Where should you buy a djembe drum? Should you go to a large distributor on line, a chain store, a small company or an individual artist? This is a question often asked to me. So firstly we need to understand one important fact. The djembe drum is a musical instrument. It is not a toy. And it has evolved into a highly developed piece of gear.
At present, the amount of skill needed to craft a djembe into a professional level instrument is quite high. People have taken a lot of time developing their crafts and skills.
The level of difficulty and artistry is just as high as making most other musical instruments! Special tools are need and used and there is so much involved in it that we just can’t even fathom by simply looking at a drum.
In it’s professional form, when made correctly by a djembe builder/artisan it’s not, “just a drum”. It is indeed a fine musical instrument to be played by trained players. Or if you wish… untrained players, thats up to you.
The best drum makers are very highly skilled individuals who have trained for long periods of time in the school of hard knocks. The people like Matt Hardwick from Drumskull Drums has been honing his craft for over 20 years or more. Wula Drum and Michael Markus has also been at it for a great deal of time and have been able to establish a system to insure quality and amazing sound in all of their products coming from West Africa. No easy task!
Matt will be the first to tell you he is constantly learning more and coming up with new and interesting ideas as well as leading edge innovations that help move the djembe of today up several notches in sound and beauty as well. Every time I see one of his new drums, I drool and say, “they keep getting better and better”!
He is also a great drummer as well and student of the legendary and incredible Abdoulye Diakate. He has painstakingly stayed with his drum making business through thick and thin. He was at the forefront of djembe development and continues to be today as well. Through thick and thin he has persevered.
I have several of his drums and I also send much of my repair work to to him. Drumskull Drums turn around time is amazing. They do incredible work and get it back to you fast! Often I am shocked at the “better then new” job they do on updating my drums, decorating them, replacing heads, oiling the drum.
And it is because of a few different companies like Drumskull Drums and Wula Drum, each with several
personal innovations and perserverance now and before, that a lot of us are playing much, much nicer drums and having more fun playing as well.
The sound has improved, the quality has improved and even the djembe and drum music has improved for the better.
With a better drum with a nicer bearing edge our hands are going to hurt less. With better quality skins we are going to sound better. With better rope we can tune our drums easier and the drums will stay in tune longer.
Quiet as it is kept, Matt and a few others such as Michael Markus of Wula Drum have been the driving force in the improvement and advancement of the djembe drum not only in the USA but in Europe as well as West Africa itself.
Many people are not aware that advancements in the art of the djembe drum were influenced by Americans such as Chief Bey
(en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chief_Bey) who brought and showed his roping system to touring artists such as the legendary and great Famadou who brought it back to their countries.
Americans were therefore influential in the development of the djembe drum you are using today. Any drum coming out of Africa from bottom level to professional has many outside sources that have effected it in positive ways.
There are now Drumskull Drums and Wula Drum djembes all over the world. If it is a recent advancement, it probably happened at one of these two companies first.
Everything, every product you get from Drumskull Drums is a result of a tremendous amount of cumulative knowledge and experience. The djembe has evolved and will continue to do so like any other fine instrument on the planet.
When I asked Matt Hardwick recently , “how do you get the calf or mule skin flap over so perfect? What’s the secret”? I asked because the calf, cow and mule is very hard to mount wrinkle free as it is thicker and more dense and therefore much harder to pull and work with.
Some people use heat guns, type, wired harness pulling systems, hydraulic pumps. You name it, it’s been tried and done!
But Matt said there was no secret. He does it the same way he does his goat skin drums. Skill, intention and know how. And I am assuming pulling the crap out of it! Methodology developed over years of trial and error. There is no substitute for time put in. Everyone knows that any drum they put out there is going to sound great and look great.
And besides the great work of Drumskull Drums and Wula Drums now, just like in any other fields of work there are some very nice new guys coming up as well.
Many people now get djembe shells from various sources originating in west africa and then totally rework the shells, roping them and chewing the new skins them as well.
Although this is not spoken of much the choosing of the skin is a major function of the sound of any drum. Matching the skins qualities to balance with the tonality and frequencies of the shell itself is a fine art in and of itself.
The right skin can make almost any drum sound much better or even great. It is a huge part of the formula in your drums sound. People like John Felice of New England are taking the ski arts even further.
John will take a skin and measure it carefully for evenness. If the skin is not even thickness all the way around (which is almost always the case) he will scrape it in the thick areas with special tools to even out the thickness.
