Saturday, November 19, 2011

How Djembes Became The African Drum To Beat In The United States

Edited by Azizi Powell

If there was a competition among African drums as to which would become THE drum to beat, djembes have won that competition hands down. There are other many other African drums. There are Batá, Dun Dun (talking drum), Ashiko, & Sakara drums from Nigeria; Fontomfrom, Atumpan, & Apetia, and Kpanlogo drums from Ghana, Sabar drums from Senegal, Ngoma drums from Uganda, Doumbek drums from North Africa, and Dunun drums from the same Malinke/Bambara peoples of Guinea & Mali from which the djembe comes. So why is it that by the 1990s djembe drum had thrown the once popular conga drums & bongo drums to the curb and left other African drums in the dust to become ubiquitous in drum circles around the globe not only among Black people but also among non-Black people? Here's why I think djemes won the competition to be the most popular hand drum:

1. From
"The djembe is very popular in drum circles, and in many circles is the primary instrument, most likely for its easily portable size, wide range of sounds, and its distinct tones."

2. Djembes are easy for beginners to learn how to play -at least that's what countless numbers of "Easy to Learn DVDs, YouTube videos, and face to face workshops advertise. Actually, my personal experience with djembes (as a collector of African instruments which I include in hands-on school programs in between my African storytelling)-verifies that it's easy to produce the primary djembe "bass", "tone", and "slap" tones. However, by no means does that make me a drummer. Yet, I can see how people could probably fake being a drummer after several djembe lessons, especially if they think that all they have to do is produce some beats and not any specific traditional rhythm.

From April 26th, 2010 | Author Lady Drummer

"It is said that the Djembe was introduced in New York by Guinean Master Drummer Ladji Camara, . We did not meet Papa Camara however, we were told by numerous drumming elders that Papa Camara carried the traditions of Guinea West Africa and began a Sankofa ( a return to recover what was left) of African music and dance in the black artistic communities in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Papa Camara was a deliberate drummer and teacher and developed a strong contingent of drummers along the Eastern Seaboard. It was our loss that he passed away a few years ago without having met him. However, his students credit him with initiating the spread of the knowledge of the Djembe from the East to the Western Coast as many of these First Wave drummers migrated from the New York area.

Many Americans were introduced to the djembe by Mor Thiam, (pronounced Cham)a Senegalese born Master Drummer of Dogon descent, during his performing and teaching career with the noted historian, cultural anthropologist and choreographer, Katherine Dunham. Katherine Dunham was famous for her introducing Haitian and other Caribbean dance and drumming cultures to American and European audiences in the 1950’s.

In 1965 President Johnson nominated Dunham to be the cultural Ambassador to Senegal, West Africa, to help train the Senegalese National Ballet, and assist then President Leopold Senghor in sponsoring the First Pan-African World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar from 1965-66.(1) Ms Dunham met Thiam during her journeys to Senegal. She convinced Thiam to move to America and to bring with him his extensive knowledge of Wolof and Bambara culture. Mor Thiam, whose surname means historian in the Bambara language, worked with Katherine Dunham between the years of 1968 and 1974. Professionals and students under Dunham’s tutelage were able to assimilate Thiam’s knowledge of West African drum and dance with their already extensive knowledge of African based Haitian and Caribbean music and dance. By traveling and performing with the Dunham Company Thiam was able to spread the knowledge of the djembe in numerous institutions throughout America. In this manner Thiam is credited with beginning the true djembe movement.

We call the Mor Thiam era the Second Wave of Djembe drumming in America."...

1. Individual attention and status
The Ballet style (non-traditional staged productions) of Djembes conforms to Western cultures values of placing the individual over the group.

In ballet style ensembles, the emphasis is placed on a star (lead) djembe player (djembafola) or on several lead djembefolas. The showmanship of djembefola/s and vying for the position of the lead djembefola (and thus being the star of the show) appeal to the individualistic, competitive nature of Western cultures. This is in contrast to the traditional context of djembe playing where the attention during performances is equally on all the drummers (including the dunun players) as well as the other instrumentalists (such as the kora player, and the balafon player). Furthermore, (as I understand it), traditionally, the drummers and other instrumentalist serve as musical accompaniment, and perhaps most of the attention is on the dancers and the singers. However, the role of dancers and especially the role of singers are de-emphasized in most ballet style djembe performances.
Click to find more about the differences between the traditional village context for playing djembes and the ballet style(staged production) context.

The djembe confers status on those who play it, and status is particularly conferred on lead djembe drummer/s. Although I've lost its attribution, I recall reading one comment on a YouTube thread that referred to djembe players as "macho men". That commenter didn't mean that as a compliment, but in Western societies a lot of men strive to be "macho". Note that prior to 1988, females were traditionally prohibited from playing djembes in Guinea & Mali, the nations that are considered to be the birthplace of this drum. Because there were far less stringent cultural prohibitions against female drummers in Europe and the United States (particularly among White people) it's very likely that White females were playing djembes and other African drums before Black females in Africa and elsewhere. Click for more information about African female djembe drummers).

