Djembe Fundamentals

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drum circle of drums on a beach

  • Djembe – pronounced jem bay – African drum
  • New Drummers – Welcome to an instrument that will change your life and bring you great joy!  It’s important to have fun. It’s important to learn good technique and drumming skills so you get the sounds from your drum and you keep free from injury.
  • Balance – Breathe, love the drum. Listen to drum music, get authentic djembe music (African) and drum along. Then get some rock stuff and drum along.  Get the rhythms in your body. Move to the music. Don’t just practice with papers. Memorize your lessons – sing the jingles / rhythms in your head and get it in your body, The rhythms are then yours to improvise with!
  • Lessons –  Arrange a binder, dividers, pocket folders, lined paper for note taking and organize your drum binder to practice your rhythms; print, hole punch and organize your handouts
  • Learning Curve! – It’s important to learn from others but at the same time expect rhythms to come from within and from the drum. Practice a lot, even in little bits of time.Leave your drum out in your home so it calls you to drum. It takes a while to get drumming hands and the three sounds from the drum.
  • Need a drum? – You can use a water jug for a bit, but they are only hard on the hands if you are drumming for a long time. You can rent a drum or buy a drum. Long and McQuade rents drums by the month. You could have a drummer test a drum for you. Find info on the return policy, and buy a drum! See the “Drum Buying” page for qualities of a good drum and the prices that you may be paying.

Djembe – Drum Safety:

  • Keep your drum stored in a safe spot, not too hot or cold, do not move the drum quickly from one temperature extreme to another, it’s an organic percussion instrument and it can crack.
  • Cover the drum head, protect it, drum bags or blankets with a bungee cord can help when transporting drums, while traveling put clothes/material in the drum
  • Lay drums horizontally in travel, do not put it above the muffler in the trunk
  • Do not store drums on a damp basement floor, put them on a carpet
  • Do not lean on a drum or push up from it on the skin in order to stand up
  • Some people use pure shea butter from music stores/African stores to moisten the drum skin when the drum is stored in dry conditions, Do not be excessive with this. Rub the smallest dab of shea on your hands first and then rub the drum if you need to. You can buy shea butter that does not have to be refrigerated.
  • Keep the skin of the drum safe. Remove all of your jewelry, and roll up your sleeves, no cuffs or snaps, and no long necklaces should touch the skin.
  • The drum should be at room temperature, warm the goat skin with your clean hands & jewelry free hands before playing the drum.
  • When you are a beginner, your drum may need a drum tie or scarf attached to the rope near the rim of your drum and then tied around your waist. This safety scarf will stop your drum from falling to the floor. Use a harness, drum belt etc. around your waist or torso to ensure safety during those heavy and rockin’ drumming times!

Djembe Body Stuff and Hand Positions:

  • Take off your jewelry, watches, bangles and long necklaces.
  • Roll up your sleeves.
  • Your hands need to be clean, no hand cream, just your natural body oils are good for the drum’s natural goat skin.
  • Massage your arms and hands, stretch your whole body before and after playing the drum.
  • If you are doing a lot of drumming with big groups, think about buying some professional musician ear plugs, They are around 20 – 25 dollars (Long & McQuade).
  • RELAX all the time, hands rested in an open triangle on the front head of your drum will help practice a relaxed feeling.
  • Arms are relaxed at your side, your elbows are out just a bit and can swing, your shoulders are relaxed, hands are flexible and relaxed.
  • Drum is ~ 4 cm above your thighs – or about one fist high above your knees. The , drum is tilted out, the drum bottom is partly off the floor in its tilt. The front edge can rest on the ground. Don’t drag your drum.
  • Lift your hands off the drum after each beat when first learning to drum, don’t let your hands stick / on the drum, it deadens the sound.
  • Lift your arms like they are drumsticks, or grandmother’s arms, have relaxed hands, but not flippy-floppy hands at the wrist, lift up to your heart level, lower arms for faster rhythms.
  • Check your posture, is your spine aligned? You can boost your bottom bum cheeks up with a cushion to help with alignment and add some back ease.
  • Your chair should be high enough so your legs are parallel to the ground. Your arms should be parallel to your knees.
  • Hand position – you can start with a triangle at the rim of the drum as a ready positions and a saying hello to your drum
  • Bass hands, (dominant hand) move your bass hand forward from the triangle, up to the wrist of that hand on your drum rim.
  • The bass hand is cupped and relaxed, fingers together, thumb is closed on your bass hand and tight to the fingers. The bass hand makes a deep sound, you do not have to play bass in the middle of the drum, just near the middle you’ll find that deep spot and the sound you love
  • Rim or tone hands, move your tone hand to the rim so your wrist drops below the rim for tone hand placement. The pad of your tone hand is just above the rim and the fingers extend on the drum from there, the fingers are flat on the drum and are closed. The thumb is out and open so it does not hit the rope knots.
  • The tone hand has fingers together and thumb out, the fingers and pad of the tone hand are on the rim of drum like a cupped letter C, tone hand fingers are flat and together and make a flat sound  – no sharp or ringing sound is made.
  • The slap hand is an open fingered tone hand on the rim, the hand comes down a little more relaxed and the fingers snap off the drum to make a sharp bell sound. Your hands should never hurt. Some drummers make their slap just the same as the tone movement but with fingers open to snap off the drum. Other drummers change the wrist position a bit so their hand is coming in from form the side to the rim and some drummers play the slap further out on the outside of the rim.
  • Feel the music, feel the beat, relax, let your body move and groove!

close up di r mo Words of Wisdom:

  • Find out what type of drum circle you are joining. Is the intent; fun, jam, meditative, or ceremonial?
  • New to drumming? Practice a lot, about 10 min to half hour a day or more when your hands and body are ready.
  • Do not touch another person’s drum without permission. Ask permission to play another person’s drum as people have a special bond with their drum. Give your thanks for the time with the drum or the drum sharing.
  • Be fluent from one line to another, get the pulse and count in your body, talk in your head or out loud about what you want your hands and body to do.
  • Make your drum sound pretty, you should like the sound you play, Have a drummer play your drum for a bit so you know what your drum is capable of and you can aim towards some sound goals!
  • Listen to the 3 different sounds you play, get a distinct tone, bass, and slap
  • Slaps take a while to sound the way they should, be patient with yourself.
  • Watch your hands for a bit, watch others, is your hand position in place, look for starting and stopping points, look for left / right position on the drum.
  • Practice things in parts, a bit at a time, sing them, then put it together
  • Use one hand at a time and study what that hand is doing. Put the other had part on your knee, separating each hand and watching what it does on the drum is very informative as to what that hand is doing on the beat.
  • Get good at what you’ve learned, it’s not the # of rhythms you know, it’s what you can do with good sounding rhythms in a circle.
  • You’ll find out in time that there are a handful of djembe rhythms that you can use anywhere and they are actually the back bone to rock songs.
  • When doing polyrhythms – layering a sound with others… find out where your hands are on the drum with the other rhythms being played. When you can see this,, then you know you are locking the sound on the pulse and in time with other drummers.
  • It takes about 4 months to find your drum sound and your drum hands and perhaps the heart or bass of the drum. Time is needed to find your drum hands.
  • Love the drum, lift the music out of the drum. Pat the drum, do not hit it, you are not making noise, and you are not beating the drum. You are making music.
  • Breathe, relax, smile, SING, feel, and move the beat, just enjoy the drum!
  • Give to the drum and the drum will give back!