If you’re new to the djembe world, you are probably thinking of buying your first djembe. Once you start looking at the various options, you will quickly be confronted with a bewildering array of choices. In this article we will break down the choices you need to make into different categories and also outline some other factors that the first time djembe buyer needs to be aware of.

Materials (woods and skins vs. synthetic)
This will greatly affect the cost involved. Traditional African djembe hardwood will normally be the most expensive option – it also rare that it will be legal plantation wood. It is uncommon to find mass produced drums using these rare woods so you will be paying for a one-off handcrafted drum with a lot of transportation costs. High quality, sustainable plantation hardwoods such as mahogany and teak etc are known to make very respectable drums, although are not considered by traditionalists to have the richness and bite of the traditional African bush woods. The high quality to cost ratio has, however, made them the material of choice for most djembe buyers who do not see the need to spend a whole lot more money for the relatively subtle advantages of having a traditional African wood. Softwoods (that can be marked with a fingernail) should be avoided, as their sound is invariably inferior. (An in depth introduction to the different woods can be found in the notes below)

Synthetic materials have some great advantages including being unaffected by weather conditions, humidity, dryness etc. Synthetic skins also tend to hold their tuning better. Drums made from fiberglass or PVC are much lighter to carry around. The payback comes with a more metallic/’ringy’ sound. If considered in the context of traditional African djembe they are an inferior option, however if considered as a percussive instrument in their own right to play non-traditional musical forms they prove to be versatile and reliable, providing some interesting alternative tones, and for this reason have been adopted by many crossover musicians.

Goatskin is the traditional djembe material for making drums heads although some players prefer the thicker feel and meatier sound of horse, calf, or antelope, for example, but these are normally high level players whose hands are conditioned to the much tougher experience of the thicker skins and are therefore rarely considered as a first djembe choice. As mentioned above synthetic skins are becoming popular owing to their convenience, especially amongst more experimental, non-traditional players.

For children (depending on age) a much smaller djembe would be advisable (8 to 10 inch) but for adults wishing to play traditional djembe only 12 inch and above should be considered. Those with smaller hands might prefer 12 inch whereas average to large sized hands would probably select 13 inch or above. Using a drum that is too small for your hand size makes the right sound difficult to achieve, resulting in bassy and muddy slaps and tones.

Style: (traditional – Guinea, Mali, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Burkino Faso etc. - non-traditional Indonesian, Thai – modern style slat/synthetic/new design).
Comparing the different styles of Africa djembe is really like comparing apples and oranges. Each can range from very well made to very poorly made and there is no guarantee of quality in buying a drum from any particular region. However ‘African’ drums made outside of the traditional djembe areas mentioned above will invariably be of lower quality (Ghana, for example, is a well known source of low quality soft-wood djembe). Each has their own distinctive tonal and aesthetic characteristics and drummers usually make their decision based on personal preference.

Traditional players usually keep to tradition and prefer to use an African made Djembe. However, the best-made mass produced Djembe are equally good and can often rival the sound of an African drum for a fraction of the price. The key here is to identify the highest standards of manufacturing and not to go with the cheapest option.

Modern style slat djembe's became popularised because of the convenience and low cost of production. This is not really seen as a viable alternative by most, as the slat construction method does not allow for the djembe’s curved bowl and therefore cannot reproduce a true djembe sound. The woods used in slat production are usually lower density, which also has a negative impact. Likewise modern designs that attempt to change the djembe’s shape drastically are generally doomed to failure as the acoustic science behind the djembe is sound and it is no coincidence that drum makers in Africa settled for the traditional shape.

Quality Control:
Many Djembe drums (including lower quality African) are not dried sufficiently and will therefore crack with climate change. You need to look carefully for signs of cracking. Even seemingly surface cracks can quickly develop into big problems and effectively ruin a drum. Avoid cracked drums at all cost. Another problem that should be checked for is imperfections in the bell / Bowl of the drum which might be covered by the roping. Sometimes knots in the wood are filled in with a substance known as Swedish putty (basically sawdust mixed with wood glue) and then sanded and stained to the colour of the wood. These might not be obvious at a glance but on careful inspection are easily identifiable as a round section with slightly different (not wood like) feel and colour. These kinds of imperfections will affect the drum’s sound to a certain degree and should always result in the drum being priced down considerable. Check for imperfections on the skin such as scarring and bite marks and check the wood carefully for wood worm. Quality control of mass produced djembe should rule out such problems but is always good to make these checks just in case.

How to play the Djembe
If you are a beginner and would like to learn to play traditional West African rhythms, we recommend you have lessons with a qualified Djembe instructor. Toning Drum has produced a djembe book in English and Chinese for the Chinese education percussion curriculum this is for the beginner and for the traditionalist who requires building his knowledge in West African rhythms. It is fully illustrated, introducing twenty-five traditional West African rhythms, including the contexts of the rhythms. It is also sanctioned by djembe teacher M. Taylor of TTM Chicago and his master Mamady Keita, the worlds greatest Djembe player. Audio files for each part, djembe, dunun, and bells with a full ensemble of each rhythm are accessible on Toning Drum Web Site. All rhythm parts are played by M. Taylor and certified as original and produced for Toning Drum Djembe book.

