Djembes, djembes, djembes….
The first djembe I ever bought was in a market in Dakar Senegal. I was being pretty hassled, and was fairly green as a twenty one year old novice freshly arrived in Africa. A few months later the skin broke on this drum and when I took it to someone to be fixed, it turned out to be a kind of cracked jigsaw of a shell, which had been glued together. So I soon learned what to look for in a good djembe, and how to mount the skin, do the rope work, and maintain a drum.
The first drums I got from Alasan were not brilliant, but they were solid, and I could see that he was skilled at what he did and took pride in his work. It wasn’t long before we both realised that if I payed him above the going rate, he could spend more time on each drum and we both came out on top. I came away with better quality instruments, and he with greater job satisfaction. So over the years I boarded flights home with masses of baggage (drums), and when Alasan needed money for a naming ceremony or a family emergency, he would call me up in England and I would place an order. In those days you could use the post office in Banjul, and for a very reasonable price, have djembes posted to your door in the UK. Those days are gone as the Gambian post office twigged on, so now we use container space and the djembes sail here.
The first part of making a drum, is going into the bush to select a dry tree that will provide a decent amount of trunk wood. The tree is then felled by axe, and djembe size lengths are cut with a double handed saw. Then the carving begins, first with an axe to get the rough djembe shape, then a more detailed session with the adze, and finally some scraping to make the wood smooth. This will all often be done in situ in the bush before the wood in transported to an outdoor workshop, and each drum can take a day or two to carve. Then the blacksmith knocks up three metal rings to secure the rope and skin, a goat skin is prepared and the drum is ready to mount.
The mounting of the skin is the crucial part of the process, as a wet skin is carefully set on the the head of the drum, and the rope work adjusted. After this has dried in the sun or by a heater for some day, the rope is pulled and later tuned to get the desired pitch. All in all a lot of work!
Please get in touch, or go to the crowd funding page to order your drum!
Allan Kerr Lives in Devon and is dedicated to percussion events using djembe's and other African instruments. Please visit his site here African Drumming Cornwall and Devon