The djembe is believed to date back as early as the 5th century. Many believe that blacksmiths from the Mandinka and Susa peoples were the ones who created the drums. Over time, the migration of these blacksmiths throughout West Africa is believed to have been the reason the djembe became more widespread across West Africa. However, it was not until the emergence the Mandinka people of the Mail Empire that recorded history of djembe began. In Mali, the drums are considered an instrument that can be played to create an ambience during important ceremonies. The drums are so named because they were originally constructed with wood from the jem tree; trees found in Mali that have a very dense wood. The wood is carved into an hourglass shape before being skinned with goat hide.
In fact djembe wasn’t even the original name given to the drums! Originally called jembe’s, it was the French colonists who modified the spelling to djembe. The reasoning behind this is that, in the French language the ‘j’ sound has a different pronunciation to the English. So, in order to highlight the hard ‘j’ sound the “d’ was introduced to the beginning of the word.
Many historians believe cryptic messages were communicated between people using djembe’s. Because the djembe can be played to produce a variable range of tones, these variables can be used to construct a musical language. Through varying the tones, ‘hidden’ messages could be passed between groups of people. Outsiders were unaware of the code and this made the djembe an invaluable tool to communication during periods of African oppression.
It took many years for the drums to be introduced to countries outside of West Africa. They reached Paris in the 1940’s, but became more popular in the 50’s and 60’s with the world tour of Les ballets Africains; a ballet company who use the stage to help their audience form an understanding of African culture. Within the last twenty years numerous drumming circles have incorporated djembe drums into their ensembles.
The djembe is now widely available throughout the world. The instrument that started life as a drum which cultural significance to many West Africans has now been embraced by people from all walks of life.