Secret Bass Frequently Asked Questions

Community drum circle in deepest Hertfordshire

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Questions, questions...

I'd like to learn drumming - do you have beginners' classes?

If you've never played djembe before, an initial one-to-one tuition session is recommended (but not essential) to go through the basic tones, to avoid slowing the group down. A sense of rhythm is important, but no other musical background is necessary. I also run Evening Classes at The University of Hertfordshire if you can't make Sundays. The current course is for Intermediate-level players, but the next Beginners' course starts in October 2012.

My child(ren) would like to learn drumming - do you have children's classes?

Yes, I now teach children's classes.

I don't have a drum of my own - can I borrow one?

We have some spare drums and lots of percussion to play with. It's best to learn djembe on a drum with a skin larger than 10" in diameter that can comfortably accomodate both hands playing the bass sound in the centre; smaller 'baby' djembes require a different technique to get bass sounds, and so are not ideal first instruments.

If there happen to be more new people than we have spare drums/seats, people can take turns to play percussion parts: claves, shakers, cowbells. These patterns are a vital part of the ensemble, and learning them will greatly help advance your knowledge of drum rhythms too; besides, they sound cool when they're all going together! Percussionists should stand up to play.

Where can I buy a good djembe from?

Obviously buying a djembe in Africa is much cheaper due to our crazy world's economics, and the effort of shipping drums out. Buying a drum is like buying a pair of shoes - you ideally need to try it for size, feel and sound. You can get drums online, but YMMV. It depends what you want: adult beginners' drums cost around £90-£140. In that price range, Kambala is a pretty good make who seem to have consistently good quality, and are ideal for learning. Gold Coast Drums seem to sell a lot of djembe because they pay for Google adverts, but I've never really liked their drums. In general, avoid djembe with cheap black rope, which doesn't hold tuning well. Much nicer (and better priced) are the Senegalese djembe imported by Sam from Teranga - she is based in Norfolk, but often tours the UK djembe festivals such as African Beats Camp, and I sometimes link up with them - contact me if you're interested. It's nice to support traders like her who do it for real and are in direct contact with the best master craftsmen, so you know your money is going directly to the people of the Malinke tradition that djembe drums came from, rather than some sweatshop in the Far East just churning them out for the Western market.

Professional concert-grade master drums for soloists usually cost £250-400+, but beware: not all drums that cost lots are worth it! There are some excellent drum makers in England, such as African Drum Services, who produce very fine drums, often better than those made in Africa. American companies like Wula and Drumskull also import some fine drums, for serious money. You will need to tune a concert djembe regularly for optimum sound. Pro drums will require pro cases such as those from HardCase or Protection Racket, or have some custom-made. Otherwise there's no point in spending lots of money on a drum if you don't keep it safe. Cheap cases will fall apart through regular use - all of mine have. At the very least get a drum hat, ideally reinforced with a cardboard pizza base.

As well as the traditional African goatskin+wood designs, you can get "modern" synthetic djembes made by Remo, LP, et al, made out of fibreglass with plastic skins; IMHO these don't sound as good as the proper African ones, and often cost more, but they do have the advantage of being waterproof and they will most likely not hate our English climate so much and may be easier to tune. These (and some wooden ones) are available from the excellent drum shop Talkin' Headz in Woburn Sands near Milton Keynes. The Music Centre shop in Bedford (on Tavistock Street near Kwik Fit) also sells djembe upstairs in the drum department. Maybe go and try them and see what you like the sound of. Or come to my classes and play some to get an idea.

Adults need a djembe 10" or larger in diameter to fit both hands in the middle; smaller (children's) drums require different technique for large adult hands, which means re-learning how to play a proper drum, so avoid playing on drums that are too small. Kids aged 10+ can use adult drums, but younger children won't be able to hold adult drums properly so need smaller ones.

What sort of seat do I need? What is the ideal height?

The ideal height to sit playing a djembe is a normal dining/office chair. Congas need a higher chair or added cushions. I use a portable fold-up 3-legged camping/fishing stool which only cost about a fiver from camping shops, and is easily folded up and carried over the shoulder; it's best with a cushion for added height/comfort. Alternatively, you can get some nice professionally-made drumming chairs.

Your forearms should be roughly horizontal with your hands laid on the drum held tilted between your legs. If your arms are tilted upwards or downwards you may get lower-back or neck-pain.

