and shape of the drum and it cannot be tuned. (That’s also a very important thing to remember when buying a drum!) So when you tighten the ropes on a djembe you are tuning the tone (edge) of the drum. It should be tight so the hand rebounds quickly off the skin, and the skin resonates freely. Usually, by tuning your drum, the bass is actually louder and more clear.
What not to do when tuning:
Never tune your drum temporarily using fire, a space heater, or hotplate. It is extremely difficult to regulate tension this way, and your skin will wear out quickly owing to the repeated tightening and loosening of the skin.
Also, don’t try to tune your natural drum skin to a certain pitch, as it will change even within the course of you playing it as the room warms up and your hands get sweaty. Better to shoot for good contrast between bass-tone-slap, and good contrast between the other drums in your ensemble than to worry about a certain pitch.
And lastly, don’t over-tighten. How do you know? Your bass will resonate freely and for a long time if the drum is properly tuned. As you start to push the boundaries with high tension, the skin will be so tight that the sustain on the bass note goes away. If the bass note on your drum goes from a long ringing sustain to a short “thump”, we recommend that you back it off. Otherwise, you’re just a couple of steps from a split skin.
More about tuning:
Hot and/or dry environments will cause your skin to shrink, thus raising the pitch. Cold or damp environments cause the skin to expand, thus lowering the pitch. So if you had your drum stored in the basement and wonder why all of a sudden it’s so high in pitch when you move it to the second floor, it’s probably has to do with heat/humidity. The reverse is often true as well.
Pitch will also fluctuate as you change altitudes. The higher the altitude (say Denver for example) the higher the pitch. You also have to keep this in mind as you check your drum on airplanes as the change in altitude can sometimes pop skins. Better to travel with your drum tuned in the middle of the pitch spectrum, rather than super tight all the time. Yes, masters like Mamady Keita and Famoudou Konate travel the globe with their drums very tight, but they also have a replacement skin with them, the know-how to re-head drums, and multiple drums to choose from in the event of a split skin.
Most of us are not that fortunate. So if your drum is tuned extremely tight and you are in a cold, damp place like we are in Portland, Oregon then you do not want to leave it that way as you hop on a plane bound for Santa Fe. Your skin could easily pop along the journey. But if it’s the reverse scenario and you are in a hot place with your drum tuned high, and going to a cooler spot like Portland, Oregon the skin will actually stretch, the pitch will be lower, and you probably won’t have a popped skin.
As long as you play your drum regularly, say at least a couple of times a month, there is nothing you need to do to the skin to keep it supple and conditioned. It gets most of what it needs from your own hand oils. As you play, the drum is actually absorbing your hand oils. In fact what usually happens is that it’s your hands that tend to dry out and need moisturizer rather than the drum. We recommend a dab of shea butter for both hands and drum. It’s good to apply a dab on your hands before and/or after you play to keep your hands conditioned. IF you haven’t played your drum for a few months, that’s when you can apply a small dab of shea butter to your hands and then rub it into the skin to re-hydrate it and keep it from cracking or splitting.
While on the subject of skin care, your drum’s skin is obviously the most vulnerable part. Take off rings before playing, and never use a hard stick or mallet. And do get a case (we offer a few here) to store your drum in. We call it cheap insurance and we know your skin will last much, much longer if stored in a bag. Why? It’s not just that a bag mediates the temperature and humidity changes, but it also protects your drum from sharp corners as you carry it (another common cause of a split head). But most importantly? If your drum isn’t in a case, it’s an open invitation for anyone at your house, studio, or school to come up and start playing or abusing it. Oftentimes is not the drum’s owner who pops a skin, but someone else. Dogs are a major culprit, too. They think the skin is a doggy treat. But if you always have your drum stored in a case, you will not have strangers playing it or pets abusing it. Your drum’s skin, if properly cared for can have a lifespan of 2-10 years.
If your Skin Splits:
Popped skins are a fact of life for the djembe player. When you bought your djembe what you really bought was the shell, as the skin and other components such as rope and rings will come and go during your drum’s life. It’s kind of like a car needing new tires; they will inevitably need new ones, and when you do, you can upgrade the wheels, get snow tires and replace your brake pads. Bam! Now your car is better than ever.
Same with djembes. In the event of a popped skin, this is a good time to re-assess your drum. You can make it better than it ever was originally. With the head off, you can rework the bearing edge, fill cracks, oil the shell, replace old rope and crooked rings as well as get a skin in the proper thickness that you desire. Most beginners, for example prefer a thin skin because it’s easier to get a slap sound. But as players improve they move toward thicker skins which have more tone, more bass and more clarity between the primary sounds of a djembe. If you’ve improved, then a re-head is the time to consider stepping up to a medium or medium-thick skin. We offer a wide variety of skins (view our selection here), and if you need more help with a re-head, check out our tutorial here. We also carry the Skin It, Tune It, Play It DVD which will guide you through the entire process.
Caring for the Wood
Most djembes have an oil finish whether it’s a teak, tung, linseed, palm, coconut, or Danish oil finish. Occasionally, cheaply made drums won’t have a finish at all. If the wood looks dry or splintery, you can use any of the above oils to rub into the drum, both inside and out. However, if your drum has a high-gloss lacquer finish or black paint job like many of the imported Asian djembes, don’t bother with oil as it won’t be able to soak in.
Besides a good oil finish, the best thing that you can do to protect the wood shell of your drum is to keep the drum in a proper case or bag when it is not being played. This will protect the wood from moisture and changes in humidity and temperature.
We have designed a professional djembe bag that will keep your drum safe through just about anything, our Rhythm Traders Master Djembe Bag. Highly recommended!
For a simpler but equally effective bag that is available in four sizes, check out our Rhythm Traders Basic Djembe Bags.