Not only does this make tuning the drum easier and more accurate, it also stops the drum from going out of round. Going out of round is more and more common from people using thicker skins and pulling tighter.
He takes his time tuning them, and that is something that distributors or large manufacturers can not do. Take their time. An individual and artisan like John Felice and the others I have mentioned take their time to get it right.
John also took a drum I had ordered directly from Guinea and did extensive work to the shell, fixing the “too thick” bearing edge and also removing almost albs of excess weight from the drum. Everyone’s first thought is, “is the shell still strong”?
I have had it for several months with a nice calf skin on it from Manito Percussion and the drum has indeed stayed in round and not been effected negatively from the weight reduction plan.
As time has gone on I have started going to more and more peoples shops to see how things are done and I am always shocked at how much work goes into building a djembe.
I don’t think most people realize this when they are buying or looking to buy a drum. Every part of the drum has been gone over and getting all the measurements perfect is another art as well.
The bearing edges on most imported djembe drums almost always need to be rounded on many of the shells specially those originating from the Ivory Coast.
Of course it depends on who is carving them and importing them as well. But on any drum from anyone you buy, you want to make sure that the bearing edge has been rounded. This makes a big difference in sound and comfort for your hands. Furthermore, the drums are often not level. You don’t want your drum leaning to the side.
Sometimes, they have to be carefully adjusted to get them even. This can be a time consuming project because any cuts made to the shell need to not only be minimum but exacting.
Therefore great care needs to be taken, you only have one chance to get some of these enhancements and corrections right. You need to have skills and tools. When I talk about work needing to be done to the shell these are just a few of the many things that might need to be done prior to mounting the head.
Also when I talk about work needing to be done on the shells in “prep” I am not talking about the carving of the shell.
Or the work done prior in Africa. I am talking about preparing the drum, the finishing and sanding of the outside of the shell, levelling the drum (they are often uneven heights like a leaning tower), bevelling the rim (making it round), treating the wood with oil and on and on.
It is hours and hours of work! Just the prep process can take a few days.
I love the new rubber bottoms being put on drums the last few years. John Felice and others are gluing custom made rubber bottom rings on djembes so that no nails go into the shell.
Not only does this look superior it also stops the bottom of the drum from splitting. It also protects wooden floors from damage. I first saw this at Drumskull Drums by the way. Some people both in West Africa and also builders in the USA/Europe still prefer and use the bicycle tire. It’s a matter of preference and taste.
Please keep in mind that in the heading process at any point, (before, during or after) a skin can pop, a flaw impossible to be seen creates a problem and all the work that was done mounting a head has to be done over again.
Hours and hours of labour. The drum maker often finishes a drum only to find a fatal flaw and has to start over. Its sad but it happens sometimes and is part of the process.
This unfortunately is something that happens to every person making a drum from beginner to advanced.
There is no getting around this and every drum maker has a story about this happening at one point or another.
A ring can bend for no apparent reason. Any number of things can happen. The skin can slip out. And the drum maker can not charge you for this.
He (or she) just has to eat the loss. The price of the skin and his or her time. It actually takes John Felice (and other friends I know) up to a couple weeks to finish a drum from start to finish including tuning it.
This is a labor of love! There are a lot of tools involved, special tools for bevelling the bearing edge to make it round (where the skin meets the drum rim) and too many others to list (or that I remember).
I understand that there are people that can put together drums much faster, but that is not my point. My point is that my friend and people like him, the artisans are indeed lovers of drums.
They do this out of love. John Felice and the other “small guys” are probably making about 10 cents an hour working on a drum. If that. His reward is a satisfied customer.
I believe he might just barely break even, and people bust his balls over his price sometimes, which i feel are very fair in this market place.
People, all of us need to understand the djembe is indeed a musical instrument from a proud heritage and is from a culture where it is used for a variety of purposes. It is not something to be banged on. The more we all understand that is an instrument with a purpose, the more respect we have and show, the more the public will understand this as well
Guinea djembe master Bolokada Conde also sells drums he prepares with his magical touch.
I have had two djembe drums from Bolokada and they have been terrific and with stood the test of time. I was able to hear them first and also to be around one of them for a period of time as Bolokada as using it as his solo drum in our performance group so I really got to know the drum.
Namory Keita an amazing drummer and also a drum builder from the Hamanah region of Guinea West Africa also sells drums he prepares. I have one of his drums that I absolutely love. You can find them, (Namory Keita/Bolokada Conde) on Facebook or an easy google search.
Djembe drums have changed tremendously since I first started playing in the late 1970’s.
