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The Djembe and its Rhythms

My Magazine 2023/12
3 min
The Djembe is an essential ancient musical instrument of the Manding-speaking people in West Africa, dating back centuries. It is a hollow goblet-shaped object, usually covered with animal skin and artistically tied with ropes, producing enchanting rhythms which speak to the spirit and soul. As mystifying as the African society is, most of these rhythms were reserved for specific occasions, making them sacred and culturally significant.

Several rhythms have been composed by several skilful drummers and regions within the Djembe tradition to celebrate strength, farming, spirituality, festivity, etc. We bring you a few rhythms, their origin and cultural significance.

Dundunba: This is believed to be the rhythm and dance of the strong man. The Dundunba is a family of rhythms played to celebrate men's strength, spirituality, and societal role. The dance moves are acrobatic, bringing out the masculinity of the dancers. It is believed to originate from Guinea, from the Malinke people.

Liberte (Liberty in English): This was composed at independence in Guinea to celebrate its freedom from the French. It's a vigorous rhythm that would lure one to think Guinea's independence was attained through the Djembe drum. It's believed to originate from the Soso people in Guinea.

Jansa/Diansa: The rhythm for all occasions is believed to be the popular Djembe entertainment rhythm. It's played in the evenings or nights at the village square or any event to bring the people together for fun. Its origin is associated with the Kasonke people of Mali.

Kassa: A rhythm of the harvest. It is played when people are in the fields harvesting. This rhythm helps inject fun into work and energizes the field workers. Its origin is of the Maninka people of Guinea, in the Kouroussa region where Camara Laye, the famous writer of "The African Child", was born and raised.

Kuku: The Kuku rhythm is usually played to celebrate the end of the harvest season and its festivals. It originates from the Koniage people of Guinea, the forest region.

Soko: A rhythm played for boys three months before circumcision in a traditional Manlinke Society, where the rhythm originates. As mentioned in the book "The African Child", Camara Laye recounts how he and the other uncircumcised boys in his hometown and the surrounding villages would gather at the village square every evening to dance, which happens three months before a circumcision date.

Triba/Tiriba: recently adopted for all festivals, but traditionally, the Triba/Tiriba rhythm was played in female initiation ceremonies. When mothers join their daughters for a dance, the origin is believed to be from the Susu people of Guinea. In some traditions, the Triba/Tiriba is adopted as a welcoming song for women returning from fishing.

Other rhythms of the Djembe are Soli for circumcision events, Kotoba, a slower harvest rhythm, and Mandiane, a rhythm to test the skillfulness of a dancer, Jaa, etc. Other rhythms of the Djembe are not included here as there are countless rhythms.

It is important to note that the Djembe is globally accepted, so its tradition may have been altered as the rhythms may now be played outside their traditional purposes. Again, rhythms outside its culture have been adopted. For instance, rhythms like Bugarabu of the Jola and the Mballax of the Wollof in the Senegambia region of West Africa are also adopted.

Additionally, Djembe drumming is very much alive in The Gambia, as you will likely come across some drummers along the beaches of Senegambia or in the coastal communities in the southern part of the Gambia. Still, we can connect you to the best in the art: drummers who not only know how to drum but can also narrate the oral history of the Djembe, its rhythms and cultural context; drummers who derive joy in sharing their skills as Djembe drummers.

Create your own experience

As you explore the Smiling Coast of Africa, don't miss the opportunity to join My Gambia's drumming classes. It's a chance to create lasting memories and take home a piece of Africa's rhythmic heartbeat. Feel the pulse of The Gambia and experience its culture in a way that only the magic of drumming can provide.



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