If you find yourself stranded without a suitable chair (or a strap to play standing up), it's best to lie the drum sideways on the ground and straddle it with your knees on the ground (but not on wet grass!).

I can't seem to get any bass sound.

A djembe (and many other one-skinned open-ended drums such as the darabuka) needs to be tilted to allow the bass sound to exit the stem. Sit on the edge of your seat with the drum in front of you, flat on the floor. Then bring the drum close between your thighs (keeping it flat on the floor) and wrap your legs around it, so that they are hugging it. Children may have trouble getting their legs around a drum that is too big, or if sat on too big a chair. Then bring your feet backwards, pushing the foot of the drum underneath your chair so that it tilts to let the sound out (don't lift the drum off the floor - ensure it is tilted but still resting on the ground). You should be able to comfortably hold the drum with your legs, ideally using your feet to stabilise it (either wrapping your legs around it and crossing feet in front of the stem, or with feet apart either side of the stem.)

Some traditions (such as kpanlogo drums) employ a technique of lifting the drum with the legs to alter the pitch of the bass sound for special effects and accents. This requires strong legs! This principle is also used by darabuka and French horn players inserting their hand into the stem/horn. You may find that playing djembe standing up with a strap gets an even better bass sound, especially when standing in the corner of a room facing the centre using the corner to accentuate the bass frequencies.

How do I make a djembe strap?

Malc playing lead djembe at Hertford Castle ]All you need is a 5m length of polypro webbing strap material which I got from a climbing/camping/outdoor shop (also John Lewis' haberdashery department) for a few quid (buy a camping stool too!). Old car seatbelts might work too, if you can get a long enough piece (or tie two together). The strap threads in through the ropes so is great for drums without tuning lugs on. This page shows how to strap yourself into rhythm machine mode and provide comfortable drum support allowing you to walk and play freely. The bass sound will be signficantly improved without obstruction by the ground; this is particularly important when playing outdoors on grass.

How do I produce the basic tones?

Making a djembe sound correctly is more of an art than a science but here are some pointers:

All of these sounds can also be closed (damped) by keeping your hand on the skin instead of letting it bounce off. Alternatively, conga technique calls for slaps to be trapped by the other hand pressing the skin tight for an ultimate crack sound; djembe also uses trapped slaps for special effects.

I can't get the tones to sound properly.

Assuming you're holding and striking the drum correctly and tilting it to let the bass out (and have of course been practising religiously for thirty years :-) there are still many factors which affect how a drum sounds:

Is it OK to play djembe while wearing rings on your finger(s)?

No, playing any hand drum while wearing a ring will hurt the drum skin, but more importantly, you'll damage your own fingers, much like hitting a metal door usually hurts after a few hundred goes. Try using soapy warm water to ease off the ring. We could always take you round the back of the woodshed with the axe, but this might impair your counting abilities which you'll need for the more complex rhythms. If you really can't get it off, or if your spouse has promised Death at such action, try playing something that uses a stick, such as dun duns, Ashanti or Adowa drums, or percussion such as cowbell, claves, shekere. If you only have a ring stuck on one hand, consider some of the other Ghanaian drums, some of which are played using one hand and one stick.

Some people suggest wearing plasters or bandages around a ring, but while this may protect the drum skin a bit, your hand is still getting a bashing, and your tone will be impeded. While I'm happy to lend my instruments, I've had too many drums damaged by rings. Of course, it's your decision if you (ab)use your own drum.

Wristwatches and bracelets/bangles should also be removed as they get in the way when playing the djembe bass notes.

My hands hurt!

Don't be alarmed if your hands start tingling a bit after an intense session. They may look like they've been through a few rounds with Mike Tyson, and the skin will feel all zingy and sensitive - this is normal. What isn't good is if you are getting bruises or cuts from rings or incorrect technique such as slamming the heel of your hand against the drum rim. You shouldn't get injured by hand drumming unless you are in some all-night marathon competing against sound systems (been there, done that! :-)

Can you re-skin my djembe for me?

I can't, but I know a man who can in London, another man who can near Bristol, and a lady who can in Milton Keynes...

Can you tune my djembe for me?

Do it yourself! If you can't, ask the people above.

I still have more questions!

Try the excellent Jim's Notes and Djembe List Frequently Asked Questions.

You might also like to see some photos of me drumming in Senegal and read my drumming journal and drumming links.

© copyright Malcolm Smith 2005-08-11 - last updated 2012-01-11