The djembe is one of the most well-known instruments in West Africa. Traditionally, this goblet-shaped drum is carved from a single piece of African hardwood and topped with animal skin. The drum is classified as a membranophone instrument in the percussion family in the west today.
According to some, the djembe got its name from the Bamana of Mali, who used the phrase “Anke dje, anke be” to gather their people. It translates as “everyone gathers together”. “Dje” translates as “gather” and “be” as “everyone.” The djembe drum is around 400-800 years old. Mandé people invented it during the Malian Empire. Senegal, southern Mauritania, Mali, northern Burkina Faso, western Niger, the Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, the Ivory Coast, and northern Ghana were all part of it. However, it is uncertain if the djembe precedes or follows the Mali Empire due to a lack of written records in West African countries. The history of the djembe appears to span several centuries, if not more than a millennium.
The goblet form of the djembe implies that it was made from a mortar at one time (mortars are commonly used for food preparation in West Africa). Fodéba Keta created Les Ballets Africains in 1952. Moreover, he was responsible for bringing the djembe to the attention of audiences outside of West Africa. Guinea’s first president, Sékou Touré, named the ballet Guinea’s first national ballet after Guinea won independence in 1958. Ladji Camara, a member of Ballets Africains in the 1950s, began teaching djembe in the 1960s. He continued to do so into the 1990s in the United States. During the 1970s, Camara collaborated extensively with Babatunde Olatunji, who helped to popularize the instrument in the United States.
The djembe features a wooden body (or shell) with an unprocessed leather drumhead, most frequently manufactured from goatskin. Moreover, the djembes have an external diameter of 30–38 cm (12–15 in) and a height of 58–63 cm (23–25 in). The majority of them have a diameter of 13 to 14 inches. It varies depending on the size and shell material, ranging from 5 kg to 13 kg. A medium-sized djembe (with skin, rings, and rope) carved from one of the traditional timbers weighs about 9 kg. It is an incredibly versatile drum that can generate a broad range of sounds. Secondly, the drum is extremely loud. It makes it easily heard over a large percussion group as a single instrument.
According to the Malinké, a competent drummer is one who can “make the djembe talk,” which means that the player should be able to share an emotional story with the djembe. The djembe, like the dunun that usually accompanies it, is traditionally performed solely by men. On the other hand, women play percussion instruments like the shekere (a hollowed-out gourd covered in a net of beads), “Karignan” (a tubular bell), and “Kese Kese” (a woven basket rattle). Even today women rarely play the djembe or dunun in West Africa. There are three main types of djembe drums: 1) Those with a swallow’s tail and around and vertical drum shell, 2) Those with a swallow’s tail and a funnel-shaped drum shell with a wide diameter, 3) Those with a cylindrical and rather a thin base.