It’s not the drum it’s the drummer!
What makes a drum have that special sound? Is it the wood? The place or country it is from? The goat skin or what the goat ate? Just what is it? About 10 years ago I was at a Mamady Keita workshop trying to pick out a djembe from a local seller there who was displaying his goods outside the workshop. I asked Mamady, what do you think about this drum? He hit it. Do you know what he replied? “The drum is good, but it is not the drum it is the drummer”. He was letting me know I had some fine tuning to do on my technique, for sure! I’ll never forget that. It’s not the drum it’s the drummer!
I have been playing over thirty years but spent the last ten years really working on refining my playing technique, taking even more lessons, finally going to Africa twice and playing many, many dance classes.
I have also been teaching workshops and performing with my teacher master drummer (djembefola), Bolokada Conde. The more I play, the more I see room for improvement. I am always working on technique. I guess I will always be a student of the drum. Through the years I have also developed “drum lust”, or a love of the physical drum! I have collected a house full of drums from some of my favorite places to go and study such as Brazil, Cuba, Guinee and Mali. And now as you’ll soon see Bali as well!When the djembe scene really started taking off in a big way about 12 years ago a Bali djembe was often laughed at in the USA by anyone who knew anything at all about drums, especially djembe drums. It was made from some type of mahogany wood with a bleached white skin that was much too thin, cheap rope and a black finish that stained your pants or rubbed off. Furthermore, they often cracked.
Occasionally someone would show up at an African dance camp in Oakland, California or Hawaii with a beautiful carved wood drum with dragons on it and everyone would be amazed at the intricate, artistic carvings and exotic wood until they played it. Some of them sounded O.K., but they never had “the sound”, that magical quality that African drums have. Even when they used better wood, the choke (the inner hole the sound passes through inside the drum) was always to small. This is because they are made on lathes, and to get a bigger choke you need an even bigger piece of wood to carve down. Simple enough reason and I appreciate not wasting wood, but they did need a bigger choke all the same.
About 12 years ago I also had the misfortune of buying some of the black drums that I included in a shipment of beautiful furniture I had purchased in Bali for a house I was building in Maui, Hawaii . I had a huge container and they were very cheap so I bought about 30. What a mistake!
What was I thinking? Well it seemed like a good idea at the time anyway! We were never able to make the drums sound very good.
My friend Larry Fitzpatrick a premier drummer on Maui and excellent carpenter, tried changing skins and got them to sound OK, but it was nothing to write home about, that’s for sure. We changed their ropes and rings too! I was determined but they just did not have “the sound”, that magical hollow full tone of the djembe drums from West Africa specifically Guinea (Guinee), Mali and Ivory Coast. I am not a big fan of the Senegalese drums. The Bombara shells from Senegal in the past have great slap and tone but not great bass tone.
I have heard some recent Senegalese drums that are much better, however. The djembe drums comming out of Ghana, at least the ones I have seen and heard I do not recommend. Ghana is not new to making drums, but they are new to making djembe drums or at least the copy shells that are coming out of Ghana now and they have recently jumped on the bandwagon. I have not seen a djembe product from there I have liked. Again just my opinion but buyer beware! I warned you.
After Bali I went to Africa twice. The first time I went to Guinee my teacher Komok Sano’s son Dauda Sano took me to a famous carvers shop in Conakry and living out my dream and fantasy, I had a drum made for me on special order. I bought itsight un seen, I just gave him the specs (a drawing) and looked at the other drums lying around. I was very excited and had huge expectations. After a month or longer of waiting, the drum was finally finished. Unfortuantely, I did not like the sound. I wanted to like the sound, i tried to talk myself into it, I am not sure why but it just did not have the sound I liked. We cranked it up and tuned it but to no avail. I ended up leaving it at my teacher Komoko Sano’s compound in Merveilles, Guinee. Ordering it had been a crap shoot. One I lost. So when I went to Mali, West Africa my friends suggested finding a player I liked, listening to his drum when he played it at a performance then making an offer on the drum after the gig. Hit him up right then and there they said!