They were very simple at first. Often un even, out of round, poor skins, bad rope and you really had to do a lot to the drum to get it to sound good.
With todays plethora of instruments on the market its hard to believe that at one time it was almost impossible to get even a half way decent drum unless you really had a great connection and even then it was hard and the drums were not nice.
However, what we got we used. Everyone contributed to drum building projects and we did the best we could. We went to local tanneries or farms to look for skins or anywhere they were available.
It’s like cars in Cuba. If it runs it is used! If it does not run, “well we make it run”! Or use it until it falls apart and then try to put it back together again. Make do with what you have.
That is how it used to be and also why I appreciate the people responsible for the djembe moving forward.
It’s good to know about the history and if you have more you would like to add to this story I am always open to hearing any information you might want to add as well!
Djembe builders and artists like Matt Hardwick, Moshe, Yagbe Onilu in the Bay Area of California back in the day, and so many others having put in so much time and energy so we all have better drums to play.
And they also invented various pulling tools and instruments we use like the pulling lever made out of car parts. Or at least they brought it fourth. All of the stuff we are using and doing today started somewhere.
As I mentioned here were very limited supplies and we were happy with anything we could find. The funny thing is no one ever had a beautiful drum like today! Its a happy new djembe world we have now.
We often sourced “fresh” goat skins and suffice to say it was not pleasant. These days Manito Percussion offers after market calf skin, mule skin, goat skin and even camel skin for your djembes.
The choices are truly amazing as is the sound from these fine skins he produces. I have several YouTube comparison videos of all of these skins if you would like to check out the sound just go to my channel.
If you need a skin please contact Ryan Manito Wendel and use coupon code 007 for a discount, too. He is dedicated to drums, drumming and drummers.
Not only a great conga player, Ryan Manito Wendel also makes many different types of conga drums, bongos and dunun (aka “djun djun”) drums from logs, found wood and ecologically sound resources. He has the best skins on the market right now as well. He specializes in calf skin and mule skin for djembes as well as steer skin for conga drums.
He has every type of skin imaginable. I just had a camel skin mounted on a very old shell I had. I got the skin from Manito Percussion in Georgia.
In the 1970’s I never in my wildest dreams imagined that we would be playing drums that looked and sounded like the drums we are talking aout and are shown in the photos here in this article.
I wish I had photos to show you of the first drums we were playing in the late 70’s and 80’s! They look primitive in comparison to the fine art that is available these days.
We sought out sources but they just were not in place yet back in the day. We are so lucky now and most of us don’t even realize that at one point none of this was here.
I am very grateful. And again we have Wula Drum and others like them to thank for setting things in place so many years ago before many of us were even thinking about drumming.
The early pioneers are why we have so much access to so many fine drums and related gear today. They found the resources, open the doors and started the process.
At first it was hard to get shipments and to work things out but gradually over time they got it together and established the groundwork and set things up for us.
There was no internet in those days and it was all who you knew, who might be taking a trip to Africa and building your own gear which some of us did to various degrees of success and failure.
And now fast forward to 2014 and the drums have really advanced. The craft and the shell itself are now made to exacting standards.
The shells may have ornate detail, carvings, bling (tack work, metal work, studs, tacks, pins and/or all kinds of misc. decorations). The sky is the limit.
And it gets more and more interesting every day.
My friend Djembe Thunder, a djembe drum master from Mali now living in the UK is making awesome djembes and decorations like I have never seen before with interesting metal work and wood colourations. He also uses antelope skin which i have not tried before.
Although I am a fan of the plain shell with out carvings I do appreciate the great art of decorating djembes. Interestingly enough I am told that drum maker Tom Kondas, (formerly of Wula) had great influence in bringing special carving tools to Guinea to do “chip carving” which they had not done much of prior.
Wula Drum headed by legendary drummer Michael Markus has a dedicated team of drum builders in Guinea, West Africa. They work very hard every season to provide the highest-quality instruments using the best possible materials. Their djembes are sourced from the hardwoods in Guinea: Lengue, Khadi, Acajou, Doukie, Koula Koula, as well as Melina Wood for their lighter drums.
The Special Piece is their top djembe model, made from the best wood selection of the season. Each Special Piece drum is a unique work of art, handcrafted and assembled by Wula Drum’s master carvers at their shop in Guinea. Wula Drum’s unique step design keeps rings snug for superb tuning, and helps to create the legendary Wula Drum sound. I have and play a Wula 13″ Lenke drum with thick goat that is not only beautiful but does indeed have that has superb sound.
