Information about drums and repair work.
Repairs and tuning
I have been doing repairs on djembe and dundun for many years and am among the most experienced in Calgary, having developed some of my own tools and techniques for the work. Please phone for an estimate on repairs or tuning. I am happy to assess any drum, and make note of any problems with wood, cord or rings and quote repair costs upon assesment. I use high quality African skins from Ghana for most repairs. Tuning is typically a quick and inexpensive procedure, unless the lashing is done incorrectly or has broken and needs to be redone, and I'm always happy to show you how it's done. For those who like a small challenge, here is a tuning diagram and a desription of the method, with tips on how to make it work well.
I will be happy to talk about any kind of drum you may have, and will tell you whether I can repair it, whether it's worth it, or where you might get your drum repaired, if I cannot.
Tuning a djembe is a matter of running a horizontal cord (see below) through the vertical strands so that they are pulled together, which tightens the skin by stretching. The term does not refer to tuning to a particular tone (like tuning a piano, or a conga drum) when used regarding djembes, but merely to the stretching process, since djembes lose their tonal qualities and get flabby when they are not stretched tightly enough.
Purchasing a djembe.
I am frequently asked by students and others how to go about purchasing a drum. There are several things to bear in mind which effect quality and cost, and will factor into your decision. Not everyone wants to shell out the money for the best of the best, but a quality djembe can still be had for less than the highest cost, and it pays to know what you're looking at. The basic considerations when buying a drum are cost, size, weight and quality of materials and workmanship.
Terms to know:
Bowl: the upper part, shaped like a bowl
Stem: the lower part of the djembe, below the bowl
Head (or skin): the skin, whether natural or artificial
Rings: hold the head and cord in place; there are typically three, two on the head and one at the base of the bowl where the stem connects.
Cord: holds the rings and head on; there is the upright or vertical lacing that connects the bottom and top rings, the 'cradles' or loops that are wrapped around the rings and through which the vertical cord passes, and the tuning cord, which runs horizontally near the lower ring of the drum.
(NB: many drums in the store have never been tuned and so you won't see any horizontal cord. Also, you often see what looks like a neat handle of daisy-chain woven cord hanging off the side of the drum. It's NOT a handle and it is not advisable to carry it by this unless you are certain it's attached firmly! I've seen a few come loose, much to the chagrin of the carrier. It's spare cord for tuning, woven like that to look neat and get it out of the way.)
The importance to quality of the various materials a typical drum is made of are (in order from most to least important): wood, skin, rings, cord.
Wood: wood can be light or heavy. Most of the highest priced and best toned djembes are heavy wood of various kinds. Many Ghanaian djembes and some others are of a lighter weight wood. Weight can be a factor in your decision, as lighter drums are much more easily carried, but more important is it's condition. Cracks often happen to imported drums, and can be repaired if desired or necessary. Cracks in the bowl are critical, cracks in the stem are superficial unless they threaten to extend into the bowl. Look also for evidence of repairs to the wood - filled holes or glued cracks - as well as larger knots, which tend to be more subject to degradation. Also, look inside as well as out, as many drums are very rough on the inside and it can effect the tone (though lathed drums are often totally smooth on the inside, which is not thought to produce ideal tone). The rim, or upper edge, of the drum is best if it is well rounded and not sharp, as it is easier on the hands.
Skin: The skin should be intact. Look for small holes, cuts or abrasions. Holding the drum up so you can look up the stem with a light source behind it will show whether a particular mark is a hole or merely a curious spot (and it can sometimes be hard to tell the difference). Of course, all skins are vulnerable and none will last for ever, but it will cost to have it replaced, and that must factor into what you are willing to pay for a drum.
Rings: Most rings are OK. One thing to look for are solid rings, as some are made of wrapped wire, and occasionally you see lower rings made of cord (most often in small djembes or Indonesian imports). Anything other than a solid ring is problematic, particularly when replacement of the skin in needed (and no skin lasts forever, unless you have a coffee table shaped like a djembe, and not an instrument). Solid rings are highly desirable, and best to have thicker ones, as thin ones will deform and are more likely to break, but this isn't a huge issue.
Cord: Good cord is highly desirable, and most is reasonably good even though types and thickness will vary. Many African drums use a single strand braided polyester, which is very strong even though it's fairly thin. More common these days is a double layer polyester with a straight fibre inner core and braided outer core of a type used in climbing as 'prussic' cord, or for sailing, and typically comes in various thickness. This is the type I favor for repairs, when the cord needs replacing. What you don't want is nylon cord, which is a usually a twisted strand, and isn't often seen except on cheap Indonesian drums (It's a horror, as it stretches constantly and is hard on the hands when tuning). Most important is that the cord be in good condition (not seriously frayed and unbroken), as it is difficult to deal with a broken cord, and it will not be good for the head should it break.
Thats the basics about the materials. Another consideration is the type of manufacture, which is a of several varieties and qualities. I'll look at the most authentic first, and work my way around to modern materials and construction.
