What is a djembe?

Published:

Wednesday, 3/1/2017 1:54pm

 

On May 20, "Djembes and Dance: A springtime celebration of African rhythm," debuts at Philipsburg Manor in Sleepy Hollow. And while everybody knows what dance is, of course, not everyone is familiar with the djembe.

A djembe (pronounced jem-bay) is a traditional West African drum that can be traced back to Mali as early as the 12th century. The name djembe likely originates from the Bambara (Mali) saying “Anke djé, anke bé.” Dje means “gather’’ and be means “peace,’’ so the name roughly translates as “everyone gather together in peace.”

Traditional djembes are wood shells that are hand-carved in a goblet shape and covered in rawhide. They range from 11 to 18 inches in diameter and are about 24 inches tall. A Madinka legend holds that the djembe came about through a genie (known as a djinn), who gifted a tree to a Madinka blacksmith and taught him how to carve it into the correct shape.

When West Africans were brought to colonial America as slaves, including here in New York, they brought their musical traditions with them. For the enslaved community, music soothed, offered hope, and provided an important link to their African heritage. Common instruments included drums, shakes, bells, banjos, fiddles, and juba, or clapping and keeping time with hands and feet.

But in many areas of colonial America, traditional African drums were banned. Some Christians viewed them as instruments of paganism. Other colonists perceived “talking’’ drums as a threat, and were suspicious of their ability to allow slave communities to communicate with each other. After the Stono slave rebellion in 1740, the South Carolina colonial assembly outlawed hand drums because of the role they played in organizing the insurrection.

Nevertheless, traditional African music persisted in the enslaved community, in everyday life and in the rare times when they were able to gather for celebrations, such as during the lively celebration of Pinkster. Brought here by the Dutch, Pinkster is one of the most regularly documented public displays of African drumming. Enslaved Africans throughout the area came together to celebrate spring, a special time in their lives when they could relax, renew kinships, remember home, and keep West African culture alive.

The following excerpt from the New York Weekly Journal of March 7, 1737, describes a Pinkster celebration in the fields just outside of New York City:

 “It was no small amusement to me, to see the plain partly covered with booths, and well crouded with whites, the Negroes divided into companies, I suppose according to their different nations, some dancing to the hollow sound of a drum, made of the trunk of a hollow tree, othersome to the grating rattling noise of pebles or shells in a small  basket, others plied the banger, and some knew how to joyn the voice it.”

Today, master drummers and scholars introduce the West African drumming traditions to modern audiences. Djembes and Dance features musicians performing traditional African instruments throughout the day. Visitors and performers will “gather together in peace” to enjoy a dance lesson, listen to the melodious strings of the kora, experience African folklore storytelling, watch historic cooking demonstrations, and participate in a re-creation of a colonial Pinkster festival, all to the infectious beat of djembes and other traditional African drums.

Get swept up in the rhythms, visit Djembes and Dance, May 20 from 12-5pm at Philipsburg Manor. 

 

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