2. The copycat effect
As an outsider (meaning a non-drummer, and non-African dancer), it's my sense that a number of people purchase & play djembes for recreational drumming because "everyone" else is. According to various blogs on that subject, djembes dominate drum circles to such an extent that usually they are the only drums present. Significantly, it appears from my reading comments on those blogs that djembes are usually not even accompanied in those drum circles by the three dunun drums (dununba, sangba, and kinkini) as is traditional in Guinea & Mali. Here's a comment from one such blog Hereafter known as "remo:drum circle":
posted by plaxy on Apr 28, 2009 12:41
"It seems most people jump straight to the djembe simply because that's all they see and want to fit into the scene.

What I hate, though, is that it is so hard to find people who are actually interested in doing something different with a drum circle. They think that doing the same thing as every other drum circle is different and alternative enough. These people try to make a fashion statement rather than trying to make some good music and rhythms."

3. [Re] Claiming cultural ties to Africa; Romantizing African cultures
Among African Americans and other people of African descent who don't live in Africa, playing the djembe or other African musical instruments is a way to reconnect with our African roots. The popular adinkra symbol "sankofa" epitomizes this. One of the pictorial symbols for sankofa is a bird whose body is facing forward with its neck facing backwards. The proverb associated with sankofa is "It's never too late to reclaim that which you've left behind".

It also appears that a number of people start playing djembes not only because that African instrument is symbolical of African cultures, but also because those cultures are thought to be more "real" and more spiritual than Western cultures. My sense is that many people who play djembes for the latter reason are non-Black.

Another drummer from the above mentioned remo:drum circle thread identifies a number of reasons why some people play djembes:
Posted on Apr 16, 2009 7:06 PM
"I believe drum circles can and should have interesting sounds, even when all djembe, but it seems participants are by far, novice, at best and have no real musical sense. Most of them just participate because they are on some spiritual journey, so they think, or they want to belong or they want someone that knows them to think there is more to them than meets the eye etc... in other words, a majority of people showing up in drum circles seem to be simply "making the scene". I find it disappointing as most of you have stated."
There are a number of online discussions about the efficacy of White people playing djembes. Six pages of comments on this topic can be found at
Another interesting discussion on the subject of non-Black people playing djembe & other African drums can be found at "Integrating drum communities".

I also recommend reading this article Written by a White man, that article focuses on some problematic reasons why some White people play African drums and/or engage in other "New Age" activities. Here's an excerpt from that article:
"I’m not condemning drumming, white Vodouisants, or non-Native people having good relationships with Native cultures. However, if you look at the “cultural appropriation” category of this blog, I think it’s clear that I have some issues with the way in which a lot of pagan-type folk “borrow” from cultures other than their own. Often it’s a surface treatment of the borrowed culture, with little to no awareness of the power differential between the culture of the borrower and that of the borrowed...

time and again I see pagans romanticizing collective cultures and demonizing individuality. In doing so, they ignore the conditioning they have as individuals and try to shoehorn themselves into some artificial community construct, or, alternately, attempt to join up with a more collective culture while approaching it with a largely individualistic mindset (which they often deny they have!)...

Plus there’s the issue of intersectionality–we are not just our race, but our sex, gender identity, sexuality, socioeconomic status, ability, and numerous other things that make up our social location. We can’t ignore these influences and just say we’re “culturally neutral”. It’s impossible."
I believe that both Black people and non-Black people can be guilty of appropriating & romantizing traditional African cultures. Playing djembe drums, and other African instruments is more than talent & skill. It helps to learn about the cultures from which those musical instruments and those African rhythms originate.

Click for one post from a three part series on djembe drums.

FEATURED VIDEOS [Updated on 8/10/2013 with two additional videos](These videos are posted in chronological order based on their posting date with the oldest dated video posted first. The videos are presented for their cultural & aesthetic value. The links to these videos' discussion threads are included as some of those comments are informative.)

Example #1: Djembe Group: Simbe' Matoto, Guinea, West Africa / Rhythm Traders Roadtrip

rhythmtraders, Uploaded on May 8, 2007

Djembe performance Group "Simbe' " play undercover in Guinea, West Africa. These guys are really throwin' down!!! The lead djembe is a shredder. They are playing outside of Mamady Keita's compound for the Tabaski Holiday. Very nice stuff.

Example #2: Foli "Rhythm"-There Is No Movement Without Rhythm

Uploaded by ThomasRoebers on Oct 25, 2010

dedicated to the people of baro.

Life has a rhythm, it's constantly moving.
The word for rhythm ( used by the Malinke tribes ) is FOLI.
It is a word that encompasses so much more than drumming, dancing or sound.
It's found in every part of daily life.
In this film you not only hear and feel rhythm but you see it.
It's an extraordinary blend of image and sound that
feeds the senses and reminds us all
how essential it is.

By the brothers Thomas Roebers
en Floris Leeuwenberg


Gary B. SmithUploaded on Jan 5, 2011

Traditional Djembe Drumming in Dakar, Senegal. A musical feast for all afficionados of West Africa's unique drum stylings. Join Mbaw as he and his talented group transfix you with their rhythmic skills.

RELATED LINK The History Of Djembe Drumming In The USA
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