Q) My djembe seems to have a short bass or less bass than I have heard on other drums. How can I get more bass out of my drum?
A) This probably means that somewhere in your shell there is a crack or a hole that is letting air through. There is no quick fix for this. For instance, whereas oiling the inside of your drum may be helpful in some cases, in others it may complicate the repair job. If the problem turns out to be a hole in the shell, it can only be repaired with wood filler; oil interferes with wood filler and has to be removed somehow before the hole can be plugged. I have seen many cases where it took a long time and several different methods of crack/hole detection to find where the shell was breached. Sometimes the whole drum has to be pulled apart, removing the head to work with the inside of the shell more easily. Since most people don’t know how to take a djembe apart much less put it back together, I always recommend that they take their sick drums to the local djembe expert for a repair on this problem rather than trying to patch it up themselves.
Q) I don’t seem to be getting a very distinct slap out of my drum. What can I do?
A) Assuming it isn’t your slap per se that is the problem (to be honest, it usually is), there may be something wrong with your drum’s skin, such as: it’s too old, too loose, or has been exposed to lotion or oil. Have someone with more developed tone and slap play your drum to make sure that your slap isn’t the problem. (I remember the first time I asked someone with well-developed tone and slap to play my drum; it illustrated to me where I would be after a lot of work.) If it turns out that a weak slap is due to your head being too loose (drum head that is!), then you simply need to tune your drum. It takes a pretty experienced eye to determine if the head is too old, but if this is the problem, you will have to get it reskinned. See your local djembe expert for help. Oil exposure, on the other hand, might not require reskinning. Try rubbing the head with some fine sandpaper until the skin’s vibration improves. A word to the wise: a good goatskin should require little to no maintenance and definitely does not require oiling or moisturizing. If your hands dry up and crack, be careful not to use typical hand lotions on them just prior to drumming, as you will add lotion to your head inadvertently. Shea butter (aka Karité or Doni) is the only thing I recommend to djembe drummers for hand conditioning.
Q) Why do I get bruises and/or cracks?
A) Bruises are almost always the result of playing incorrectly in some way, i.e.: playing too hard or with your hands in the wrong position. You can also get bruises because your drum’s bearing edge is too sharp. See your local djembe expert to fix the drum. Practice proper form to fix your playing. Unfortunately, cracks are more inevitable than bruises and harder to fix. They have a lot to do with moisture– in the air, in your body, or both. You may crack if you don’t drink enough water. I live in the Chicago area, where the winters are cold and dry. My ‘cracking season’ is from about October to March; if you play hard 7 days a week, get some calendula for daily and nightly use and some athletic tape for playing while cracked – sometimes that’s as good as it gets!
As a general rule, steer clear of standard supermarket lotions for cracks– they are full of chemicals and can spoil the head of your drum if transferred from your hands while playing and it’s not good to put random multi-syllabic chemicals on your body.
Q) What can I do about bruises and cracks? Is there any relief?
A) For bruises—Apply Arnica. Also, figure out why you’re getting them. Make sure you’re playing properly and that your drum is in good condition. For cracks– Calendula. Apply during the day and at night. You can put a glob on the crack and cover with a loose Band-Aid so you don’t rub it off in your sleep. Also, Shea butter is very good for overall hand conditioning. Shea butter conditions your hands without softening them up too much. (Drummers’ hands shouldn’t be too soft.)
Q) My drum has knots/snaps all the way to the top ring. Is there any way to get the head tighter?
A) You will need to take all the knots/snaps out and re-tighten your verticals. To get maximum tightness without accidentally breaking the head, take it to someone who has experience with this sort of thing. It is a good deal of physical labor, so if you don’t do it yourself, expect some kind of fee to be associated with the job.
Q) How do I get tones like Mamady Keita?
A) First of all, build a time machine. Use your machine to orchestrate your birth to happen in Balandugu, Guinea, West Africa around 1950; learn the djembe from its roots all the way up—it’s a no-brainer! But seriously, I often get the question “will I ever sound good?” from my students. It doesn’t take a lifetime to sound very, very good on the djembe. It’s mainly a quality time and quality of practice issue. Meaning, if you practice with good technique a little every day, you will see results quickly. If you practice once a month, you will not see results for a long, long time. For example, I was doing a workshop for one of the Guitar Center stores several years ago. One of the participants was having great difficulty with the most fundamental exercises through the entire workshop. Afterward, he told me he knew that he had a lot of work to do to get better but that he had “only” been playing for 6 years. 6 years?!?! My conversation to myself was “what have you been doing for all those years?” My conversation with him did not mention how long he or I had been playing, but encouraged him to keep at it and to practice good technique. A lot of practice with bad technique can hold you back as much no practice at all.
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