An African djembe is made out of a single piece of wood and is carved by hand. Some dealers
offer 2-piece lathe-turned djembes made out of rosewood in Pakistan. They may be less expensive,
but they don't seem to have the full tonal range a djembe should have. African djembes are made
out of a type of African mahogany (I've heard it called several names -- "bete" is one, there are
others). It's a reddish-brown wood that can have interesting grain patterns in a lighter beige
color. The African drums are tensioned using ropes and steel rims, and have goatskin heads.
Apparently, some makers in Africa sometimes use other animal hides, such as antelope, but I've
never seen any of this kind here in the USA.
Inspect the shell very carefully. Some instruments are made for players, and some are made
as decorations. A djembe should be heavy in weight. Exterior carvings are secondary to sound and
should have little influence over your decision to buy. Almost all of the African djembes I have
seen here in the USA have cracks in the wood that have been filled with glue and sawdust. These
cracks don't seem to affect sound. A cracked and repaired drum is not necessarily a bad one --
quite the contrary. But avoid a drum whose cracks extend to the bearing edge, where the skin is
stretched over the wood. Cracks at the bearing edge can mean the shell may collapse under pressure
later in the drum's life.
The bearing edge may or may not be correctly dressed, that is, the profile of the bearing
edge should be peaked and rounded, not flat and sharp-edged. The circle that the bearing edge
forms should be in a single plane, not uneven. Both these problems can be fixed quite easily,
however. All you need is a Sur-Form or block plane, and some sandpaper.
The head should be intact, without holes or splits. Check the hide for dryness. Most African
djembes sold here in the States have undergone some drying in shipment, and it's possible the
heads cannot be brought up to tune without breaking. I always replace the heads on new djembes
with fresh goat rawhide. This usually costs $20 to $35 plus labor.
An African djembe should cost between $200 and $400. There are dealers who charge more, but
you needn't buy from them. There's a lot of competition these days in selling djembes via mail
order. You can tell the dealer what you want over the phone and say you want it shipped subject
to approval -- you want a shell in good shape, a decent head, approximately 14" in diameter by
On the other hand, you could
buy a Remo djembe.
I have three African djembes and one Remo, and I love my Remo drum. It's lightweight, yet sounds
crisp, cutting, and loud, with full tonal response. The shells are made from a machine-formed
wood composite and covered with a synthetic head. They are waterproof (short of submersion) and
easily tunable using a standard drum key. They also sell for less than most African djembes.