Developing good djembe technique is crucial if you want to be an in-demand djembe accompanist or if you want to solo for dance classes or in performance. Bass, tone, and slap are the alphabet for your djembe vocabulary.
Body Mechanics & Breathing
Before you even touch your drum, get warmed up and get grounded. Walk around the block. Run in place. Swing your arms freely. Shake out your shoulders, arms, wrists, and fingers. Do some yoga or tai chi. Meditate. Do whatever it is you do to get centered and grounded in your body before you start drumming.
Before you start to play a djembe, you need to be comfortable and properly oriented to your drum. Sitting on a stool or armless chair that is the right height for you and your drum, tilt your drum slightly away from you and pull your upper arms laterally away from your torso about 6-8 inches. Your hands should rest comfortably flat on the head of the drum at a 90-degree angle to each other, with your forearm forming a straight line from the elbow to the fingertips. To end up with this positioning, you may need to experiment with different chairs and stools, or you may want to get an adjustable-height stool or drum throne.
You can also play the djembe standing up with the drum hanging from a strap. Many players use a long strap that wraps around their drum and over their shoulders. You can also use a shorter strap that just goes around your waist. In either case, the drum ends up hanging between your legs. Adjust the length of the strap so that your arms rest comfortably flat on the head of the drum at a 90-degree angle to each other, with your forearm forming a straight line from the elbow to the fingertips.
Remember to breathe. At a physiological level, djembe playing is a vigorous activity, so you’ll need all the oxygen you can get. From a mechanical perspective, if you’re holding your breath you’ll mess up your mechanics and your playing won’t be relaxed.
Finally, don’t wear rings or other jewelry on our hands and arms when playing a djembe, since they can damage the head of the drum. Also, maintain your drum so that it is properly tuned and otherwise ready to play. The drums.org web site has good tips on how to maintain your djembe. Perhaps the most important step you can take to protect your djembe is to invest in a high-quality padded bag.
Fundamentals of Djembe Technique
Most djembe sounds are open and unmuffled. For all of the basic sounds, let your hand rebound as soon as it has made its sound. A bass should rebound like it’s coming off a trampoline. A tone should jump up like you’ve just touched a hot stove. A slap should snap back like the end of a cracking bullwhip.
Most djembe patterns are played out of “the roll,” meaning that if you filled every note in a measure, your hands would alternate left and right. In 4/4 time this means that the downbeat and the “+” beat (if you count 1 e + a 2 e + a etc.) are played with the right hand (if you are right-handed), while the offbeats (the e’s and a’s) are played with the left hand. (The term “roll” can also refer to double-time notes; see my djembe roll exercise page for more on this.)
You want all of your basses, tones, and slaps to have the same tone, pitch, and character each time you play them, so it’s very important to practice as much or more with your non-dominant hand so that every note sounds the same, regardless of which hand you’re using.
The bass is the lowest-pitched djembe sound. To make a bass sound on a djembe, drop your hand down in the middle of the drum, with the base of the palm of the hand just inside the rim of the drum. The thumb is tucked in, parallel (or almost parallel) to the fingers. The four fingers are together. All of the palm, the fingers, and the fingertips hit the drum head at once with a soft yet firm intention. Don’t reach all the way to center of the drum to make a bass sound; just get the bottom of the palm of your hand inside the rim of the drum. Keep your hand soft and flat or else you can end up with slapping or other extraneous sounds. As soon as your hand hits the drum head, let it rebound like it’s doing a belly flop on a trampoline. The movement to make a bass sound starts at elbow, but the wrist should lift up a bit more than the hand itself; imagine a marionette string attached at the wrist lifting the hand, and then just let it drop straight down on to the drum head.
The tone is the middle djembe sound. Many of my teachers call the tone the natural sound of the drum – the default sound it would like to make. But please note that, as Seattle djembe player Lance Scott points out, “This doesn’t mean that making a good tone is any easier than making a good slap. The kind of sound most beginning drummers make when hitting a drum is somewhere between a tone and a slap (usually closer to the tone). To get a good, deep tone without any higher overtones takes a lot of practice.”
To make a tone sound on a djembe, form a straight line from your elbow to your fingertips and keep your forearm, wrist, hand, fingers, and fingertips gently locked as a single unit. Imagine that your arm is like soft steel and your finger pads and fingertips are a mallet that will firmly strike the drum head. With your thumb perpendicular to your fingers (so that it won’t hit the rim of the drum), firmly drop your hand onto the drum head with the pads at the base of your fingers landing just outside of the rim of the drum. Your fingers stay together throughout the motion so that the four of them form a sort of paddle. The angle of force is straight down into and through the head of the drum. As soon as your fingers hit the drum, they should rebound as if you had just touched a hot stove.