Toning Drum recommendation for buying your Djembe
For the pure traditionalist without a cost restraint a traditional West African Djembe would be our recommendation. For an older student a mid price Toning Drum Jammer hardwood is a good start. For the education system the alternative synthetic materials, which are hard wearing and suitable for school use, would be the best bet. For the teacher, professional or budding musician the Toning Drum Professional or Master Djembe are both very high quality instruments.
One thing that is often overlooked is the weight of the drum. if you play sitting down, weight is not a factor. But don't forget that you will frequently have to carry your drum. Depending on the size and material of the shell, A djembe may weigh as little as 8Kg (18LB) or as much as 15KG (33LB). Weight matters not only when you carry your drum, but also for performances where you may want to play standing up. (a one-hour performance with a 15KG drum is a lot more demanding than the same performance with a 10Kg drum)
Notes: Woods:
First of all, you need to understand the difference between traditional and non-traditional woods. It is a safe bet that, over the hundreds of years, many different West African species of wood were tried as djembe woods. Most of them were discarded as unsuitable; only a handful of species survived the selection process and became traditional. The traditional woods are all tropical hardwoods that are both dense and hard. The high density and hardness are extremely important because they create the drum's voice and affect the sound. Quality of manufacture varies from excellent to extremely poor. A few of the manufacturers in West Africa produce some of the worlds best Djembe. However, because of the nature of the production in small villages, delivery and quantity is difficult for the mass market. There is also a problem of receiving certified certification of plantation wood in most cases.

Hardness and sound
The sound of a djembe is partly related to the hardness and density of its wood. In terms of hardness, from hard to soft, the West African traditional woods can be arranged as follows: Gueni, Gele, Lenke, Dugura, Djalla, Iroko; Of these, Gueni and Gele can be called hard, Lenke, Dugura, and Djalla medium and Iroko soft, ( these are relative terms- all of them are classified as hardwoods. If you decide to buy direct from Africa be very careful when choosing your djembe and only buy from a reputable dealer. They are many dealers that sell djembe that do not understand the woods. Some regions of Africa have different terms and synonyms for the woods and offer soft wood with the same name as the above, these are not suitable for djembe. A simple test is if you can mark the shell with your fingernail than do not buy.

Non-African woods
Most Djembe makers around the world experiment with different local timbers, sometimes with outstanding results. So do not reject simply because it is made of a non-traditional wood. A well-proportioned djembe will sound good provided that the wood has similar characteristics as the traditional woods. This is not to say that non-traditional woods cannot be used to make high-quality djembe. Other woods that are similar density and hardness from elsewhere in the world are suitable too.

The bulk of djembe created outside of West Africa come from Indonesia and Thailand. Almost inevitably, these are made from plantation teak, mahogany, and oak wood. Quality of manufacture varies again from excellent to extremely poor. A well made Indonesian djembe can be the best option if you are on a budget. The manufacturing process of making a Djembe is extremely important. With mass production of the djembe it takes time to dry the wood after the shells have been formed. Most local Indonesian and Thailand manufactures do not follow and process for drying the wood to the moister content required and therefor the drums crack or split or become infested with mould. A drum with a crack in the bowl of the djembe will loose the timbre of the drum.

Hardness of Wood
The hardness of the wood affects the sound of a djembe. In general, the harder woods tend to result in drums that have bright sound with longer sustain. Djembe made of these woods (all other factors being equal) will have loud sharp slaps with a rich overtone spectrum. At the same time, the tones will not be quite full-bodied and dark as these made from a softer hard wood.

Sapwood and Heartwood
A tree has two distinct types of wood. Heartwood forms the centre of the trunk and is no longer alive. It carries the weight of the tree and provides structural integrity.. Sapwood forms the outer layer of the trunk and carries nutrients. As the tree grows, sapwood near the centre of the tree dies and gradually becomes hardwood.

Sapwood is softer than the heartwood and has lower density and higher moister content, so it is not as strong as heartwood's. In a djembe, you can recognise sapwood by the lighter-coloured patches on the widest part of the bowl if not decorated and in most cases lighter in weight. The most prized shells are made entirely of heartwood. However, many shells have some sapwood on the bowl. Its presence is not a defect and can look very attractive.

Djembe Material Alternatives.
With the growing popularity of the djembe, manufactures have devised different material to produce the djembe. The reason for this is the green issue of De-foresting and cost. A traditional West African Djembe can be three times the cost of a non-traditional wood and the man made synthetic djembe is the lowest cost in most cases.

Toning Drum offer traditional West African Djembe, Non traditional djembe, man-made synthetic Djembe in fibreglass and PVC

Toning Drum Traditional West African Djembe are custom made to order and requires a three month production & delivery time.
We hope this article has been useful and welcome comments.