The djembe comes from West Africa, particularly Guinea, Mali and Senegal. Thus, the most authentic drums come from these parts, or other countries close by whose people have also been making and using the djembe for a long time, such as Ghana and the Ivory Coast. Most djembes from Africa are wooden and hand carved. The very best builders, in my experience, are Guinean, and the very best drums I know are of Guinean manufacture, though not all Guinean drums are of the same grade. The very best are not easily had, though slightly lower grades are reasonably available and are typically heavy drums with fine carving and of good workmanship, as well as being smoothed inside, which is a plus. The picture to the left (click for larger image) shows the inside of a top quality Guinean djembe. Note the that the wood is oiled on the inside, and there is a sharp 90° angle where the interior of the bowl meets the hole in the stem. The image doesn't reveal it clearly, but there are shallow ridges in the interior carving that spiral from the rim to the bottom of the bowl. These features are indicative of quality craftsmanship. Contact me or see my links page if you are seriously interested in the very best, but be aware it will cost $450-$600 for them.
Senegalese drums are typically large, often having an exceptionally deep bowl. They are heavy and often finely carved on the outside, though rough on the inside. Most, if not all, Sengalese djembes are made of salvage deadfall wood, instead of live cut wood, and so should be scrutinized carefully, as they tend to have fine cracks indicative of old wood. When solid, they can be quite good. They shouldn't be excessively expensive, but sometimes are.
Ghanaian djembes are abundant. A sizeable percentage of all African djembes I've seen are Ghanaian. They come in a huge range of quality, size and price. They are also typically made of light weight wood, and sometimes have a decorative cloth wrapped around the bowl. The size variability and lightness make them appealing to many who might be discourage by the size and weight of other African drums. They should cost less than a comparable Guinean or Senegalese djembes, as they are of rougher workmanship. The inside is rarely smoothed, and this is one concern, as the hole in the stem where it passes into the bowl in the inside is sometimes too narrow to allow a good tone. Also, they are often unfinished on the inside (unlike most Guinean djembes) and so more prone to cracking. Some Ghanain djembes are beautifully carved, however, and when they are well made, they can have very good sound, and as they should cost less ($200-$250) than the others, they can be an excellent purchase. It merely pays to look them over and test them out before you buy.
You sometimes find drums from other places in Africa. Malian drums are not common, Ivory Coast drums, once fairly common, are not so much anymore. I've had people tell me they have a South African djembe, because that's where they bought it. Well, it was probably imported to South Africa, as they typically look like Ghana drums to me. It doesn't matter so much; if it looks good, sounds good and fits your budget, go for it! Buying a drum is like finding a good pet: you know its yours when it speaks to you.
Indonesian and other imports: There are huge numbers of djembes being made in Indonesia. MOST are of little value and their only positive considerations are looks and cost. They are usually found in import stores in malls and such. They are frequently highly recognizable by the distinctive dot painting technique used to decorate them, which is a pattern of dots of enamel paint using various colours to create intricate and interesting patterns, often of animals, but sometimes entirely abstract. Some are merely carved, but are also often laquered. They are cheap and typically very low grade in terms of sound, and this is not good in an instrument. Thus, avoid them is my suggestion. The wood is often bad, though repairs are skillfully disguised, the cord cheap, the wood is sometime two pieces instead of one, and so forth. There are many problems with this. An exception is One World Drum Co., who have an Indonesian manufacturer, but are being built to a much higher standard. They generally show it, but are costly. Latin Percussion also has a line of Indonesian djembes, but I've not seen any close up and so cannot attest to thier quality.
North American Djembes: There are a large variety of djembes made in North America by both small craftsmen and large manufactures like Latin Percussion and Remo. Some are very good, some not so much. In general, they are built in 'barrel stave' fashion, meaning that they are built of slats glued lengthwise to create a shaped tube, which is lathed to shape the body of the drum. All have a certain tone, which is not bad in itself but which is distinctive. Almost all are lightwieght wood and tend to be resonant. This is also a quality of Remo drums, which are of all aritificial materials; they are virtually indistructable and almost never need tuning, but sound 'tinny' (not to distract from their many other excellent drums). The thinner wooden ones, and the most lightwieght ones, seem to have this sound the most prominently. They are highly variable, and I've heard some doozies, but are 'tinny' or 'ringy' as well (note to builders!). I've seen several that someone just built to see if they could do it. The richest sounding are invariably the heaviest, like Latin Persussion djembes. Note that Latin Percussion, Remo and some others are 'lug' tuned, using several bolts, typically hooking onto a built upper ring, and a wrench, like a conga. They can be very nice, if pricey, and I'm not a fan of the lugs (which is odd for a drum repairman) though others feel differently.
That should be it, but email me questions and I'll happily reply. Feel free to add to or correct my information.
A note about wood:
As some people are aware, forests in the third world are being generally overharvested, sometimes catastrophically, as has happened on Sumatra and in Senegal. There are also tree farms in some places, but most wood is not farmed. This does call somewhat into question the buying of drums from third world countries. Some may feel this is not good, and prefer North American built drums (though many would say we don't manage our forests so well, either), or Remo. This is understandable, but I have yet to hear a drum that isn't a solid piece of wood that has the very best sound (though the LP djembes come close). I also feel that it is far better that a tree should end up as a drum than as some CEOs hardwood panelling or coffee table that may get scrapped a few years down the road. Best use, as it were, for a potentially limited resource. This is another reason to avoid cheap Indonesian tourist drums.
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