I ended up staying in Mali for a few months. I just could not leave. I found a house with my friend music producer Paul Chandler and took daily drum classes at the local community center. I bought a cheap imitation Yamaha motorcycle that never seemed to run correctly. It was fun being under my own power there and I learned where to shop and eat so I had it all working. On the weekends I would go and play djembe with the local drumming crew (aka Young Guns) at the never ending wedding celebrations or ceremonies.
One night after a Jeneba Seck concert that we rode to very far outside Bamako, Mali I approached a somewhat famous drummer with a friend and asked to buy his drum. He told me to come to his house the next day. I went to his compound and he opened up a room full of drums. I was overwhelmed. There had to be over 50- 100 drums in there. None of them in a case! Just lying on top of each other. Why did he have so many? What were they all doing there? I asked him in broken French but he just smiled!
This surprised me that all over Africa, at least every where I went in Guinee and Mali that is, no one keeps their drums in cases. If a skin pops, they just throw another one on. And speaking of throwing, often times they throw a drum in the closet! I think it is just finances No one can afford a drum. Or maybe they are so cheap amongst themselves they do not care. Who knows?
Another thing that happened daily that amazed me in Mali was my teachers would play whatever drum was handed them. Especially the older guys. They had absolutely no predjudices (like me) over what drum they played because whatever drum they were playing on sounded great! If it was a low drum he soloed on it and it sounded great and if it was a high drum he soloed on it and it sounded great. They did have hesitations over the new trend to play cowskin on djembes though. My teacher Aruna was definately not in to it.
If a drum pops , splits, cracks or breaks there in West Africa it get’s fixed the next day. Because of the heat there the drum skins dry really fast on a reheaded drum. I was indeed surprised at the lighting fast ability of the African drummers to change skins quickly. Truly amazing speed and recovery that is for sure!After a year of lusting my African drum teacher Bolokada Conde finally sold me his performance drum. It is another wonderful drum but very heavy, too much weight to carry around traveling for sure.
So anyway, I bought the “used” djembe drum in Mali, West Africa but when I came back to the states I had to change the skin, then the rope and even the inner ring. The drum cost me around $100 in Africa but by the time I got done dialing it in, (new rope, new skin, better fitting rings), it was closer to $300 or $350. Of course it has sentimental and historical value and I would definitely do it again. The point is this. If you want an African drum you are going to pay for it, even if you go to Africa. And the really nice African Pro models are over $500-650 if you buy it from the people I trust anyway, such as Drum Skulls. That drum of course would have all the bells and whistles, such as a rubber bottom, inlaid metal work,decorations, etc., etc.Drum Skulls is a terrific and highly recommended company by the way. I like their policies, products and they stand behind the merchandise they are selling as well.
I went back to Bali a couple of years ago on another trip for fun and profit and not only was I amazed at the level and friendliness of the professional players drumming on Legion beach, but the drums had improved greatly as well. My friend Tojo (one of the original drummers from the USA that was a teacher and pioneer of the Bali drum scene) and I took a trip one day around Kuta Beach and Legion for a djembe drum shop tour. Our intention and goal was to go to every drum shop we could get to and or find, try out the drums and make some new good drumming friends. People were always happy see us, stop whatever they were doing and drum and chat with us. There was no shortage of smiles and laughs! We loved it! What a great and ideal place for a drummer to be. Warm weather, great food, friendly people, good to cheap prices, and a beautiful beach too!
We had a great time traveling about meeting people and were shocked at how many shops there were. To be honest, there was indeed a lot of bad sounding tourist drums. But, interestingly enough there were some great djembe drums and dunnuns and we bought two djembes which we brought back to Thailand with us. I have had the drum I bought for over two years now with out any problems and the skin on it lasted almost a year and a half which for me, is a very, very long time. It only popped in transit from Hawaii to USA recently as did all my other drums just about. It lasted longer then any skin I have put on my drum from Africa interestingly enough. The drum sounds great and has even been used in some performances as well. So the bottom line is this, the drum is right up there in quality and sound. We had also bought two cases which I had the surf shop copy from a case I had brought but the cases have literally disintegrated in that same time period.
