The drummer’s posture
Many people get problems with their posture with the lapse of time due to irregular body position. People nearly bend above their instruments, paying attention only to the playing process and not controlling the whole body. The awareness of the regular body position is priceless as the energy flows more freely inside the straight and relaxed body, and the rhythms are born themselves. You are just a medium connecting the sky and the earth while playing the djembe.
Don’t hump your back, no matter if you stand or sit, hold your back straight. Let your shoulders relax at the same level, put them down and back naturally, hold your chest open. Don’t overplay in sticking out your chest, just relax and imagine a leash stuck at the top of your head, going down to your tailbone and holding your spine straight.
Breathe naturally, as usually. Don’t hold your breath and don’t clench your teeth while playing (this is not a joke), as it is often done and people cannot even notice what they do until they are told anything.
You can play the djembe while standing or sitting. When you stand, you would use a belt (between your legs or on one side) or a stand. Ensure that you can easily reach the middle of the drum bu your hands without moving your shoulders. You can use the djembe stand which would unload your shoulders and legs. If you play the djembe sitting, place the drum between your legs, bend it a bit and fix it by the inner side of your knees. The hole in the lower side of the instrument base should be open for getting the bass.
Turn the drum, placing the trace of the goat skin spine between your two arms, pointing at you directly. Near the neck, the skin is usually thicker so it should be closer to hands. You can see where the goat’s head and tail were located by the direction of fur at the spine. Turning the djembe drum right, you will improve the sound quality due to the touches of the skin of the same thickness at both sides. If you don’t see a spine trace, place the drum at any direction (but not upside down!).
The neck of the djembe is the weakest part of the wood, so you should avoid lateral pressing on it. It means that adults should not sit on the drum when it is placed on the ground.
Hand and arm position
The arm moves mostly in the elbow while playing the djembe drum. You should avoid extra movements of fingers, wrists or shoulders. Hands should be a bit relaxed and kept at their natural line with forearms and fingers. To get the right hands direction, make a triangle from your thumps and trigger fingers, placing the upper phalanges to the edge of the drum. The best way to find the right position for you is experimenting with different positions and finding the one which would help you to reach the proper sound without any pain.
You should expect some discomfort in hand and finger skin and muscles when you begin to play the djembe. But if the pain spreads to your bones or there are any bruises you should have a rest from drumming. Some surface discomfort is okay, but the continuous pain is a sign that you don’t play properly and need to improve your technique.
Bass, Tone and Slap
A djembe is a very popular instrument due to various reasons. One of them is the wide range of sounds which can be made while playing one drum by small changed in the position of hands. To learn to play the African drum and make three main sounds right you should take lessons (personally, via books or DVD) and be ready to practice, like for every musical instrument. This short article describes only three main touches – a bass, a tone and a slap. A tone is a touch by the middle parts of the fingers, making a full and firm sound. A slap is a touch by finger tips, making the sharp slap.
Though there are many different specific features which can be used while playing the djembe, some common and most wide-spread principals are described here.
Firstly, a djembe needs your ‘whole hand’ at its most sensitive part (unlike the darbuka, which needs the technique with many separate finger touches). With every touch and leap, all four fingers touch the membrane at the same time. Secondly, djembe sounds come from two main sources: the top of the trembling membrane and the bottom of the peg. To make the skin vibrate, the hands should not stay lying on it after the touch. Raise your hand as sharply as if you have touched something hot. When you put your hand down, be relaxed enough to let your hand fall itself to the drum’s surface driven by its own weight. To let the sound leave the djembe bottom, ensure that the bottom hole isn’t blocked by anything.
• Bass – fingers slightly touch each other. Let your hand fall relaxedly and naturally in the middle of the drum skin and then bounce your hand immediately. Keep your wrists firm, your fingers straight and don’t touch the drum with your fist. The middle of the membrane can contain the ‘dead zone’ for a sound, depending on the djembe size, so keep your hands a bit aside the middle. For enhancing the full bass sound drumming practice, relax the heel of your hand and touch the drum close to its middle as long as you get firm and strong sound.
• Tone (open touch) – keeping your wrist firm and your fingers flat, straight and slightly touching each other, touch the drum sharply with your finger tips, minimizing their contact with the membrane. The upper side of the hand should stay in contact with the edge of the djembe drum, and the striking force should be concentrated in the finger taps and bones. Try to imagine an oar or a beaver’s tail slapping the water – the sound should be similar to that. The open touch sound has a lower tone than the slap.
• Slap. Relax your hand a bit, letting the fingers bend naturally in the hand. Keep your wrists firm still, making the slap by the fingers’ end phalanges and minimizing the touch of the fingers’ first bones with the edge of the djembe. The tips of the hand will contact the instrument edges more than when playing the tone. But pay attention on the contact between the finger tips and the skin. The sound becomes higher than the tone and usually has more volume.
You should improve your technique also to make sharp distinction between the tone and the slap. You will probably need some African drumming lessons from the professional player to learn to play the djembe. It is very important to get the feedback from skilled djembe drummers and to prove the quality of your technique. Don’t play using the ‘louder is better’ technique. Beginners often make a mistake thinking that they need to touch stronger to make the slap sound louder. Be patient and make your touch more sharp and precise, and it will help you to create really interesting and rich musical stories.