A Guide to the Jembe

Eric Charry

An expanded version of the article published in
Percussive Notes, vol. 34, no. 2, April 1996, pages 66-72.
Portions reprinted by permission of the Percussive Arts Society.

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Last updated 14 October 2000.
(For more on this and related musical traditions see Mande Music)

The jembe (spelled djembe in French writing) is on the verge of achieving world status as a percussion instrument, rivaled in popularity perhaps only by the conga and steel pan. It first made an impact outside West Africa in the 1950s due to the world tours of Les Ballets Africains led by the Guinean Fodeba Keita. In the few decades succeeding this initial exposure the jembe was known internationally only to a small coterie of musicians and devotees of African music and dance. In the U.S. interest in the jembe centered around Ladji Camara, a member of Les Ballets Africains in the 1950s, who since the 1960s has trained a generation of American players. Worldwide, a mere handful of LP recordings were released up to the mid-1980s, most containing just a few selections of jembe playing.

Les Ballets Africains rehearsal in Conakry, 1994.
Photo by Eric Charry.

Since the late 1980s international interest in the jembe has taken an unprecedented turn. Well over a dozen CD recordings exclusively featuring jembe ensembles have been released in addition to as many recordings featuring the jembe in mixed ensembles. Tours of national ballet troupes from Guinea, Mali, and Senegal, and former drummers from these troupes are playing to swelling crowds. Jembe teachers are proliferating, with some of them leading study tours to Africa, and major drum manufacturers have recently found a market for industrially produced jembes.

Reasons for the delayed international impact of the jembe are varied. Weak ties and language differences between the U.S. and the former French colonies in which the jembe is indigenous are responsible for the late migration of Francophone West Africans to North America in significant numbers. The death of Guinean President Sekou Toure in 1984, after two and a half decades of strong patronage of the arts and increasingly severe repression and international alienation, opened the doors for foreigners to visit, and also forced some Guineans to look abroad to fill the void left by sharply reduced patronage. Shortly after the Sekou Toure era, Guinean drummers Mamady Keita and Famoudou Konate had established themselves in Europe. Les Ballets Africains (which became the national ballet of Guinea after independence in 1958) began releasing CDs through European management. A group of drummers primarily drawn from Ballet Djoliba (established in 1965 as a second national ballet in Guinea) began touring and releasing CDs as Percussions de Guinee (established in 1988 as a national ensemble), also under European management. A recent tour with ex-Police drummer Stewart Copeland contributed to their renown. The world music boom, begun in the late 1980s and showing no signs of letting up, is also a significant factor, with organizations such as WOMAD in England producing tours including jembe -based groups such as Fatala from Guinea and Farafina from Burkina Faso.

Mass interest in the jembe has not been accompanied by serious information on its use in its African homeland. Misconceptions about the instrument abound. Basic questions such as who plays the instrument, on what kinds of occasions, in which countries, and in what kinds of ensembles are ill- understood outside Africa. Few non-native jembe players have spent significant amounts of time in Africa to see how the jembe functions in the environment in which it flourishes. African jembe teachers living abroad try their best to communicate the depth of the instrument to their foreign students, but aside from the classic problem of interpreting a foreign culture, there is another more basic problem: language.

English is often a fourth, fifth, or even sixth language spoken by jembe players, following their mother tongue (often Maninka, Susu, or Bamana), a second African language (such as Fula, Wolof, Soninke, or Bobo), frequently a third or fourth African tongue, and French. African rhythmic concepts for which there are no equivalents in European languages are all the more difficult to explain, let alone the experience and meaning of playing for events such as circumcisions and excisions.

Even spelling is cause for confusion. Since most African languages have no indigenous writing system, European scripts have been adopted. The English j sound is represented in West African French writing as dj , di or sometimes dy . The English long u sound is written as ou in French. Non-African-language speakers put a European or American accent on some of the French spellings that can further corrupt the African pronunciation. Such is the case with the rhythm spelled Mandiani in French, and sometimes mispronounced Man-dee-ahn-ee by English speakers. The French spelling djembe has been accepted by a public unaware of the colonial legacy implied in such a simple matter as spelling. It is not a French instrument, but an African one. Africans and non-Africans alike are developing systems for writing Bamana and Maninka using phonetic spellings rather than the ornate French that harkens back to the colonial era. The simplification of French spellings such as djembeMandiani, and Doundounba to jembeManjani, and Dundunba, addresses this problem while promoting African pronunciations.

