Basic Technique for Djembe

Author: 
Kari Kääriäinen
Publishing year: 
2003

The Basic Technique for Djembe learning material kit introduces the three basic strokes played on the djembe drum originating in West Africa. It also illustrates some aspects of economic playing technique.

The tone, slap and bass

The djembe has three primary tones: the (closed) tone, the slap (or open) tone and the bass tone. In French and English, the following expressions are used:

  French English
closed tonique, tonic, ton, fermé closed, tone (also open, cf. conga)
open claque, claqué, ouvert, clac open, slap
bass basse bass

There is no established way of indicating these terms. In this learning material, the English terms used are the slap, tone and bass.

The tone is a medium high-pitched, round, "matt" sound while slap is a high-pitched, open, sharp whiplash-like sound and bass is a low, round sound. The tone and slap are played on the edge of the drumhead, the bass in the centre.

Tone, slap and bass, from above

How to do it

Tone

Where to strike

The fingers meet the edge of the drumhead simultaneously covering as large an area as possible. The part of the fingers that touch the edge of the drum extend up to the bend at the root of the proximal phalanx (first finger bone) of the middle finger, but no further towards the palm.

Tonic impact point viewed through the drum head

From the player's perspective the tone looks like this at the time when the hand hits the drumhead:

Tonic from above

Technique

Try clapping one hand against the other to find out how the tone is played; the feel on the drumhead is very near to this. Keep your fingers together without squeezing. Point your thumbs slightly upwards to prevent them from hitting the rim. You may use substantial force in producing the sound.

Tone, from above

Slap

Where to strike

In the slap, the hand hits the centre of the drumhead 1-1.5 cm closer than in the tone. The edge of the drum should be hit with the fleshy part of your palm which is on the same level as your knuckles on the other side of your palm. The bones in your hand arch just the opposite way than the edge of the drum, but try to do it so that as much of the fleshy part of your palm as possible can receive support from the rim. Fingers are free to move and whip the skin even when the palm movement stops.

Slap impact point viewed through the drum head

From the player's perspective the slap looks like this at the time when the hand hits the drumhead:

Slap from above

Technique

Even though the slap sounds louder, the feel should be lighter than in producing the tone. Do not press your fingers together, but allow the fingers to relax into a slight curve. Do not spread your fingers too wide apart or straighten them because this makes them too tense. Keep your wrist in a slightly lower position than in the tone to allow a slightly wider angle where your fingers and the drumhead meet. Remember to keep your thumbs up.

Take care that you do not draw your hand too far away from the drumhead, because doing this makes your hand land on the rim with the area between the knuckle and the first joint of your finger. Although you may find playing the slap easier when the fingertips hit nearer to the edge, it will hurt your hand and forces your hand and fingers to partially cancel out each other. The edge of the drum will force your finger upwards just when it should be moving downwards.

Do not move your hand too far towards the centre of the drum. This focuses the weight on the fingertips and the slap loses sharpness. This also strains the last joints of your fingers.

Avoid making an active movement with your fingers, in other words, snapping the drumhead surface. You should try to find an ideal tension: not too stiff which prevents the fingers from touching the drumhead, but not overly loose either.

In the video, I indicate what kind of stiffness/looseness is suitable by moving my fingers with my other hand.

Slap, from above

Bass

Where to strike

The best sound is produced right in the centre, but it is often practical to hit where both hands have room for quick repetition of bass strokes.

Technique

Keep your palm stiff and flat and try to make the entire drumhead vibrate so that even the lowest frequencies can be heard. Strike firmly but avoid overdoing it: the volume will not grow endlessly by increasing the striking power.

Bass, from above

Do not leave your palm resting on the drumhead as in the conga technique; your hand should immediately bounce off allowing the head to keep vibrating.

The difference between the tone and slap

The following video illustrates the difference between the tone and slap as viewed from the side. There are four tones, four slaps and the same thing is repeated.

The difference between the tone and slap, from the side

The same in slow motion. There are four tones and four slaps in the video.

The difference between tone and slap in slow motion, from the side

The strokes in practice

When accompanying, you should pay attention to tones in particular. The idea is not that the tone is soft and the slap is loud; the sounds should only differ from each other in their texture. In the traditional style, as djembe players improvise they create melodies with tones among a regular current of slaps, not vice versa. The tone is struck with strength while the slap should just be "let loose".

In the next video sample, you will see me playing a West African Sunu rhythm (first four bars just the first half of the pattern). It is important that tones are clearly audible and slaps are relaxed.

In the staff, the slap is marked in the fourth space, tone in the middle line and the bass in the first space.

Sunu, from the front

Also in this rhythm called Tiriba it is important to make the slap and tone melodies clearly audible. At the beginning and in the end of the rhythm, I play a signal, commonly called "break" to indicate the beginning and end of the rhythm.

Tiriba, from the front

One of the most typical patterns in traditional djembe music is the following triplet pattern where accents are again on tones. Learn first to play slowly so that the tone and slap are as much distinguished from each other as possible.

Triplet, from the front

In the following video, you will see some examples of how slaps, tones and basses can be used in free improvisation.

Free improvisation, from the front

Playing posture and arm movement

Playing posture: seated

You may either let the drum rest on the floor or you may also support it with your feet allowing it to move along with your body. Keep the drum tilted or lift it off the floor, as it dampens the bass sounds coming from the tube.

Keep your back slightly arched, push your chest forward, keep your neck upright and shoulders low and make sure that the drum is properly tilted away from you. Remind yourself of the good sitting posture every now and then by looking straight ahead, slightly upwards.

Playing posture, seated

If you are playing for a long time and need to change your posture, you may lower the drum so that it rests on the lower part of your legs and bend forward your upper body. Or you are free to use any posture between these two extremes.

Optional playing posture

Take care that the drum is not in too vertical a position. If the drum is too upright, the bass sounds will become muted and you have to crouch in order to lower your arms, which will obstruct your arm movements.

Poor posture

Playing posture: standing

While standing you are able to move with the drum more freely. Pass a wide strap (4.5 m in length) as illustrated in the picture. Find the right spot for the knot by experimenting.

Harness from the front

Harness from behind

The arm movement

Avoid tensing your arms so that your upper arms become rigid and only your forearms move vertically.

A more economic way of playing is keeping your elbows clearly apart from your sides with the elbows and palms moving almost in opposite directions. When the palm moves up and down to the whole extent, the elbow moves in the opposite direction some 5 cm. The arm rotates around an imagined axle which starts from the shoulder and runs through the forearm at a point which is some 5 cm from the elbow towards the palm. In the opposite sides of the axle, the arm masses balance each other during the movement, which makes the movement lighter but maintains the speed of the palm movement.

You will first see the incorrect way and then the correct way of playing; first with one hand and then with both hands.

Arms, from the front