Getting The Beat On The History Of African Drumming

Africa is a vast continent, rich and diverse with many different nations and cultures. Music hums through this land, with it used for many ceremonies, rituals and in religion.

For African Beat, our founder Tuza hauls from Ghana, where drums are the heart of West African music. The main types of drums are djembe and kpanglogo (aka tswreshi).

We want to share with you a little about the djembe, which is the main type of drum African Beat uses for team building, performances, and school activities.

Djembe

The origins of the djembe can be traced back to the Mail Empire of the 12th century. Also known as djenbe, jembe, sanbanyi, jymbe or yembe, this drum is the drum of Madinka people. The Madinka people are also known as the Mandigo and Malinke. They come from West Africa – Guinea, Ivory Coast, Mali, Senegal, the Gambia and Guinea-Bissau.

The goblet-shaped djembe is made from a single piece of wood that is hollow throughout with a skin covering over the top. The drum is played with bare hands.

Some believe the name comes from Mali’s Bamana. They would call their people together using a drum, saying ‘anke dje, anke be’. This translates to ‘everyone gather together’. “Dje” means gather and “be” means everyone.
Stories say it was the blacksmiths (numu) who made the first djembes. They would craft each one to the person playing.

Making a Djembe

The process of making a djembe was very spiritual, with the blacksmith making an offering to the spirit of the trees as he cut one down to make the drum.

Africans say that the drum contains three spirits:

  1. The spirit of the tree it was made from
  2. The spirit of the animal whose skin is used; and
  3. The spirit of the carver or the one who cut the tree and the people who assemble the drum.

Griots

Only members of jeli caste (griots) could play the djembe. The jeli/griots are musicians responsible for the oral history of their people. One of African Beat’s lead drummers, Mohamed, is a griot. He grew up in Conakry where he lived in the countryside with his grandparents. Instead of going to school every day, Mohamed learned traditional music from his grandfather (who was also a griot).

The djembe has been and is used to settle the differences between the men of a community, used for social occasions such as births, funerals, marriages, rites of passage and the planting and harvesting of crops. All of which have their own songs, dances, and rhythms.

The role of the djembe has evolved with Western influence, which means African Beat can share the power of this beautiful instrument, telling different stories, bringing people together.




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