So as you can see here there are several small grass roots companies that specialize in djembes such as Wula Drum.
They have taken the art of drum building to a new level. Every time I see a new post from these companies and also the individual artists mentioned it is very exciting for me as the art and craft continues to grow and expand.
The beauty of the drum is really coming into play and the selection of ropes and choices is mind boggling as well. You can custom order your own drum and you can even have your own djembe design implemented by Wula Drum if you like (and don’t mind waiting on a special order djembe).
I would like to point out a very interesting difference in the djembe and conga drum world here. In the conga drum world, if you order a hand made drum there can be waits of anywhere from 6 months (minimum) to several years! There are people waiting over 2-3 years for certain artists drums. We are very lucky in the djembe world to have these artists and small companies like Wula Drum , Shorty Palmer and Motherland Percussion who invest out of pocket so you don’t have to wait!
These companies and artists have single-handedly pushed things forward in a good way! Everything is better now then it was when I first started. The art of drum making has improved enormously.
And my point is this. The djembe you are now playing that you might think is 100% West African has not nay been influenced and co developed by Americans, but even the rope used is not from West Africa. It is now a joint effort!
Wula Drum has led the way and everyone else followed. Many interesting innovations I have personally seen or experienced came through them first. If you know your drums then you will know about Wula Drums and the history of the djembe in USA .
I have seen several mule skins put on beautifully, but not any flap overs with out wrinkles. It is not necessary to have a flap over skin by the way, it is just my personal preference. John Felice is doing a great job in New England with them.
Meanwhile, the ropes these days are not only more beautiful but much stronger then before. The shells themselves are amazing art pieces. There are woods available that I have not even head of until recent years.
Carvings have evolved to masterpieces and it keeps on amazing me more and more. Wula Drum leads the fore front in artistic carvings and have museum quality pieces that are quite stunning. Some of their drums would look great with out any skin sitting on your shelf!
They do not have the materials or technology in West Africa to do what these builders are doing here in the USA today. I am not taking anything away from the builders there. They are indeed masters. They just do not have the quality metal rings we can make in the isa nor do they have the rope. And believe it or not i personally prefer the American calf skin Manito Percussion and Drumskull Drums supply us with!
The carvings in the djembe drums just keep getting better and better (if you like that sort of thing). Personally I prefer a drum with no carvings but that is just my thing. They just do not have the gear, the supplies and resources there we have here.
Many people have helped both in West Africa and the USA and the quality has benefitted for all of us as well as the sound. Large efforts for reforestation also have been made. It is a long and on going process.
So the djembe keeps evolving and, (in it’s professional form) is now a very fine musical instrument like any other instrument.
Just like a fine high end guitar, violin or piano. Some of us including myself, got stuck on never paying more then $350 for a djembe until recently. I thought the sellers were out of their minds selling a drum for $500 a few years ago.
Who can afford that? Recently I saw $1000 drum get sold very fast. I was shocked at first. But before you say, “I can’t afford it that’s too much”, “they are out of their minds” or anything else like that I want to say that
I am not writing this article to justify anything. It is only to explain that a fine musical instrument hand crafted from wood with an intense amount of work put into it to me is worth waiting for. Save up and get your self a righteous instrument. Sell your house, car, whatever.
I truly believe that that drum that sold for $1000 is worth every penny, and that it was not a big profit maker. The amount of work that goes into the drum, the carvings, the glued rubber bottom, the extended triple hitches. There is a lot of stuff going on and a lot more work involved then there used to be!
I am not saying I need that drum, or you need that drum. I am saying it is a finely crafted musical instrument, like any other high end exquisite musical instrument of any type. Great is great! And we can’t take that away from it.
You pay for the best sounding, best looking and highest quality and get what you pay for it.
These drums are going to last a lifetime and are a super high quality product.
A piece of art and a musical instruments as well. Beautiful, powerful drums are now within everyone’s reach and all we need is the cash and of course the know how to play them! But that is another story completely. Do we need these fine high end drums? Can’t we just get by on the simplest possible drums?
Yes, you and I can get buy on very simple drums with a nice head on it and it is all about sound.
“Its all about your (and my) technique, a good player can make anything sound good, it’s not the hammer it’s carpenter (yawn), its not the arrow its the person shooting it”.
Before you write me about this, I have already heard it all! I still hold my point that it is still totally valid to have, to make and to sell high line instruments for those who want this type of product. A great drummer will sound better on a great drum and together, a skilled player on a beautiful carved djembe is a wonderful thing to see, hear and experience!
