Goblet-drums are found across the Mandé region of West Africa, which refers to the geographical shadow of the Mandé empire (1235-1469 A.D.), including present-day Mali, Senegal, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, and the Gambia. They are especially prevalent in Guinea and Sierra Leone among the Malinke people. None are more widespread, both within and outside of the Mandé world, however, than the Malinke jembe.
Within West Africa, the jembe tradition runs along the Upper Niger River from Faranah, Guinea, in the west to Segu, Mali in the east. Its traditions can be observed as far south as Bouake, Côte d’Ivoire, and as far north as Kayes, Mali. Its wide dispersion locally may be due to numu, that is blacksmith, migrations dating from the first millennium CE. The jembe is closely tied to numu traditions, whose tools are necessary for carving the instrument. Many traditional players bear the names of Malinke or Susu numu lineages, such as Camara, Doumbia and Kante (Charry 2000: 213). Numu kòmò societies, who carve drums and masks, and their accompanying duties in the wider society, which include presiding over sensitive and powerful rituals locally, are often shrouded in secrecy. It is well-known, though, that the jembe almost ubiquitously plays a part in these rituals.
Jembes, and especially jembes from Guinea, are most frequently carved from a single piece of Lenke (also spelled linge, danga, dagan, daganba), a pale straw sapwood, although dugura, a yellowish wood; and jala, an African mahogany; among other kinds of woods are also used, depending on availability in the region. Lenke is prized in part because it is believed to be spiritually charged. As a result, the wood must be appeased with a chicken and cola nuts prior to being cut for the purpose of building a jembe. After the body of the instrument has been carved into a goblet shape, the head is attached using three iron rings, a feature that distinguishes it from other goblet-shaped drums in the region. A water-soaked goatskin is then laid on top of the drum frame. A ring is placed over the hide around the outside of the bowl and the ends of the skin are pulled up over the ring and trimmed. Another ring with small metal loops hanging from it is placed on top of the first. A third ring, also with loops, is then slipped over the lower half of the body and slid up to the bottom of the bowl. Cord is then threaded through the loops of the upper and lower rings in an up-and-down zigzag pattern (Charry 2000: 215). On this particular drum, the cord has been strung in a zigzag pattern to the iron rings circling the perimeter the lower part of the goblet of the drum, which is, in turn, fastened to crisscrossing vertical laces, forming an X-pattern, attached to the ring at the head of the drum. The skin is left to dry for a few days, after which the cord is tightened repeatedly. Fetishes called ‘gris gris’–a smeared-over bundle made of bird feathers–are often attached to the jembe in order to confer it with magical powers (Meyer 1993: 88). Once a drum’s construction is complete, there is traditionally a large feast on the following Sunday, when one would dance dundunba (also spelled dununba and dunumba): the ‘dance of the strong man,’ one of the most popular jembe rhythms (ibid).
The segesege (also sese (more typical in Guinea) and kessekesse (more typical in Southern Senegal and the Gambia), among other names), or rattles, attached to the instrument are made from a thin piece of metal adorned with metal rings. They are inserted into the hide strings holding the tension of a jembe’s drum head. These kinds of rattles are thought to have originated on the jembe, which is in keeping with its status as a numu instrument, although they also appear on many other instruments in the Mandé world (see, for example, the Met’s donsó ngoni (accession #89.4.2023) wherein the segesege is inserted into a thin slat at the top of the hunter’s harp’s neck).
Jembe is played with a strap slung over the shoulder, with the instrument facing outwards. Before playing, jembefola, or jembe players, may place their drums near a fire in order to dry and tighten the skin, raising the pitch. Always performed with just the hands, the jembefola can produce various sound shadings and tone pitches based on where and how they strike the instrument. Three strokes are described in the Bamana language spoken primarily in Mali using words for relative height: sanfè or sanma (high), cèmancè (middle), and duguma (low). These strokes’ three analogues in English are often tone, slap and bass (Charry 2000: 221). The segesege is rarely struck directly. Rather, it both amplifies and adds a percussive element to the instrument to which it is attached by vibrating, swaying back and forth when the instrument’s strings are plucked, and even further, when the player marches or dances with the instrument to which it is attached. The effect is a distinct buzzy timbre.
Jembe performance can be minimal–as in the case of solo performance or with the accompaniment of the dundun, a kind of bass drum that typically accompanies the jembe–or elaborate–as in the case of national ensembles which may feature several jembe and dundun players, among other percussionists. A typical ensemble consists of some combination of one to three jembefola; one to three dundunfola, or dundun players; and players of two smaller accompanying drums, the sagba and kenkeni, each of which is played with an iron bell called the kenken. Variation in the personnel may depend on the occasion or region. A jembe piece typically consists of one or two accompanying rhythmic patterns upon which the jembefola improvises. In Mali, the accompanying pattern on the jembe or dundun is called den, or child, while a lead pattern on either drum is called ba, or mother (ibid: 222). Stressed beats in Malinke rhythms rarely fall together with the underlying basic beat. (Althea SullyCole, 2022)
Charry, Eric. 2000. Mande Music: Traditional and Modern Music of the Maninka and Mandinka of West Africa. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Meyer, Andreas. 1993. “Music and Drums of the Djembefola Famadou Konaté Upper Guinea.” In Drums – the Heartbeat of Africa, edited by Esther A. Dagan. Montreal: Galerie Amrad African Art Publications: 87-88.