When you are buying a djembe there are numerous things to look for to assure you are buying the right drum for your self. Here is a guideline of features to be aware of and look for.
When buying a djmebe the first thing you want to look at is the wood shell. Put a towel or something soft (or card board) on the ground and turn the drum upside down. Inspect the inside of the drum carefuly using a flashlight if you have to. Look for cracks that go all the way through the drum. You have to check very carefully as the cracks are often carefully concealed and they may or may not be problematic later on in the drums life.
Slight small cracks on the outside of the drum are probably not going to be problematic, though and are just superficial but be very careful and do make sure they do not go all the way through the drum. Drums often have small cracks where the bowl meets the stem on the outside of the drum. I have been told that these are not important. But for me, I prefer a drum with out any cracks if possible.
While you are looking inside make a fist and make sure that your arm and fist go all the way through to the inner bowl. If not the “choke” (the area you just passed through between the stem and the bowl) is too small. Drums from Guinee, Mali and the Ivory Coast generally do not have a problem with the choke being too small where as djmebe drums made in other countries often do have the problem. To get a drum that has a larger choke you have to start with a piece of wood that is larger so that is why people try to get by with a smaller choke not realizing they are sacrificing a lot of sound.
Sometimes a drum maker will use wood dust or something brown to cover up the repair so if you see discoloration you should be suspicious. There are all different products used from wood glue to chemicals. There is no way to know what someone used really so that is why it is important to inspect carefully.
If you do buy a drum and it does crack or if you already have a drum and it is cracking there are many ways to fix it, fiberglass and fiberglass tape being one of the methods.
Once you are satisfied about the cracks and the choke, check out the skin. Make sure there are not any rips or tears anywhere that have been carefully concealed. Sometimes there will be a patch on the skin or underneath the skin. Also look for glue spots that someone has used to temporarily close up a micro or small tear.
When looking at the skin on a used drum look at sweat spots where moisture may have condensed from a players hands. These are weak points and are signs that the skin will not last for long.
Next thing to look at is the rope and the roping. Look for fraying and wear and tear on the rope. Rope is expensive to replace. Look at the Horizontal (ropes that go sideways) and vertical lines. When you buy a new or used drum you generally want the horizontal lines that create the diamonds or “S” snaps as they are called to be as low as possible on the drum. I personally like my drum to be at full tension with a maximum of one row of snaps on my drum.
Make sure there is extra rope that is wrapped around the outside of the drum where the stem meets the bowl. This is so that you can pull the drum tighter down the road if it loosens up. All drums will become a bit looser to varying degrees at some point while you own it. It is the nature of the beast.
If the snaps are higher then one or two rows and the skin is not tight with a high pitched tone then it means the drum skin has had a longer life then I recommend or it has not been pulled properly or by a knowledgable person. When a drum has diamonds done all the way to the top and it is still not tight or a high pitched tone then the drum has not ben set up correctly. The diamonds and any pulling should have an even uniform look to it, and the pattern should be consistent. Again, if it is not then someone unskilled pulled or set up the drum.
Make sure that the outer rim sits slightly below the inner rim and that the outer rim it is relatively even all the way around the drum. You do not want the outer rim pulled too far down the sides as well. This can create problems and also makes further tuning or pulling impossible. When inspecting a skin you want the inner rims to be as close to the wood shell as possible. This does effect the sound and set up of the drum if the inner rings are too far away from the drum. You can check this by sticking your finger underneath the skin in the space between the skin and the wood shell. Your finger should not be able to slide through the space.
Pick up the drum and feel the weight. It should not be to heavy for you to carry on your shoulder, or too light. In my experience almost every super light drum I have played has not had “the sound” that I wanted. There is something to the thicker heavy wood resonating deeper then thin light wood. My advice is to be weary of a drum that is too light. On the other hand if the drum is too heavy you will not want to carry it around so check that out as well.
When you play the drum make sure that there is plenty of bass.OFten djembes have slap and tone but sometimes when they are pulled tightly there is no bass. You want a balanced equal amount of tone, slap and bass. If you are an ensemble player or play in groups with other drummers please try to play the drum first with other drummers and drums. This will give you a sense of how the drum is going to perform with other drummers in context. I have had drums before that sounded great by themselves but when ever I took the drum out and played with other people the drums sound was buried. At first I thought it was me (“it’s not the drum it’s the drummer”), but when I played other drums I did not have the problem.
If you play upright (standing) make sure you bring a strap with you when you try the drum out and play standing up and see how it feels. If you play sitting down make sure you play the drum for a while, as long as possible to get a feel for it. The person selling it will understand. YOu are entering a long term partnership and make sure it feels, looks and sounds right to you. Good luck in your search and writ eme here if you have any more questions or I forgot anything you would like to add.