There are other problems besides language that ex-patriate African jembe teachers must surmount. African methods of learning work in Africa: watching, doing, being criticized, revising, and apprenticing. But how can those methods work in weekly lessons or classes with little chance for students to see how jembe players interact with dancers one-on-one? African jembe teachers have had to creatively find new means of transmitting their knowledge to non-African students. This often skews and dilutes the tradition in which they were brought up. Fluid rhythms get simplified and become fixed. Improvisation is kept to a minimum. The ebb and flow of tempo, linked to the heat generated by dancers, is attenuated. The original context in which these rhythms and dances were performed is lost.

Ansumane Kante playing the jembe at a celebration
in Conakry, 1994. Photo by Eric Charry.

Adapting village traditions to new contexts is not new for jembe players. One of the ideas behind the creation of national ballets after political independence was to present the indigenous drumming and dance traditions to an international audience. The dance circle of the village was broken and spread out in a line so that a seated, non-participating audience could see.

Rhythms from regions far apart, which would not mix in a village context, were combined in rapid succession in long suites for ballet performances showcasing the variety of music and dance found in a single country. Instruments that were rarely played together were combined in national ensembles. The forces behind these syntheses were often those who were exposed to European education and culture. The naming of regional and national groups as Ballets , Ensembles , and Orchestres , reflects this European influence. The task of the ensemble and ballet leaders was to retain the African essence of the music and dance traditions, while moving them onto the stage. A new genre was created in the process.

Most recently, another genre has grown out of ballet-style jembe playing, exemplified by the concert performances and recordings of Mamady Keita and of Percussions de Guinee . The new ensembles further remove jembe drumming from its village roots by almost entirely dispensing with dancers. Focus is shifted to the ensemble arrangements and the charisma and virtuosity of the soloist. This use of the jembe is bound to stir mixed emotions among Africans in general, and even among the drummers themselves. The thought of an African drum taking the modern industrialized world by storm must have some appeal to Africans seeking recognition of their deep cultural legacy. On the other hand, the possible bastardization of a sacred tradition may be too high a price to pay for a fleeting commercial success with a typically fickle American public. The frustrations of some African teachers when they hear their village rhythms being played wrong are becoming more visible in workshops.

So how can one go about studying the jembe ? In lieu of going to Africa to learn about the traditions first-hand–certainly the preferred method–one can learn from the African jembe masters who have either relocated or spend considerable amounts of time in America and Europe. The list is growing: the venerable Ladji Camara (New York), Djimo Kouyate (Washington, D.C.), Abdoul Doumbia (Providence, RI), Mamady Keita (Brussels), Adama Drame (France), Arafan Toure (Holland), and Famoudou Konate (Berlin), to name just a few who have recordings available. Summer jembe camps and workshops are springing up across the U.S., and younger African teachers are relocating where there is demand. A list of several hundred subscribers interested in the jembe is active on the internet, and is a good source for information about workshops and teachers. (Those with internet access can subscribe via the jembe-list FAQ .)

There is very little writing about the jembe and its native environment, but surely that will change in the wake of the flurry of recordings. The few books that have been written each demand a critical eye to put them in perspective. One book (Diallo & Hall 1989) is written by a Malian of Minianka origin, on the periphery of the core tradition. Another autobiography (Drame & Senn-Borloz 1992) has yet to be translated into English, and it reports on traditions in Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast, also removed from the core Malian and Guinean traditions. These books are co-authored by writers with little musicological experience, so they lack that perspective. The transformation in the U.S. of a Senegalese drumming tradition–which actually is a transformation of one from Guinea–is covered by Mark Sunkett (1995). A booklet accompanying a Famoudou Konate CD (1991), written by his student Johannes Beer, provides a musicological introduction to jembe rhythms (in German and French only), as does a French book by a student of Adama Drame (Blanc 1993). A musicology Masters thesis by Rainer Polak in progress at the University of Bayreuth, based on research in Bamako, should continue to open up jembe playing to the kind of detailed rhythmic analysis that has been standard for drumming from Ghana for the past two decades.

