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Hand drums from around the world - History, techniques, videos & links


An ancient West African drum now taking the world by storm.
Embraced by percussionists and beginners alike, the djembe's awesome power and versatility make it one of the world's most popular drums - a favourite for high energy African drumming performances, as well as group drumming, drum therapy and drum circles.

The name Djembe originates from the Bambara people in Mali (West Africa), the drum was used to call people together and the name "Djembe" derives from the saying: "Anke djé, anke bé."
Which means "everyone gather, everyone in peace."
In the Bambara language, "djé" means "to gather" and "bé" means "peace."

Djembe rhythms are usually combinations of 4 sounds, the bass, tone, slap and ghost notes. The bass and tone are the fundamental notes, and most basic rhythms can be played using these 2 sounds. Slaps and ghost notes require better technique and take longer to learn correctly. Traditional djembe rhythms are often derived from cultural aspects of village life, and correspond closely to work movements, for instance - when it was time to bring in the harvest the drummers would be called to play the rhythm for people working in the fields, the rhythm would correspond to their work movements and keep the tempo for them. It was the role of the drummers to set the tempo for maximum efficiency, and to maintain the energy, without tiring people out - the drummers were careful not to play too fast or too slow.

Djembe History
Djembe drumMany centuries ago before West Africa was divided into various countries, the region was ruled by the Mandinka - the Mali Empire. The Djembe is their traditional drum. The drum was used to call the tribe together to hear the King speak, or to bring in the harvest, to celebrate births & weddings, at funerals.
In all aspects of life the drum played a vital role.

With the onslaught on the West African coast by slave traders, millions of West Africans found themselves unwillingly transported to various foreign places, like North America; Jamaica, Cuba, West Indies, Brazil. But they took their songs and rhythms, which in turn gave birth to Blues, Jazz, Salsa, Rock and more..

Djembe drumming Links:

National Ballet of Guinea - Heritage. Recognised as amongst the best in Africa. - Resources and worldwide links.
Mamady Keita official website - A true master of Djembe drumming: Djembefola.
Mamady Keita live - Youtube
Djembe Links website
Percussive Arts Society

Bongo drums

Bongo drumsThe bongo is probably the most well known hand drum in the world, and many hand drums are generally referred to as bongos. Each drum has it's own name though.

The bongos were invented in Cuba, and have a centuries old tradition. The bongo actually consists of 2 drums which are attached to one another - as in the picture on the right. The smaller drum is called the macho (male) and the larger is known as the hembra (female).

Bongo rhythms
The fundamental bongo rhythm is known as the Martillo (hammer) or Marcha (the March). In traditional Cuban music & salsa there is no drumkit, and the time is kept by the percussionist, or several percussionists. The bongos are played together with the congas, timbales, maracas and bells - each playing complementary rhythms.


Conga drumsLatin America's favourite drum. And closely related to many african drums. And rhythmically the drum music of Latin America very closely resembles African music, since Africa was the birthplace of drumming.

For instance the son clave, an ancient bell pattern from Africa forms the basis of Cuban Son music, and almost all conga and bongo drumming, as well as the timbales. Which all work very closely together to form a tight knit groove.

The Tumbao
The Tumbao rhythm forms the basis of much conga based music - such as Salsa and Latin Jazz. It originates with the Tumbadora - an ancient Cuban drum based on the african drum. They were used in early Cuban carnival music in the 1800's - and gave birth to the conga.

Also see -

In Cuba some say the Conga is as difficult to play as the Violin.

Studying Congas requires a lot of practice and dedication.
One has to take time to master the hand movements.
It is advisable to find a good teacher, who can assist with correct technique.


Sabar drumKnown as the Royal Drums of Senegal, djembes may be played all over Africa, but the Sabar is exclusive to the Wolof people of Senegal.

It can often be seen played at football games involving the Senegalese national side, as happened during the FIFA World Cup in 2002.

