"Where I come from we say that rhythm is the soul of life because the whole universe revolves around rhythm, and when we get out of rhythm, that's when we get into trouble. For this reason the drum, next to the human voice, is the most important instrument. It is special."
- Babatunde Olatunji, as quoted by Mickey Hart and Jay Stevens in
Drumming At the Edge of Magic
The instruments in a West African percussion ensemble include several different voices: djembes or other hand drums of different pitches, and different-pitched dununs played with sticks. Read on to learn more about them. Contact Gandalf to order top-quality, custom-made djembes and dununs individually or by the set, or to request expert repairs and tuning for your djembes, dununs, balafons and more. See Prices page to learn about Gandalf's specialty drums including the new Gandalf Djembe and Beach Djembe.
"The djembe is an instrument that expresses joy, and that can be played any time, anywhere and for any occasion. The djembe is known all over Guinea. It provokes friendship and love, and also supports and encourages the workers in the field. It is an instrument that speaks to men, women, children, adolescents, and old people. It is an instrument of communication between villages, regions, countries, and even continents. The djembe is universal. It speaks all languages, and it talks to everyone in his own language because all human beings respond to rhythm."
- Mamady Keita,
A Life For the Djembe
Never hit a djembe with a stick! And be sure to take off rings and bracelets. Goatskin tears and breaks easily as compared to cowhide. It's also more resilient and gentle on your hands.
The dununs - also usually of three different pitches, named dununba, sangban and kenkeni - carry the essence of the rhythm and hold down the center. They are played with sticks and may be accompanied, along with djembes, by bells, shakers, and sometimes a balafon.
The dununs have a head at each end; care for them well by keeping the ends off the ground.
"The heart of a rhythm is the sangban. In some regions they play only the sangban along with the tama (talking drum). Sometimes one hears sangban and dununba together, and in other villages they play all three together.... The dununba gives power and heat to the rhythm, as well as adding to its great rhythmic dimension. The kenkeni completes and refines the base melody and adds another tone. The bell brings another range of tonality to the rhythm, and they fill the space between the beats on the drum. The voice of the bell plays a very important part.... It guides the drummer and the listener and brings a rhythmic refinement to the ensemble of drum voices."
- Mamady Keita,
A Life For the Djembe
The drums defined
Names for these instruments vary among West African languages. The terms defined here are among the most commonly used in America, and the ones Gandalf uses when teaching.
- A goblet-shaped West African hand drum carved from a single tree section, with a usually goatskin head held on and tuned with rope, played together with dununs.
- A West African hand drum made of slats of wood in a truncated cone shape, with a cowhide head, originating in Nigeria. Ashikos, like djembes, are generally played with three sizes playing together.
- A barrel-shaped drum from Ghana with a cowhide head held on and tightened by ropes attached to pegs.
- A drum resembling a panlogo but with the head held on with rings and rope, as with a djembe.
- A large, cylindrical West African drum with a usually cowhide head held on and tuned with rope, played with a stick, usually in sets of three tuned to different harmonious pitches and played together with djembes.
- The largest and deepest-toned drum in a set of dununs.
- The medium-sized and mid-toned dunun in a set of three.
- The smallest, most high-pitched drum in a set of dununs.
- Talking drum
- An hourglass-shaped drum struck with a bent stick while held against the body tightly or loosely to vary the pitch by varying tension on the rope securing the head. Regional names include tama and dundun.
Other West African percussion instruments
- Hand-hammered iron bells of various shapes are played with African drums. If played with dununs, the lowest-pitched accompanies the dununba, the highest the kenkeni.
- A shaker made of a dried gourd covered with a woven net of beads or seeds, played by shaking or by striking against the hands.
- Balafon or Bala
- An instrument related to the marimba and xylophone, with tuned wooden keys suspended over resonating gourds and played with padded mallets.
These are the West African instruments you're most likely to encounter in Gandalf's workshops and classes. There are many more African drums and percussion instruments, and related drums from African-derived cultures worldwide. We wish you a wonderful adventure of exploring them.
Dununba, djembe, ashiko, talking drum, shekere, "baby bala"