Jembe bibliography

Presently, recordings are the lifeblood of those seeking to gain a broad education in jembe playing. Fortunately, there is an abundance of world-class recordings by masters of the instrument. They reflect a variety of national, regional, and personal styles which might not be appreciated by the casual listener. Important factors in evaluating recordings include the country it is from, the ethnic and regional affiliation of the leader, and the recording context, be it a traditional event in Africa or a studio recording. Background information on the jembe follows in order to help readers better appreciate the increasing number of fine and diverse recordings commercially available.

Jembe discography and videography

By all accounts, core jembe traditions come from Mali and Guinea, and appear to be of Maninka/Susu origin. The homeland of the Maninka is called Mande and is located roughly between Kankan, Guinea and Bamako, Mali (see map). Maninka is a local pronunciation of Mande-nka, which means person from Mande. (Mali is a deformation of the word Mande, and Malinke is synonymous with Maninka.) The term Susu can refer in a historical sense to close relatives of the Maninka who originally came from further north in Mali; in this context they are usually called Soso. After their defeat at the hands of Sunjata and his allies in the thirteenth century, Susu groups migrated into Guinea toward the coast absorbing influences from the people among whom they settled; modern usage of Susu usually refers to this later wave settled along the coast (see the recordings of Wassa and Wofa ). The jembe has also migrated and plays a significant role in the border countries of Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), and Burkina Faso.

Map of core jembe area and border countries in West Africa (map by Eric Charry). Place names are indicated by italics (countries are in all capital letters); Related Mande groups are indicated by unitalicized capital letters; Non-Mande peoples are indicated by unitalicized lower case letters after an initial capital.

Although there is no single story in general circulation as to the origin of the jembe there does seem to be general agreement that it is associated with a class of hereditary professional blacksmiths of Maninka/Susu origin known as numu . As providers of iron implements numus were, and still are, guardians of certain kinds of power. Numu hands sculpt the power- laden wooden Komo masks that are emblems of the secretive societies which they also lead, they perform the circumcisions and excisions which lift the dangerous energies of boys and girls marking their entrance into adulthood, they carve the wooden jembe bodies and they play them. The wide dispersion of the jembe in West Africa may be due to numu migrations dating from the first millennium A.D. The numu families Camara, Doumbia and Kante are integral parts of the Sunjata epic, the story of the founding of the Mali or Mande empire by Sunjata Keita in the early thirteenth century. According to widespread oral traditions, members of the Camara and Doumbia families were allies of Sunjata and helped to defeat the tyrant Susu king Sumanguru Kante. Recommended renditions of the Sunjata epic which give the cultural history of the Maninka and explain the roles of the major families in the formation of the Mali empire include Niane (1965), Laye (1980), and Johnson (1986). Camara Laye (1954) has also written an important autobiography richly describing his childhood in upper Guinea as the son of a numu .

Despite the association of the jembe with numus there do not appear to be any hereditary restrictions on who may play the jembe . Indeed, it is out of the ordinary for numus to be associated with music-making because there is another class of hereditary artisans whose profession is music. Among the Maninka they are known as jeli –they are called griots by the French–and there are three instruments which are exclusively reserved for them: kora (a 21-stringed harp), bala or balafon (xylophone), and koni or ngoni (a 4- or 5-stringed lute).

Serang Kanoute, founding member of Les Ballets Maliens
(the national ballet of Mali), and his son Abdoulaye
playing Xasonke dunduns, Bamako, 1990.
From a video by Eric Charry, computer imaging by
Tim Barkley, Creative Services, UNCG.

It is uncommon for jelis to play the jembe , perhaps because they recognize that it is not one of their instruments. Among the Xasonke of northwestern Mali, close relatives of the Maninka, only jeli s can play the dundun , a large double-headed bass drum that accompanies jembe playing. The Xasonke dundun , also called jeli dundun , is recognizable by the unique way of playing the bell, which is held up high by the left hand and struck with a large ring slipped onto the left thumb (see photo). Elsewhere, dunduns do not have hereditary restrictions on who may play them. In Mali non-jeli dunduns are played without bells (as in Mamadou Kante 1994); in Guinea a bell is usually attached to the drum itself.