The Sabar is played asymmetrically - with one hand and one stick. And a variety of strokes are used.

there are seven drums in the Sabar family. Each is tuned with seven pegs and rope. Which sets them apart from most peg-tuned drums. Each Sabar has its own name, and it's own sound - and all together they form the Sabar ensemble.

Sabar are made from Dimba wood - which is very dense, dark and hard. They are headed with goatskin.
The Sabar should be tuned for playing only, and then untuned afterward. This is done by hammering the pegs in, and then pulling them loose afterward.

Mbalax is a rhythm family that forms the foundation for most Senegalese music, like Baaba Maal and Youssou N'Dour. It is found throughout traditional Senegalese music, and permeates their modern music too. Listen to the album Diabote by Doudou N'diaye Rose to hear traditional sabar drumming.

Diop percussion- Senegal
see how traditional Sabar drums are made here.

In Senegal and many West African countries where the griot tradition exists, one has to be born into a musical family, or be taught by a recognised master in order to play an instrument.


There are 2 different types of Tabla, the one comes from India and consists of 2 drums, a bas and a high pitched drum.

The other, lesser known type of Tabla comes from Egypt, and is a goblet drum, known by many names and played all over North Africa, and in the middle East.

Tabla - India
The indian Tabla has an ancient lineage, and descends from the Pakkawaj, a drum played by very few in the world today.

Like many other drums, goatskin is used to head the tabla which is a complicated process.

Famous exponents of the Tabla like Zakir Hussain have revolutionised the way Tabla is played, and brought it into prominence on the world stage.

North Africa
The Tabla of North Africa is a goblet shaped drum, similair to the djembe - which gives it high pitched edge sounds and a resounding bas. It is the lead drum in the Egyptian drum ensemble, and plays the solo parts in the rhythmic composition.

It is also known as the Darbuka d played throughout the Middle East - Lebanon, Egypt, and elsewhere. These drums are used for belly dancing, and use very powerful rhythms.

Modern exponents of the Tabla in Egypt include Hussain Ramzy.


Zarb Drum - TombakThe beautiful, melodic sounds of the Zarb are unlike any other drum. It is an ancient persian goblet shaped drum, made from Walnut or Mulberry wood, and covered with a goat skin which is glued in place.

In the 20th century Teherani revolutionised the Zarb, forming a school of percussion, and making many changes to traditional Zarb drumming, so much so that it has gone from a rural instrument to art music.


In the days of the Persian empire the Zarb - also known as the tombak - came second to the frame drum (Daf), which was favoured at court, and formed part of the traditional music ensemble. The Zarb preferred by travelling musicians, and farmers, who drummed at festivals.

Only in the 20th century has the Zarb come into it's own, from a simple rhythmic accompaniment to a performance in itself.

The Zarb is characterised by melodic rhythms, with the performer displaying his skill with improvisations - playing not only the rhythm, but also the solo and the melody.

The Zarb is also notable for the rhythmic roll, which is different to usual drumrolls.

Like other middle eastern drums, the Zarb is played with the fingers. However, the Zarb is unique for its wide variety of unusual techniques and strokes. It is said to have as many sounds as the piano, and some Zarb compositions have even been transcribed for piano.
See the Chemirani Trio on Youtube.

Tama - Talking drumTama - Talking Drum

Tama Technique

The Talking drum is a double headed drum that originates in West Africa and is played with a hand and stick: the stick being in your strong hand, the drum held under your other arm, squeezed against the leg or body, with that hand on the skin to create hand-stick combinations, as well as varying the pitch by squeezing the strings.
See a demonstration here.

The talking drum is played in Nigeria, Senegal, Mali and other West African countries. It is called the talking drum because of the unique sounds it makes which can mimic human speech. Some players can even replicate words quite accurately by manipulating the drum using their free hand and stick while squeezing and releasing the ropes. This causes the drum heads to expand and contract accordingly, allowing the player to bend notes and create unique tones.


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