How to Play the Djembe: Learn the Basics

The West African Djembe has three basic sounds. In this lesson Aldo Mazza, founder and educator with KoSa Music  and member of the percussion ensemble Repercussion explains the techniques necessary to play this amazing hand drum. He’ll also show us how to play a simple Casa Rhythm on the Djembe.

In this video, Aldo Mazza will walk us through the three basic djembe hand drumming techniques.

Basic Djembe Playing Position

In order to play the djembe you have to appreciate that the drum’s sound comes from the bottom and not the top. So, it is important that the drum is tilted on its edge when you are playing in a seated position so that there is an opening at the bottom. Tilt the drum away from you so that your hands are in an ergonomic “V” position for playing comfortably.

The djembe can also rest on a stand which can be adjusted for either a seated or standing position. You can also wear the drum on a harness and move around, and with the drum suspended in this manner or on a stand the bottom is always open to allow the sound to emanate from the drum. Here are some stands to consider and based upon your needs and budget these stands are all pretty good.

I like the X8 Drums & Percussion X8-STAND Wooden Tripod Djembe Stand best just because of the natural wood, but the hardware style of stand are more versatile.

If you want, you can check out some of these other djembe stands:

Straps are also a consideration if you want to move around more while you play. This Djembe strap by Mother Rhythm is cool and not too expensive.

What Djembe Should You Buy?

There are a lot of choices when it comes to buying a djembe. If you want a professional model Aldo Mazza suggests the Wula Drums.

On the other hand, if you’re more of a hobby player or you’re just getting into Djembe drumming, the Toca Drums are a good choice for the beginner or weekend drum circle player.

What’s the Best Hand Position for Playing the Djembe?

With your drum tilted so that the head is slanted away from you place your hands on the drum so that your fingers are almost touching so that your hands form a “V” shape. In other words you don’t want your hands in a parallel position.

Your shoulders should be down and relaxed. Remember this: No tension required to play the Djembe!

Now you’re ready to play the drum!

The Base Sound of the djembe is produced by playing the drum in its center with a flat hand. This base stroke comes from the shoulder so that the weight of your arm aides in the production of a deep resonant tone. Don’t let your hand stick to the drum, but rather let it bounce of the head as soon as you make the stroke. This will ensure that you let the head vibrate to its fullest.

The Open Tone which is the melodic tone of the djembe is created by playing near the edge of the djembe with your fingers. The open tone is produced with a relaxed stroke and is higher in pitch to the base tone. Practice with both your right and left hand so that you can always produce an even and consistent sound.

The Djembe Slap is played with the fingers as well but your hand hits the rim of the drum at the knuckles and the fingers are allowed to “slap” the head. This slapping will produce a very high pitch on a well tuned djembe. Keep your fingers apart and loose. DON’T force the sound! Always play in a relaxed manner to produce the best sound.

Practice playing all three of the basic djembe sounds so that you can be consistent with both hands.

Djembe Casa Rhythm

Here’s how to play the Djembe Casa Rhythm that Aldo plays in the video. There are three sounds that you play and the sounds are noted underneath the rhythm. B is for Base Tone; O is for Open Tone; and S is for the Slap Tone. The letters on the top of the rhythm suggest which hand is best to play the rhythm but you can play it with the opposite hands if you are more comfortable doing so. R=Right and L=Left
djembe casa rhythm

Rhythm is Language

Practice playing the djembe and make it say what you want with the variety of sounds that this hand drum can produce. Remember that music is a language that you speak with the sounds that you make.

Want to know more about our guest instructor: Aldo Mazza? Here’s a little about him:

I was born in the southern Italian region of Calabria, my parents moved to Ottawa when I was a child. Coming of age in the music scenes of Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal and New York, I became active in Montreal and a member of the touring percussion ensemble REPERCUSSION. In the years since, Montreal has been my home and the world has been my office. With the support of my family, my outreach through drumming and percussion continues with performances, lessons and as both participant and producer of major musical events, in North America, Europe, South America and Asia.

You can find my website and photo gallery here

Aldo Mazza’s Performance History

  • 4 World Tours on major concert stages
  • Member of international touring & recording artist “Répercussion”
  • Many radio and television appearances, live CBC/Radio Canada recordings
  • Special Concerts for many dignitaries including US. Presidents and Canadian Prime Ministers
  • Performed or recorded over 100 CDs with artists such as Celine Dion, Aldo Nova, James Brown, Chris DeBurgh, David Amran, Alain Caron as well as major symphony orchestras including the Montreal Symphony, SMCQ (Quebec Contemporary Music Organization), and Jazz Festivals including the Montreal Jazz Festival,Hong Kong Arts Festival, and other world class events.
  • Master clinician in Classical Percussion, World Music & Drumset

Aldo Mazza’s Professional Achievements

  • Founder & Artistic Director of KoSA Communications and the KoSA International Percussion Workshops and Festivals
  • Cofounder & Artistic Director of the KoSA Cuba Workshop and Festival
  • Creator of KoSA Drumparties and coprorate drum events
  • Composer, Record Producer, Publisher and Editor
  • Director of Events Management Enterprise – KoSA Communications
  • Subject of many articles in major magazines,books and newspapers including McLeans, Percussive Arts (PAS) ,la Scena Musicale, the Montreal Gazette, Modern Drummer Magazine
  • Extensive 30 year touring and recording career
  • Active interest in global cultures and their interrelationships
  • Consultant to cultural entities
  • Involved member of Canada’s artistic community
  • Recipient of several Canada Council & Conseil Des Arts et Lettres du Quebec Research grants

Aldo Mazza’s Education

  • McGill: Bachelor of Music in Percussion, Minor in Jazz Performance
  • Université de Montréal, Graduate Studies in Ethnomusicology
  • Intensive private and summer study programs including: Banff, Eastman School of Music, Jamey Aebersold, National Stage Band Camps, Drummers Collective (New York).

Aldo is the founder of KoSa Music and the KoSa Institute offers university credits for their programs in Vermont, Cuba, China and Italy.

Here’s what Aldo has to say about KoSa

Over 15 years ago, a core group of like-minded individuals began the groundwork for what would become the KoSA experience. We felt there was a need to bring the attention of music and all its positive power to as many as we could. We created from scratch: the faculty, the identification of facilities, the course structure and events. We knew we wanted to do more than just connect participants with the greatest professionals, professors and performers – we wanted to bring an expanded educational and experiential philosophy to the table as well.

Essentially, we know that music is the ONLY universal language. It transcends all social, economic, cultural and political boundaries. Within every KoSA project, this is our core philosophy: that with the sharing of music, the world works better, much better.

It is ultimately what sets KoSA events apart from any other type of education or “camp” experiences, and what makes all KoSA projects so very special. Since we began the KoSA adventure, hundreds of world renowned artists, thousands of participants and many thousands of festival attendees have shared in the magic that is created when great performers become great teachers within an ideal environment, structure and philosophy. We have found that the “sharing” that occurs, is multi-faceted; not only do KoSA participants learn from the Masters of their craft, but the Masters learn from the participants and from each other.

There may never be an absolute Utopia when it comes to a learning environment, but for nearly 15 years, KoSA has been as close as it gets, a fact to which our entire Team and our extended family and faculty alumni are very proud.

Want more Djembe Lessons?

Check out all of our djembe and hand drumming lessons here or let us know what you’d like to see covered by contacting us or by leaving a comment below.

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