Djembe & Mande Music Page/Review Section
(last revision 02/11/99)

 
TITLE: THE DJEMBE: AFRICAN PERCUSSION
ARTIST: SERGE BLANC
FORMAT: BOOK/CD
COMPANY: PERCUDANSE

 (You can order by mailing a check (payable to "Michael Wall") for $39.95  plus $3 shipping (Airmail in the US) to: Michael Wall
5295-D Kalanianaole Hwy, Honolulu, HI 96821
USA (808) 377-3786; FAX: (808) 373-2667; (808)737-3786

Published originally in French as Le Tambour Djembe, this book/CD by Serge Blanc is now available in an English translation. A student of Adama Dramé and other Mande djembe masters, Blanc has succeeded in writing a practical guide to the djembe and its cultural setting. Although it isn't quite as rigorous or comprehensive as an ethnomusicological study, it does contain detailed and precise cultural information yet at the same time it is written in a simple and straightforward manner.

The book begins by situating the djembe in the broader context of Mande society. To this end, one short chapter presents the story of Sunjata, the founder of the Mali empire in the 12th century, while another deals with the social role of jelis or griots, the oral historians and hereditary musicians of Mande society. There is also a chapter on the different Mande instruments, from the balafon to the bolon, thereby illustrating that the djembe is part of a rich and varied musical tradition.

In the next chapter the author recounts one of the many myths of the djembe's origin, describes the traditional manner for constructing a djembe, including materials used, specifications and diagrams, and discusses the extensive process of a djembefola's apprenticeship and the function of the djembe in the Mande tradition. Next, a section on playing positions includes instruction and photographs for proper sitting and standing positions, as well as two methods for using a strap to support the djembe. Instructions and photographs of proper hand positions and sound samples on the CD are all used as teaching aids to assist the student in producing the basic tones on the djembe. Lastly, a brief description with photographs on how to produce the open tone and muffled tone on a dunun complete this chapter.

It may be difficult for the beginning student to develop the proper technique for producing the three main tones on the djembe without the assistance of a bonafide teacher. However, given the limitations of method books, Blanc's attempt to present the basic tones using printed instruction, photographs and sound samples is most likely as good or better than any other method book a student of the djembe will find.

This book also includes an extensive appendix covering the major djembe players in West Africa, a discography of Mande percussion, a list of the different ethnic groups of the countries (Mali, The Gambia, Senegal, Ivory Coast) that constitute the Mande sphere of influence and a chapter on assembling djembes and dununs. In addition, this book is splendidly illustrated by a multitude of drawings and photographs.

The accompanying compact disc demonstrates the exercises and rhythms contained in the book. Each example begins with a 4 pulse and the various djembe and dunun parts enter one at a time. All the exercises and rhythms included in The Djembe are notated in a modified form of musical staff notation. Blanc uses standard westerm musical symbols and identifications, such as time signatures, measures, notes, rests, repeat signs, etc. to assist the reader. Instructions on how to read this notation, including how the notes in the staff correspond to the sounds of the djembe precede the exercises and rhythms. Students not used to reading standard musical notation may find following the notations while listening to the rhythms on the CD to be very helpful .

 The instructional section of the book begins with twelve exercises (not included on the CD) starting with quarter notes in 4/4 and increasing in difficulty to playing eighth notes in 12/8; these exercises are intended to provide practice for producing the three tones of the djembe with speed and accuracy. Fourteen rhythmic exercises scored for one djembe and two dununs then introduce the student to polyrhythms and ensemble playing, and help develop listening skills. It should be added that these rhythmic exercises are actually fun to play and the dunun accompaniment is a very welcome addition.

Blanc then presents the following rhythms from the djembe repertoire: Jansa, Kurubi, Madan, Sofa, Sunu, Soli, Tiriba, Wasulunke, Didadi, Kassa, Koreduga, Marakadon, Sabar, Sogolon, Soko, Yabara, Kuku, Sanja, Bando, Konowule, Kawa and Mendiani. Thirteen of these rhythms are scored for a four drum ensemble (two djembes and two dununs) while the nine rhythms from Guinea include a dunumba part and are scored with five parts. The break for each rhythm is provided in the first measure of the lead djembe part and the bell patterns are notated above the staff for the dunun parts. The chapter on traditional rhythms concludes with notated versions of Zawuli Hands and Zawuli Feet, rhythms traditionally associated with the mask dance of the Guro, and with an extended drum break scored for djembe and dunun. All these pieces are included on the CD and may challenge even the most advanced students, if played at a fast tempo.

Blanc also provides background information on the country and ethnic group of origin of the rhythm and its use in the traditional context. Although the author makes it clear that he is presenting a single version of these rhythms which may vary from region to region and from ethic group to ethnic group, he lists the following players as having confirmed the accuracy of the rhythms presented: Aboubakar Bamba, Koumgbanan Conde, Lamine Soumah, Mamady Keita, Noumoudy Keita and Souleymane Dembele. We shouldn't however conclude that the versions presented are the authoritative version nor that each of the players mentioned would agree with every single part or arrangement that appears in this book. If you share these rhythms with friends, you should make this clear.

An informal survey of djembe-list members who have used this book reveals that drummers of a wide range of proficiency and musical backgrounds consider it to be a very valuable source of information and rhythms. It is ideally suited for drummers with at least a few years experience and who are comfortable with notation. But we also encourage beginners to purchase this book because it will give them a broader picture of the place of the djembe within Mande cultural and musical traditions as well as useful information on assembling djembes and dunduns. It should be pointed out, however, that Blanc's book or CD doesn't devote the time to basic tone production that beginners require. Moreover, beginners would benefit from other instructional materials that present rhythms at slower tempos, before playing them at their normal tempo.

The use of Western musical notation is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it may prove to be an additional hurdle for people unfamiliar with it and give beginners one more difficulty to overcome. The case can also be made that western musical notation is poorly suited for the notation of drum rhythms and that other formats, such as the ASCII, generally adopted by members of the djembe list, make better intuitive sense. However, people who have learned Western musical notation through the study of another instrument may find it a convenient way to become versed in drum notation. Still others who have encountered difficulty in understanding the correlation between actual drum parts and their notations might find the combination of recorded rhythms and notations in Blanc's book a way to gain a foothold on how the former relate to the latter. Thus, the notations and the recorded versions can be mutually reinforcing. Perhaps a future edition will include both forms of notation, i.e. the ASCII version and the form used by Blanc, alongside each other. Such an addition may help those accustomed to reading standard musical notation to become more versed in the ASCII format and also help those who are used to the ASCII format to read rhythms presented in some form of standard musical notation.

In closing, Blanc has done an excellent job of presenting a very thorough, detailed and professional quality tutorial on the djembe.  Students expecting a simple method book with an explanation of technique, exercises and rhythms may be pleasantly surprised by the wealth of valuable supporting information about the place of the djembe in Mande society found Blanc's book. We should stress once again that this book is not intended to replace direct instruction from a teacher with a solid background in both the djembe repertoire and the cultural tradition. But, keeping this in mind, even the most skilled of players will find The Djembe to be a valuable addition to their library of djembe resource materials. And, although it is intended primarily for djembe players, Blanc's book should prove to be quite useful for dundun players as well.

Michael Goshen and Tom Daddesio

Special thanks to Jim Banks, Jeremy Chevrier, Barky, Adam Rugo, Nick Nesbit, Francoise Stauber, Bob Feuer, and Peter Carels whose comments have assisted us in writing this review.

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