History of West African Drumming

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History of West African Drumming
Djembe rhythms influenced Paul Simon, the Grateful Dead, and Incubus. (fleurs et djembé image by Anthony CALVO from Fotolia.com)

Modern percussion instruments used in jazz, rock, and even disco derive from West African tribal dance drums. Religious ceremonies, rituals, and communications centre on the rhythm of the drum, so its role in tribal life and culture is more than just music. Drums differ from tribe to tribe in their build and timbre, representative of local resources.


The drum most culturally distinct to West Africa is the djembe (pronounced "JEM-bay"). Also called djimbe, jembe, susu, yembe, or yambayani, the djembe drum is a skin-covered, goblet-shaped hollow wood drum with origins in Mali and dating back to the 9th century. Variations on the djembe appear in Senegal, Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, and Guinea, each with a distinct tonal signature. Djembe, played with bare hands, carries a deep resonant bass note. Internal carvings, wood density, and skin thickness determine the specific timbre.


The dunun, or djun-djun, resembles the modern marching bass. Its cylindrical construction provides a deep tone. The modern orchestral bass drum had its beginnings in the dunun. Several sizes of dunun developed: the smallest is the kenkeni, a mid-sized is the sangban, and the largest, which carries a deep sonorous bass, is the doundounba.


The tones of the dùndún, or talking drums, carry as far as three to four miles during the day and up to 10 or 15 at night. Drum makers hollow out a two- to three-foot length of wood, adding a three- to four-inch slit along the length, thicker at one end to allow for pitch changes. Until the middle of the 20th century, Bantu people (from Mali) of the Bulu dialect each had their own drum signature. The thicker and narrower ends of the drum, played with a stick in various pitches and rhythms, matched the spoken language. Other styles of talking drums are known variously as atumpan, dondo, donno, doodo, gangan, kalungu, lunar, lunna, odondo, tama, and tamma.


Differing striking techniques produce the various pitches. The three primary pitches are the bass, the open tone, and the slap. Striking the centre of the skin with the palm of the hand produces the deepest, or bass, note. Thumping with flattened fingers near the rim produces an open tone, and drumming with the fingertips snapping the head of the drum produces the slap. The slap’s timbre is high and sharp while the open tone is full and round. Advanced drummers create additional distinct tonal sounds.


Drumming in the tribal culture had intention and objective other than music. Dùndún carried messages from village to village while djembe drumming signified a rite of passage or a marriage or honoured a dignitary. Typically, the entire village participated in drumming ceremonies through dance or playing bells, interactively in a circle.

World Acclaim

Les Ballets Africains introduced the djembe to western audiences in Paris in 1940. Further tours by Les Ballets Africains into the 1950s exposed the art to international fans. Paul Simon, the Grateful Dead, and Incubus included the djembe in percussive rhythms of their compositions.

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