Last month we took a trip to Bali to do a little exploring, relaxing, beach time and also to teach an Afro Cuban drumming workshop in Ubud and some West African djembe and dunun classes there, too.
I met with my old friend Raymond Rausch from Germany who now owns a beautiful art gallery called CV.REGALITOS , on JL. Raya Sanggingan in Ubud. and features art work from renown artist Symon.
Raymond had told me several times about his friend and his company in Ubud but I was skeptical to say the least. He took me immediately to meet Ed Balma at Bali Treasures, which is also known as “The Drum Factory”. Ed is the owner of the company and runs the factory and the retail shop in Ubud city proper. As I mentioned, before meeting Ed I was very hesitant of finding a nice hand carved drum at a large company. I thought they would all be for tourists like the bad drums I bought before. But I was definitely wrong! Not only did Ed gives us an eye opening and overwhelming full factory tour of his factory outside of Ubud, but I ended up teaching his store workers a few classes, too! I was surprised that everyone I showed a part to could play and that even the factory workers were musicians, too! I loved how everyone is constantly hitting drums no matter where you go in his factory or store! And some of them have some pretty good technique, too! Almost all of them are musicians and play local Balinese music and instruments in the Gamalan traditional Bali music orchestra.
One important thing to mention is that Bali drums are all turned on lathes. This is a machine that the drum is set on when it is still in a rough shape that spins the log around. What this does is gives the drum a somewhat perfectly round bowl and shape. The argument against this is that the “perfect” shape looses the uniqueness of the hand carvers slightly imperfect shape. Some people say that this imperfect shape on both the inside and outside is what is the most important aspect of a djembes sound. Personaly I think it is the type of wood and thickness and age. The density of the wood. But, that is just my humble opinion.
We found so many interesting and nice sounding djembe drums there. They are doing a fine job indeed. I used to think that no drum could ever match or compete with an African drum but now I have changed my mind. They are really giving the Africans a run for the money so to speak. The size and shape are now perfect. Think of it in terms of Lexus (Bali) success copying Mercedes (the African drum) for example!
When you factor in costs and the fact that if you go to Africa and buy a drum you will have to do a lot of work to it such as change the skin, the rope and sometimes even the rings and that if you buy a good drum on line it is very expensive, then these drums will start to make a lot of sense to you
While in Ubud, Bali Ed the owner of the company also educated me to the fact that his drums manufactured at Bali Treasures retail outlet, (and also through Toca in the USA where you can buy them ), are all environmentally correct. That is to say certified sustainable wood drums. The Bali officials come every two weeks to his factory to make sure everything remains kosher and they are the real deal. This means they are not destroying forests in Asia to make their drums. It costs him twice as much for the wood supply as the “bootleg” or uncertified wood that almost every shop (and there are many) uses in Bali, so this is an important point to remember! Save the trees! So in conclusion if you are going to Bali, which as you can see is a fun place to visit then I highly recommend you visit this shop, “Bali Treasures” in Ubud. The friendly workers will be happy to talk or jam with you. But leave plenty of time for the visit because there are hundreds and hundreds of drums and a wide variety of other instruments there including dumbeks, talking drums, rain sticks and on and on! You will get a great deal and leave the store very satisfied and happy.
I got a new djembe drum which I had them crank up to maximum tightness for me from Ed, a beautiful and strong felt lined case with a nice extra large pocket and a hard insert in the top of the case so it is protected on the plane ride back. This case looks like it will do the job and last a long time, but we wills ee. Because if anyone puts a bag to the test it isle!
I also got some nice fins or Casank Casank (aka Sesse Sesse) as they are called in Senegal and Guinee respectively, some hand carved dunun sticks and even a small kinking dunun.After Ubud I was off for the West African drum and dance jam on Legion beach near Kuta and the Blue Dolphin restaurant Sunday night. The players let me join in with them immediately, everyone was given the opportunity to solo and express themselves, there were no big ego trips and moreover, the players were knowledgable and fun to play with.