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Title: Mande Music—Dundunba; Adama Drame, jembe. Label: University of Chicago. Format: CD. Catalogue#: Compilation CD for the book: Mande Music, by Eric Charry. Track: 21.

Contextual Associations

The jembe is a single-head membranophone of the Maninka and Susu (Mande-speaking peoples) of western Africa. It is associated with the numu (blacksmith) hereditary artisans, who manufacture and frequently play jembe for rites of passage, marriage celebrations, and agricultural celebrations, most of which involve dancing. Over time, jembe drummers have adopted influences from varied non-Mande drumming styles. These styles have become incorporated into national drumming styles within the Mande region, where some governments support world-touring jembe-centric troupes such as the Ensemble National des Percussions de Guinee. The jembe is now widespread throughout Africa and, through the processes of globalization, the rest of the world, where it is used educationally and as a demonstrative example of African drumming styles. In all likelihood, the first jembe pictured on this page was made by a Mande artisan in Guinea for export to the West. A further indication of the global character of this drum is embodied in the second jembe pictured on this page. It was manufactured in Thailand for the Latin Percussion (LP®) corporation headquartered in New Jersey, and is readily available for purchase by any aspiring hand drummer online and at music stores throughout the industrialized world. The jembe has become globalized to such an extent that outsider expectations of jembe music have begun to shape jembe playing in Mande areas (Flaig).


In its indigenous form, the single-head goblet-shaped jembe is carved from a tree trunk, preferably a variety called lenke. Its shell is tubular (open at both ends) with the larger opening covered by the playing membrane and the smaller left open. A soaked goatskin hide is placed over the larger opening and an iron ring with a diameter slightly larger than that of the larger opening in the shell is placed over the hide. After wrapping the ring with the hide, a second ring, cloth wrapped and with numerous loops made from the knotting of a rope, is lapped on top of the first ring (see detail photo). A third and smaller cloth-wrapped iron ring with knotted loops encircles the drum near its narrow waist and serves as a counter hoop. A very long and strong rope is then threaded in a zigzag pattern through neighboring loops in the uppermost and the bottom rings. Considerable effort is exerted by the maker to pull this second rope as tight as possible, which in turn pulls the uppermost ring down upon the hide-wrapped ring and places great tension on the head. In contradistinction to the African-made jembe, the LP one has a shell that is machine turned from several glued together pieces of wood, and the head is mounted on a flesh hoop over which is fitted a metal collar anchored to the shell with mechanical tuning screw hardware (borrowed from the attachment practices used by manufacturers of western drums) for tension adjustment needs. While this jembe has a stand on which it can be secured, no such equivalent exists for the traditional jembe.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

Jembe drummers either hold the drum nearly horizontally between their legs with the assistance of a neck strap, the head facing forwards, or stand astride it as it rests horizontally on the ground. They use their bare hands to strike the head and produce three basic sounds (slap, tone and bass) that can be combined into identifiable rhythmic patterns. The only way to tune the drum is to place the head near a fire, which will make it tauter and higher in pitch. Jembes are usually played in ensembles of varying size, but one typical combination used for national dance troupes would include a lead jembe player, two or more accompanying jembe players, and three or more players of a cylindrical drum called dundun.


Given the close association between the jembe and the deeply rooted social institution of hereditary artisans, numu in particular, it can be surmised that this drum has been in existence for a long time. However, very little is actually known of its early history and development.

Bibliographic Citations

Charry, Eric. 2000. Mande Music. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

________. 2000. Mande Music Companion CD. CD and booklet. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

________. Oxford Music On Line, Grove Music Online. Accessed October 16, 2013:

Flaig, Vera H. 2010. The Politics of Representation and Transmission in the Globalization of Guinea's Jembe. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Michigan:


Instrument Information


Continent: Africa

Region: West Africa

Nation: Mali

Formation: Mande

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

211.26 membranophone--goblet-shaped drum: the body consists of a main section which is either cup shaped or cylindrical, and a slender stem

Design and Playing Features

Category: membranophone

Number of drums comprising instrument: single drum

Shell design: tubular - goblet

Number and function of membranes: one, for sounding

Membrane design: framed with rigid flesh hoop

Membrane attachment: counterhoop, lapped over framed membrane hoop, connected by lacing or tension rods to counterhoop encircling shell

Membrane tension control: none, tension set at time of manufacture

Sounding for membranophone: striking directly with both hands

Sound modifiers for membranophone: none


24.2 in. height (first instrument) 12.3 in. diameter of head (first instrument)

Primary Materials

membrane - mammal skin
cord - synthetic


Latin Percussion (second instrument)

Entry Author

Toby Austin, Roger Vetter