Just as certain surnames are associated with numus there are surnames that are associated with jelis, most notably Kouyate and Diabate. There are also family names that indicate noble non-artisan status–called horon –such as Keita, Konate, Kone, and Traore. Members of the horon class were the former warriors, rulers, and chiefs of Maninka society. Family names in West Africa are often reliable indicators of ethnic and class origins, although there is much fluidity in West African society so caution must be exercised in making generalizations. Nevertheless, the vast majority of jembe players have Maninka or Susu names, with many of them belonging to numu lineages such as Camara, Doumbia, and Kante. Most of the other names of jembe players, such as Keita and Konate, are of Maninka horon heritage. Very few of the names are of jeli origin. While jelis in core Mande areas recognize that the jembe is not one of their instruments, in more distant areas this tradition may have been transformed, hence Adama Drame’s assertion that the jembe is a jeli instrument in Burkina Faso.

List of names of jembe players who have recorded (keyed to the discography )

Jembe repertories draw from many different sources. There are widespread core Maninka rhythms and dances such as Dundunba (one of the most widely recorded jembe rhythms), as well as more geographically limited dances such as Soli (Maninka of Guinea), Dansa (Xasonke of Mali) and Sunu (Bamana of Mali). Many other rhythms played on the jembe are adaptations from other kinds of drums played by neighboring ethnic groups within single countries, such as Kuku from the southern Guinean forest region, which is popular in Guinea, but unimportant in Mali.

The development of national drumming styles and repertories is a recent phenomenon brought on by arbitrary European boundaries. This is particularly evident among the Maninka, whose Mande homeland was split into a Mali side and a Guinea side. Malian Maninka drummers head north to the capital city Bamako where they encounter rhythms from the northern savannah and sahel regions. Not coming from their home tradition they label these rhythms simply by the ethnic affiliations of the people from whom they come: Bamana, Wasulu (Wasolon), Maraka, Sarakole, Dogon, Peulh (see the Malian recordings of Abdoul Doumbia, Yamadu Doumbia, and Mamadou Kante). The same phenomenon occurs in Guinea where Maninka drummers head southwest to Conakry and play rhythms from the forest and coastal regions belonging to peoples such as the Baga, Toma, Mane, Temne and Guerze. The influence of non-Maninka rhythms on drumming styles and repertories is probably the greatest contributor to the development of national styles.

Fundamental differences between village drumming and ballet drumming are rarely appreciated outside Africa because there are so few village recordings, and the only live events seen are put on by touring ballet companies or their offshoots. These differences are crucial for understanding jembe drumming, and lie at the heart of African frustrations with their music being taken out of context by non-native jembe players. Each jembe rhythm and dance has a purpose, a time, and a place. Some rhythms honor groups of people, such as Jeli don (jeli s), Woloso don (a class of slaves), or Dundunba (strong or brave men). (In Maninka, don means dance.) Other rhythms are associated with specific occasions, such as Soli (for circumcisions and excisions) and Kassa (accompanying the cultivation of fields). Ballet and concert jembe players have all grown up in and passed through village traditions. Bypassing training in village traditions is rare.

Drissa Kone playing the jembe at a marriage celebration in
Bamako, 1990. From a video taken by Eric Charry,
computer imaging by Tim Barkley,
Creative Services, UNCG.

A village drumming event (which can also take place in cities) usually lasts hours with the drummers and dancers concentrating on one or just a few dance rhythms. All of those present dance sometime during the event, usually approaching the drummers singly, or by twos or threes, playfully challenging them. Most significantly for the drummers, there is an ebb and flow to the event which corresponds with frenetic dancing at blistering tempos and slower respites where the guests sing, often led by a jeli muso (female jeli ), and catch their breath. There are several excellent recordings which capture parts of such events: Famoudou Konate (1991) recorded in Conakry, Adama Drame (1994) recorded in Bouake, and Yamadu Dumbia (1994) recorded in Bamako. Lead dance-drumming can be heard on these recordings when the tempo increases and long rolls finish off with standardized rhythmic formulas marking the exit of a dancer.

