Alternate Name(s): djembe,djimbe,jimbe,jenbe
Geographic Region: Africa
Country of origin: Guinea
Subregion: western Africa
Climatic type: Savannah
Definition: Goblet-shaped drum played with both bare hands from Western Africa
SvH No.: 211.26
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The jembe consists of a wooden shell carved from one of a variety of local hardwoods, hollowed out and sculpted in the shape of a goblet. Its average dimensions are two feet high, the large bowl fourteen inches in diameter, tapering to a cylindrical stem. The goatskin drumhead is attached to the upper rim of the bowl through a series of metal rings and strong synthetic ropes. Large metal ears (seke-seke or kesing-kesing) are often inserted into the roping, protruding out above the surface of the drumhead, adding a buzzing/rattling texture to the jembe's sound.
The earliest known mention of the jembe in written records dates to the late nineteenth century, although the drum is almost certainly older than that. The jembe has associations with blacksmiths (numu), who are the ones who have the tools to carve wood and who also use it in their secret Komo societies. Metal-working in western Africa began about 2500 years ago, and blacksmiths as a hereditary community probably developed in the following millennium.
The goatskin on modern jembe drums is tightened to a high level of tension through the interweaving of synthetic ropes attached to metal rings. The lead or solo jembe is usually pulled to a higher tension than the accompanying jembe(s). Prior to the use of metal rings and synthetic rope, the tension on the skin was much lower, and the goat or antelope skin playing heads were heated over a fire to restore tension during performances.
The jembe is most commonly played standing, held to the body by a cloth strap attached either around the waist or over the shoulders. It is played with both bare hands. The three basic sounds have come to be called in English: slap, tone, and bass, created through altering hand position and shape.
Traditional performance contexts for the jembe include life-cycle celebrations (marriage, baby-naming, circumcision), agricultural events, religious/power/secret societies, and village theater (koteba). The most common performance context for jembe players in Bamako is marriage celebrations. The proceedings at these celebrations typically begin with songs led by professional singers and accompanied by a jembe group. Audience members (invited guests of the bride and groom, and neighbors) participate actively throughout the event by clapping along with the music, responsorial singing, verbal and physical gestures of encouragement, and dancing. The jembe ensemble plays subdued accompaniment for the singing, and fast exciting rhythms to animate the dancing. The event typically lasts six hours, from noon until six in the evening.
Jembe ensembles differ from one event to another and one region to another. The Maninka (or Malink?jembe ensemble from the Hamana region of Guinea is comprised of three bass drums (small - kenkeni, medium - sangban, large - dununba) played with accompanying iron bells, at least one jembe accompaniment, and one jembe lead/solo. The current Bamako jembe ensemble includes at least one jembe accompaniment, one lead/solo, one small bass drum (konkoni), and one large bass drum (jelidunun).
Billmeier, Uschi. 1999. Mamady Keita: A Life for the Djembe - Traditional Rhythms of the Malinke. Engerda, Germany: Arun-Verlag.
Last Modified: 05-May-2005TOP