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On the Origins of the Jembe

On the Origins of the Jembe

Patrick the Butcher
            The Jembe is the Iconic drum of Africa, and has been the drum of the African people for over a thousand years. Unlike certain other African instruments, there are no traditional class or caste restrictions on Jembes, and anyone from any walk of life may learn and teach the drum. Historically they have been used in social ceremonies like weddings, rites of passage, and both secular and religious celebrations. It was also used as a form of long distance communication, with a specific “vocabulary” of sounds and rhythms to communicate between villages and isolated farmsteads.[1]My research has lead me to the odd conclusion that while the Jembe was integral to folk dance and to West African “talking” dance in particular, it was rarely used in musical ensembles during the period. This role was reserved for drums like the ashiko and djun-djun, played by the traditional musician class, called by the French in later centuries the Griots.
The Jembe, on the other hand, was very much “the peoples drum,” an every day instrument used to celebrate every day milestones and activities and available to anyone regardless of status birthright or rank. It does seem to play an integral part in the religious life of the Mande peoples, and was commonly used in ceremonies to call the spirits or invoke the ancestors for blessings and favor by the Nyamakalaw, who served as both bards and wizards to the Mande people of the period. Nyama is the word for the power of creation, the wild and unpredictable energy that made the world and everything in it. The word Nyamakalaw translates as “handlers of Nyama”.[2]  The Jembe was central to the Nyamakalaw in the practice of their religion and their culture.
The African Jembe is the technological apex of the “goblet” style of drums, examples of which have been found dating to well past the 1st millennium BCE. There are Mesopotamian friezes found in what is now Iraq and Iran that depict people playing small goblet style drums at various ceremonies. The first written references to these types of drums come from the Pahlavi language and pre date the Islamic era.[3] From this region the goblet drum spread across the continents, with goblet drums turning up in tombs from Ireland to Bali, India and Mongolia.
The Physics at the heart of every goblet style drum, Jembe included, is an effect called Helmholtz resonance, first described by Herman L. F. von Helmholtz in his book On the Sensations of Tone.[4] This effect is best demonstrated by blowing across the neck of a bottle. As the pressure inside the vessel changes, the “slug” of air in the neck of the bottle is forced to vibrate back and forth, creating the musical tone. This principal is what enables a goblet or wasted drum to produce two distinct tones, one low one high. The third tone range, specific to the Jembe alone (because of its large size) is produced wholly by technique of play.
 Jembes themselves however, date to approx the 6th century CE, originating with the Malinke peoples of the Mande empire in western Africa, which reached it’s zenith around 1450CE. It is generally agreed that the type of drum we commonly know as the Jembe was first crafted by a class of artisans (blacksmiths, to be precise) within the Malinke /Susu tribes called “Numu”. From these regions the drum spread throughout Africa as Numu artisans and their craft migrated out of their homeland. [5]
The earliest surviving examples of the Malinke Jembe date to the early 1200’s, and in general construction and appearance they have changed very little in the intervening centuries. Master drum makers of modern day Mali insist that the art of Jembe construction has been preserved intact since the days of its origin. Since written language came to Africa so very recently by historical terms, there is no way to be sure of this, but drums found in archaeological digs in the region tend to support this claim.
The Jembe of the period are always carved from a single log of native short grain or grain-less hardwoods like Dimbe, Iroko, Khadi and Dugura. The interior surface is shaped into a short cylinder or cone terminating at the bottom in a bowl shape which opens onto a funnel shaped sound hole. Examples from later period (circa 1450+) are finished with a series of shallow spiral grooves on the inside surfaces that help to direct airflow smoothly out of the drum. The thickness of the drum wall seems to be directly proportionate to the size of the drum, but the hardness of the wood used also comes into play. These details, the number and depth of spiral grooves, the thickness of the body and of the head all come into play to produce a sound unique to each specific drum.

And so to this very day, the Jembe remains the people’s drum, carefully constructed by master drummers, or Jembefola, and revered around the world for its vocal tones and versatility. There are drums of great lineage held in trust by the royal families of West Africa, Much in the fashion that the Vikings and their swords. Yet they remain the one instrument that anyone, be they ne’er so vile, may pick up and play, and fill the world once again with Nyama.


A Note on Spelling the Word (Djembe);

            The well known spelling, “djembe” came about during the French colonization of Africa, and employs the letter D because the French language has no hard “J” sound; there fore the D was added to imply the correct phonetic pronunciation. Modern day Africans, having so recently overturned French colonial rule have changed the spelling to Jembe in an effort to leave out the subtle but bothersome reminder of two centuries of foreign occupation and rule. I have used the accepted African spelling in this document to honor the wishes of the African peoples.


[1] http://members.cox.net/drum2/jembe01.htm

[2] Prof. Misty Bastian & students, Magic and Art in West Africa  (http://www.fandm.edu/departments)

[3] http://www.rhythmuseum.com/persian/tonbak.html

[4] On the Sensations of Tone Thoemmes press, 1870, English 1875.

[5] There is some disagreement as to exactly where the Jembe came from, and without any written language from the period it is impossible to be sure, but again, the archaeological evidence supports this claim.