In contrast to village drumming and dancing, regional and national ballets are highly choreographed with many dancers moving in unison. Pioneer choreographers such as Fodeba Keita (in French Guinean writing last names often come first so his public notices list him as Keita Fodeba) solved the problem of a non-participating audience becoming bored at watching long bouts of dancing to a single rhythm by choreographing works where rhythms and dances come one after another in rapid fire succession. The video performance of Les Ballets Africains (1991) and the CD soundtrack (1991) provide a vivid illustration of this conception. Over thirty named songs and dances are listed on the CD sleevenotes for a performance lasting just under one hour. Some pieces are played for less than one minute, while others, such as Dundunba, are played for almost ten minutes, reaffirming their importance. The rhythms come from all corners of the country and are arranged for a jembe -based ensemble even though they may be played on other instruments in a village context. Such a conception of performance demands extensive group practice. What is lost in spontaneity is made up for in compositional creativity. Whole ensembles play passages in unison weaving in and out of polyrhythmic sections. Mamady Keita’s homecoming performance with the Djoliba Ballet , shown in the excellent film Djembefola , is a fine example of this kind of compositional process, which is largely absent in village drumming.

Despite the impression left by large numbers of students in classes taught by jembe teachers and the numerous accompaniment patterns circulating for any one rhythm, jembe ensembles in Africa are small and the number of accompaniment patterns used are equally limited. Recordings range from solo jembe with no overdubbing (Adama Drame 1987), and solo jembe with one dundun (Ladji Camara n.d.b.), to ensembles of up to four or five jembe players (Percussions de GuinŽe, Ballets Africains ). A minimal ensemble would require one accompanying jembe , one lead jembe , and one dundun . Typically two or three dunduns are used, including the medium-sized sangba , and the small kenkeni . A standard ensemble, then, could comprise two jembes and two dunduns (Mamadou Kante 1994), two jembes and three dunduns (Mamady Keita 1989, 1992; Famoudou Konate 1991), or three jembes and three dunduns (Adama Drame 1994, Mamady Keita 1995). Three is usually the limit for dunduns, but any number of jembes can be added, often doubling parts. Any more than two different accompanying jembe parts, though, are probably creations of the leader.

There are three basic strokes used on the jembe (‘slap’, ‘tone’, ‘bass’) and really only two fundamental jembe accompaniment patterns: slap . . slap slap . tone tone , and slap . tone slap . bass (dots indicate rests, the last bass stroke is often a rest in Guinea). Certain lead jembe phrases appear to be unique to each piece, but it is usually the dundun part that identifies the piece. Contrary to the practice of some West African drum cultures and some teaching methods used abroad, there is no widespread system of vocables used in Mali or Guinea to refer to the different strokes on the jembe . Teachers might sing phrases to their students, but their choice of syllables and vowel sounds is designed primarily to communicate the rhythms. The opening scene in Djembefola where Mamady Keita shows a phrase to his Belgian students demonstrates that his vocables are not consistent in distinguishing slaps from tones.

The wave of recordings released to a welcoming public outside Africa contrasts starkly with local African preferences. In Mali and Guinea the local music industry has released hundreds of cassettes of traditional and modern music to an adoring public, but one genre of music is conspicuously absent: drumming. There are virtually no local cassettes of jembe drumming available. Drumming is not for listening; it is for dancing. The dances done to jembe drumming are communal events requiring live drummers. Jembes are sometimes heard as part of urban popular music groups, but they usually have a background role, except during rare solos. When jembes are called upon in this context it often is to evoke the more spiritual aspects of dancing as in Oumou Dioubate’s (1993) haunting piece Lancey where she describes a pact she made with Allah (God) after losing her twin infants. If Allah would grant her the ability to bear a child who could survive to call her ‘Mommy’ she will do the sacred Moribadjassa dance. She gives birth to Lancey and when she hears him call her, she calls upon the women of the world to help her dance the Moribadjassa . Enter the jembe .

In conclusion, the jembe has a long, widespread, and profound tradition in West Africa. There is much more to that tradition than the physical act of moving hands to recreate rhythms (as challenging as that preliminary task may be), for those rhythms and their associated dances have vital meanings in Africa. From the clearing of fields, the celebrations of marriage and the passing into adulthood, to the secret rituals of the all-powerful Komo society, the jembe is there to guide. African jembe players teaching abroad are charged by their legacy with faithfully communicating their traditions to foreign students. It is up to us to seek them out, to learn about their culture, to study the sounds of the masters, and perhaps even to visit them in their towns and villages. Otherwise, their tradition may become so diluted that its very essence is lost.

— Eric Charry, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, 1996
–Wesleyan University 1998-

For further study, see about attending the Summer Jembe Institute at UNCG (June 1998)

Jembe bibliography , discography , and videography.