The djembe is a rope-tuned, skin-covered hand drum with a goblet shape. The instrument is associated with the Mali Empire of 1230 CE (including modern-day Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire, Gambia, and Senegal), when King Sundiata ruled over the Mandinka people. The djembe was possibly invented by, but certainly popularized by the West African blacksmith caste, called Numu, who played it during the smelting of iron ore (more history here). Certain instruments of West Africa come with caste and hereditary restrictions (such as balafon, kora, and ngoni), where only members of the Djeli griot caste could play them. The djembe is not a griot instrument, and as such can be played by anyone. A person who plays djembe is called djembefola.
As with the talking drum or tama (read more here), djembe music is often associated with spoken words, and as such is more melodic than certain other drumming styles. For example, a Lamban rhythm might follow a "sa-lap sa-lap tono" spoken pattern (example). Different rhythmic patterns have different histories and traditions of being played on certain instruments over others. For example, Lamban rhythms are played to honor the Djeli, the West African griot caste of oral historians and musicians. Traditionally, Lamban rhythm is played on Djeli instruments (balafon xylophone, djelidundun bass drum, and tama or talking drum), but in modern day is played with djembe ensembles as well (more on this here).
The West African countries best known for djembe are Mali, Republic of Guinea, and Senegal, and they share a similar style of playing. The djembe was popularized around the world by Fodéba Keïta, the founder of Les Ballets Africains, a performing dance group who were accompanied by a djembe ensemble and which was declared to be Guinea's first national ballet by Guinean president Sékou Touré (video example here). A traditional djembe ensemble will include a soloist, one or two accompanying djembefola, and one to three dundun players. The low-pitched dundun, played with sticks, provides the rhythmic backbone and can come in three sizes. From low to high, they are called doundounba (or simply dundun), sangban, and kenkeni.
Djembes can range in size from small to large, with a variety of materials going into their construction, so the sound of each drum is versatile and in many ways unique. It is said by the Malinké people that a skilled drummer can make the djembe talk and convey emotion. The Bambara people of Mali believe the name djembe to come from the saying "Anke djé, anke bé" (everyone gathers together in peace; with djé–gather, and bé–peace). Today, drum circles often include djembe, and the instrument is played by people of all backgrounds, not just in the African continent, but around the world. The djembe truly is an instrument of the people.
Explore our djembe collection here