The slap is the highest-pitched djembe sound. To make a djembe slap sound, assume the same arm position that you did to make a tone and then relax the wrist and let it drop down so that the palm of the hand is extended back about 10 or 15 degrees. Relax your fingers and let them naturally spread out and curve. With a flicking/whipping motion, drop your hand onto the drum head with the pads at the base of your fingers landing on (or just outside) the rim of the drum. Only your fingertips should hit the drum head (in extreme slow-motion they land in this order: pinky, ring, middle, index finger). As soon as your fingertips hit the drum head they should rebound like the tip of a bullwhip. The direction of force is at a slight angle to the head of the drum (unlike the tone, which goes straight down into the drum).
My teachers have differed on exactly where the hand should land to make a slap sound. Some say the pads at the top of the palm/base of the fingers should be in just a bit from where they are to make a tone. Others say they should land in the same place as they do when you make a tone. Experiment with this to find the position that works best for you. Your goal is to end up with a crisp, clear, clacking slap.
To make a muffled slap on a djembe, use the same technique as for a regular slap, but place the other hand on the drum head to muffle the sound. The trick here is to deftly slip the opposite hand onto the drum without making a sound. Use a swooping motion – coming in at a flat angle – to quickly and quietly slip the non-playing hand on to the drum head, and then make your muffled slap.
A Comment from a Tam Tam Mandingue Professor
When he read this article, Rusty Knorr, who is certified by Mamady Keita to teach traditional djembe playing, said, “I think it is important to clarify the relation of the palm to the bearing edge in making the tone and slap. In my experience and in learning from my teachers, the crease of the palm over the bearing edge of the drum shell is the reference point for both the tone and slap. The ‘knuckles of the palm’ should be inside the bearing edge to prevent pain and long term damage to the hand. None of the players I have seen using this reference point have bad hands but some that don’t…their hands are like claws! I had tremendous pain in learning to drum until Mamady pointed this out early in my studies with him.”
Rusty and I are going to connect soon to discuss this further, and I hope to get some photos then to add to this page to illustrate his point.
Difference Between Tone and Slap
I hope it’s clear in my descriptions above how tones and slaps differ, but it’s useful to spend some extra time on the differences between tones and slaps. The main differences are in the:
- angle of attack: straight down into the drum head for a tone, at a slight oblique angle for a slap
- tension in the forearm: strong tension for a tone, relaxed for a slap
- curve of the fingers: straight for a tone, curved for a slap
- amount of flesh that hits the drum head: all of the fingerpads and fingertips for a tone, just the fingertips for a slap.
For Mamady Keita, it’s the intention that makes the difference. He holds his hands the exact same way for each sound, but when he thinks tone, he makes a tone; when he thinks slap, he makes a slap. However you get there, the end result should be a thudding melodic tone and crackling crisp slap.
Many djembe teachers and students find some sort of vocalization helpful. Baba Olatunji used to say, “If you can say it, you can play it,” and he developed his Gun/Dun, Pa/Ta, Go/Do system to help students sing rhythms before playing them. Most of the djembe teachers I have had use some sort of vocalization scheme. To keep things simple, I recommend adopting your current teacher’s vocalization style, but if you have a lot of teachers, you might also want to develop your own for your ongoing learning.
Many experienced djembe players vocalize as they play. When Pepe Danza solos, he’s vocalizing non-stop. Ibrahima Camara says, “If I don’t talk, I cannot play.” So if you see djembe players muttering to themselves as they play, don’t question their sanity; just assume that they’re working out their phrasing.
Find a Good Teacher
Neither this article nor any other written or recorded source is a substitute for a good teacher. There are subtleties and refinements to djembe playing that you can develop only under the tutelage of an experienced teacher. If you really want to master the sounds of the djembe, find a good teacher.
Like any musical skill, mastering djembe technique requires lots of practice. The more you practice, the better you’ll sound. Tyler Richart, one of the most accomplished djembe players in Seattle, still spends an hour a day just working on his basic djembe sounds. When he teaches djembe soloing, Tyler points out that your djembe sounds are your alphabet to make the words that you use to tell your story. If you haven’t mastered your djembe technique, your story will sound like you’re talking with a mouthful of gravel.
I am grateful to the many djembe and other hand-drumming teachers I have studied with over the years. In roughly chronological order they are Simone LaDrumma, Bill Matthews, Babatunde Olatunji, Sanga of the Valley, Thione Diop, Geoff Johns, Gordy Ryan, Mamady Keita, Rusty Knorr, Rusty Eklund, Pepe Danza, Tyler Richart, and Ibrahima Camara. I have also learned a lot from the djembe players I have played with for Seattle dance classes: Carold Nelson, John van Broekhoven, Thierno Diop, Ryan Harvey, Thaddeus Hunnicutt, and many others. I am also grateful to Seattle’s two great dununfolas – Frank Anderson and Marc Langeman – for their support and help.
Djembe can be spelled many different ways: djembe, djimbe, jembe, and jenbe are all correct spelling variations.