What to Look for When Buying a Djembe

I own a business that does a lot of djembe repairs. Over the years we have received repairs being sent to us from near and far and of many different designs. We have probably repaired an average of 3-5 drums a day. From so much volume we have learned a lot over the years and have observed some questionable advice being given to would be purchasers. I am going to share some of the things I’ve learned in a multi-part article. When buying a djembe there are a few important things to look for. Let’s take a look.

I hope this information helps our readers in their search for a drum that works best for their needs. For more information please contact World Drum Source.

1. A well rounded baring edge. Anything less than a half inch routered size edge will hurt your hands after a short time playing. Most Guinnea, Mali and Ivory Coast djembes are thick enough to produce up to a one inch curved edge which is ideal. Drums directly from Africa often have the edges flat so the drum loses a lot of sound. The best African makers do curve the edges nicely but if you have a flat baring edge it is a considerable sound upgrade have your edge routered professionally. Ghana drums are often too thin at the top for a one inch baring edge but thick enough for a half inch one, which still gives reasonable comfort. Avoid narrow baring edges, even if the sound is good. Your hands will be in pain in only a few minutes. The best edges I have seen are djembes from Drum Skulls -Guinea djembes and Groove Masters Percussion -Ivory Coast djembes. For Manufactured djembes best edges are Groove Masters Percussion, Toca and Meinl. All three of these brands are made by the same manufacturer in Indonesia with identical edges. Toca Freestyle PVC djembes, and the Meinl and Groovemasters Percussion fiberglass shells have identical baring edges. The high end wood djembe of all three brands seem to have up to ¾” baring edhges. Remo low end drums have terrible edges and in my opinion are unplayable past 15 minutes without pain. They have improved in recent years on their more expensive drums however. 

2. Sound versus weight. For wood djembes, it widely accepted that hardwood djembes give better sound and more projection. Sound quality is subjective and I have heard some great softwood Ghana drums. The hardwood does give more of the gymnasium effect and thus more projection. I personally like the Ghana drums for ensembles and the Ivory Coast djembes as a lead djembe. Good Indonesian wood djembes like the 3 brands mentioned are made of mahogany but seem to have a little less projection than African hardwood drums but a good sound for blending. The only light wood is the Ghana drum and that has made the Twiniboa Ghana drum very popular for seniors, women and schools or anyone where weight may be an issue. For manufactured non wood djembes the fiberglass seems to project more than the Toca Freestyle plastic drums. I would be interested in seeing some kind of research on this. Fibreglass due to being more expensive to manufacture and in my opinion a better drum tends be more expensive to purchase however. All three brands are quite light and very versatile for most situations. I am in schools over 100 days a year doing workshops with groupings of up to 150 kids at a time. I like the fiberglass for kids for logistical purposes and an Ivory Coast Lead djembe. 

3. Rope quality. Good rope quality is essential. This is an area African drums often fall behind. The best rope has a core to prevent stretching and constant retuning. The manufacturer who probably makes 95% of the Indonesian drums in North America uses good rope. Having good rope and because he kiln dries all his shells probably makes his drums the most durable on the market. He also uses good rope in the Meinl and Groove Masters Percussion fibre djembes and Toca PVC djembes.

4. Head quality. African goat skins from Guinnea, Mali and Ivory Coast tend to be thicker and stronger. Ghana skins are often thinner because they have the “pigmy” goat breed. This small goat is tough and gives a bigger and longer sustaining bass sound. Excellent for drums with 11” heads and smaller and widely used in larger drums also. North American goat is stretchy and in my opinion almost unusable. For all African skins be sure there is a veterinarians inspection certificate available. Drums and skins imported by container by Ghanian export law must be inspected for anthrax (anthrax cases are extremely rare however). If the sins are imported by air shipments the veterinarian certificate is not required. It is good to ask how the skins or drums arrived for this reason. Most Ivory Coast skins are shipped through Ghana so same laws apply. Pakistani skins tend to be thinner and may break easier and have no need for inspections because of how they are processed and the area the goats are raised. Best skins I have used are the ones from the Indonesian Pro series djembes. They are more expensive however. There are also cheaper Indonesian skins comparable to the Pakistani ones but you can tell the difference immediately by sound and they have a more manufactured look. Haired or non haired skins- I stopped using haired skins because of the North American pantry moth. They can turn a beautiful drum into a mess in a few weeks. I also like the hygienic aspect of hairless djembes.