It sounds amazing, it looks amazing and it is a highly developed and refined product. It’s the best of the best. Think Stradivarius. So, for me, it is worth waiting until I have the money to buy a great instrument rather then compromising and buying an inferior product. A Martin guitar can be $25,000. We are going to be seeing more and more beautiful djembes and the prices are going up.
I am not saying we all need to buy $800, $900 or $1000 drums, but a drum for $500-$600 from an individual craftsman based on the amount of work he or she has put in to it is not too much money in my opinion.
So please don’t bust these guys chops over prices. They have expenses and hardly anyone is making a living off of selling high end drums. The cheap drums are indeed cheap.
If you buy a cheap drum and you learn how to play, eventually you will get tired of it. It happens to everyone, me included. There is a lot of crap out there and be sure about what you are buying!
One point I would like to make about going to an individual to hand craft your drum is that you get to be involved in the process, (if you like) and you get to help design your own drum. These guys answer their phones, you can talk through stuff.
You make the choices. The ropes, the rings, the skin. Rubber bottom? The type of head job. You also get personal service. It develops a connection between you and your drum as well.
With individual builders I know in the USA, you pick out the shell and you tell him what you want and he makes it for you. If it does not come out right he changes stuff.
What I am saying is that you are now involved in the process, it is more personal and it’s not simply a “here’s the money give me the drum” thing. It can be if you want that and that’s fine.
But someone like John Felice is going to make sure it is done right and you are happy. He is not churning out drums.
There are many many individuals making and selling djembes and I can only speak for the people I have dealt with personally so you will have to do your own diligence.
My recommendation is to get involved with your drum purchase by using an individual artisan djembe builder.There are several individuals I can recommend who do great work putting together djembes one drum at a time, made to order.
Trevor Christian Cruse, Joe Buglar, Nate Vellinga and James Mack are just a few of them.
Trevor made one of the nicest sounding drums I have heard in a long time.
He used a Shorty Palmer ow belly skin, a thick beautiful sounding skin for those with hard hands able to endure the hardness of cow. Shorty Palmer by the way, is an excellent source for inexpensive shells usually from the Ivory Coast. With some hard work and elbow grease these shells often turn into real beauties.
AWA and The Mamady Keita signature series drums are made very nicely as well. I am not sure if you are paying a little bit more for the name, you will have to decide that but they are made beautifully.
James Mack makes some beautiful drums in Australia now. Nate Vellinga of One Tree Drums has terrific shells, complete djembes and supplies many drums for some top West African players.
I also saw some nice drums being made by Susan Iwaniw a couple of years back that were quite light weight and moderately priced as well with very good mounting work. Timothy Dabrowski puts in a staunch effort on every djembe I have seen him put together and uses unique Mongolian extra thick goat skin from China.
Of course, there are many others, but I have not interacted with them or played their drums. And the point is to realize this and seek out these people on your own .
Again, I can not list all the people making drums, there are simply too many.. especially ones I have not played, so please do not write me and tell me I forgot someone, if I did not mention them its because I am not familiar with them.
Check them out and see what they have to offer. Thanks to the internet and open minded individuals information that was once top secret or unavailable is now being shared openly and it is easy to learn how to put together drums if you are handy and would like to try it your self.
I see more and more new companies popping up everyday and I have not researched european companies of which there are many as well. From what I have seen in photos Michel Tivier has some outstanding Mali based products at his company “Wassolou Percussion”.
I am happy to hear from you or from the other artists about their drums and would love to see photos, videos and info too!Please send it in! I will post it if it looks good. It is so nice to see and it is the diversity and influx of new and creative ideas that keeps this exciting art form moving forward.
I personally enjoy all the new styles, creations and learning about the individuals and their craft, their ideas on the internet. Because of the internet and open minded people many new and interesting ideas are shared freely and people in far away places that dont even speak the same language can see the photos and get ideas how to improve their drums from afar.
When I am in Thailand i see several innovations in the local small drummers communities that came directly from Jasons Djembes and his Facebook groups. In Malaysia I saw Shorty Palmers products!
If I did not mention your company, your friend, your drum it is only because I have not had any direct or personal experience with them.
Please do not be insulted or angry if there are simply too many for me to know or have had experience with. The point is for you to find out and explore who is best for your needs.
It’s now up to you to find and decide who is going to make your next drum. Do your homework.
Take your time, ask around and I am sure you will find the drum and drum maker that’s right for you! For more info please click on these links: