Monday, May 24, 2010

So What’s A Good Choice For A First Djembe Drum?

The short answer in my opinion is something like a Remo djembe with a 12” head size. I don't endorse any drum manufacturers or companies, so I can be straight up with you and share with you what I think. Plus they have all rejected me already anyway. LoL. I can also mention the places I have bought mine from with an unbiased position.

Picking a drum is an important choice, and the following is just my point of view. Finding the one that’s best for your hands, your body, and your soul. One that really “speaks” to you, and has the sound and range you can really enjoy playing. I started out getting the wrong ones for me and ended up constantly upgrading over the years. So I think its best to buy up in quality as much as possible, so you can grow into it. But, hey money’s tight right now, and if you only have a 100 bucks or two, here’s what I suggest.

If you’re on a budget, I think a Toca or a Remo 12" or 14" head djembe is a good head size for a first drum. It’s best to see what size you like first. I think the best thing to do is go to your local music store like Sam Ash or Guitar Center, then and try a few drums and different brands out. Most all the big chain stores have impressive world percussion selections now to choose from now. Talk with the drum guy, ask him to show you around, and try a few out. Then you have a better idea what feels right and talks to you. I think it’s important to support local business in your community, especially the smaller ones, so check them out if you can.

I usually suggest a 12” Remo for a first djembe drum. A 12" head gives you plenty of range and isn't too big or too small. The last time I checked they ran about $200 new. Go to the music store and try playing one, or ask to try one at your local drum circle. If you get a chance, talk with a few other drummers while you are there. They are pretty easy to spot with the big logo on them. They have synthetic drum shells, and synthetic heads, are lug tunable, so they need little maintenance unlike traditional rope tied goatskin drums. Plus they can take a serious beating, and they hold up real well in the humidity like we have here, as well as in the cold. And they have pretty good resale value if you end up needing to sell it. I think they are made from all recycled materials, so that's cool. I use one as a beater drum for the beach, it works great, and sounds halfway decent to me even on the sand.

For a little less cash you can go with a lug tuned Toca “Freestyle” djembe. A little bit lighter drum shell, (It’s a PVC material) and it has a goatskin drum head on it, which I prefer over the synthetic heads. So while it is less durable, it doesn’t have that Remo ping sound, and is more responsive to me. Plus my hands tend to hurt less on goatskin as opposed to synthetic if I get to jamming at a drum circle for a few hours on it. And believe me, that is easy to do.

If you’re short on dough, once you figure out what brand you want, (Toca, Meinl, Remo, etc), you pretty much know what you’re going to get with one of those, so buying one used isn’t really that big of a deal. I’ve bought a lot of them at places like Ebay and Craig’s. If you are patient, you can get one for a lot less than retail. Not bad.

For a wood shell djembe with a goatskin head, a decent one can easily run over $400. Some of them are matched by nothing else in sound and quality, and have gorgeous hand carved art on them. The hand carved wood shell goatskin head djembes sound the best, but are more fragile, more expensive, and you need to learn how to tie the Mali weave knots in order to keep it in tune. Or have a good friend, or pay somebody. There is a lot of cost if your drum head splits. Most of the expense is the time and labor involved. The problem with goatskin is that the pitch changes when you go outdoors. The wood can split over time also. Most all the high quality djembes are rope tuned. I prefer lug tuned goatskin in our Florida humidity. The Latin Percussion Classic or Giovanni djembe is my drum of choice for gigs or performances. To me it brings together the best of both worlds.

As far as buying new drums, I buy a lot from They also have an outlet store with some pretty good deals, but they come and go fast. I’ve bought quite a few from them in the past because they would usually match the lowest online price I could find, and they also shipped free if I spent over $100. did that for me also. I don’t know if their policy has changed or not. My experiences with both companies has been very positive, customer service and everything. The online retail drum world is very competitive now, so many of them will negotiate with you. I always call them and talk to a sales person, sometimes get a percentage off. Especially if I am buying a few drums.

Please feel free to ask me any questions, I’m always happy to share my experience, and help a fellow musician or artist. As to the what size djembe head size thing, I've come to prefer the 12" (playable size) because it has good range, decent bass, but yet still has the crisp tones I want. It isn't quite so bulky and heavy either. If I get into playing for hours, even with a Slider djembe strap, my back starts to ache. LoL. To me, the 14" is too much bass and reduced tone, and the 10" is the opposite. I like to stand and play, so that my body is straight and energy can flow smoothly through me. If I’m sitting I feel scrunched up. I think Remo makes the Slider djembe strap. It’s a criss cross clip on strap that distributes the weight evenly across my back, and it just clips right on the drum. I swear by those. So does my back.

I've bought and then sold a number of djembe styles and brands over the years, and ended up very happy with the Latin Percussion Giovanni. There is also the LP Classic, but for the price difference, the Gio is only a little bit more money. Plus it looks and sounds just plain beautiful. I love the fact that I can still get the responsiveness of goatskin, and tune it up quickly with a few twists of the wrench. Some have sneered at me for playing a lug tuned djembe, but I'm up and playing while they are on the ground struggling to tie knots and tune up their drum. Plus here in FL the humidity is a problem and drums need tuning indoors or out. I went to lug tunable for most of my djembes for that reason. I like doumbeks because of that also. But if you do end up going with a rope tuned djembe, I do have djembe tuning instructions with photos (pdf.file) on my website.

So about that synthetic Remo ping sound. Some like it, some don’t. It drives me nuts. Recording sessions, even worse. But for the price, I think it’s a very durable, and a decent sounding drum. One quick fix for the ringing sound is to get some of that blue painter’s tape and stick it under the drum head, Get like a 12” piece, and stick the middle part of it together, kind of like this, “\/” so a 4 inch tail is hanging underneath the drum head in the center. That absorbs it a little, and takes that sound you might hear down a notch.

So is the Latin Percussion or Meinl Floatune lug tuned high priced djembe worth the cost? To me absolutely. A good quality djembe will last you forever if you take care of it, and you can pass it on to your kids. I’ve seen the high end LP’s and Meinl’s used now and then for around $300 on Ebay. I own the Meinl model also by the way, it pretty much sounds the same to me, and weighs a bit less. I just love the Giovanni a little bit more. I suggest to stay away from the low end entry level LP djembe. I forgot what they call it now, the aspire or something newer now. As I'm sure you know, with the big name brands, you get what you pay for. I got my Gio new at They did match the lowest online price I could find, and took $10 off that. They shipped it free also, so I was pretty happy. I got mine for around $400. Once you play one of those djembes, it’s over, you have to have it imho. I love the Meinl Floatune also because to me it is very similar in sound and quality, yet it has a fiberglass body, so obviously it weighs a bit less than the LP wood shell.

There is tons of online retailers that claim to sell “authentic” roped djembes. Honestly, with a drum like that, I need to see it, play it, and hear how it sounds before I buy it.

I‘ve heard many things about using lotions on djembe and conga heads. Shea butter, and lots of other stuff. Most all my friends over the years whose experience I really respect say to use nothing at all. Just the natural oils that come from playing when with your hands that builds up. So that's what I do.

A thought about what pitch to tune your congas to, and an easy way to do it. This wise old beatnik dude years ago said to me when I asked him, tune them both to the notes in "Here comes the bride". Simple eh?

For more info on this and other hand drumming and drum circle topics, please consider buying my book, “A Practical Guide To Hand Drumming And Drum Circles” It’s $8 on Amazon Kindle, and helps me to continue to do work in our community. Thanks.

Shannon Ratigan

Copyright © Shannon Ratigan All Rights Reserved.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Improving Drum Circle Hosting & Facilitating Skills On Little Or No Money

I’m often asked how to improve drum circle hosting and facilitating skills with little or no money.

I started with pretty much whatever I could get to come my way. I made up a press pack with some photos, resume, and a generic “what a drum circle is like, the benefits of one, etc.” flier, and I approached the senior centers, special needs facilities, city groups, schools, small businesses, arts centers, caf├ęs pubs, comedy clubs, even at small events. Pretty much anything I could think of. I carried copies of them around in my car, so when I saw something with potential, I would stop and talk with them, leave my press pack, and follow up in a week.

Many of them didn't pay very much, if at all, but they led to other gigs when people could see how worthwhile the activity it was, and what a profound impact it had on the participants. Once people see a drum circle in action, they want to hire you.

Working with children can be brutally honest. They don't pull any punches and can see right through your confidence if it isn’t there. I would say working with kids is probably the best experience, because they have shorter attention spans. They will tell you right away what they think, so you know if something works or not very quickly. Looking ahead, my goal was to be the most well rounded working with all ages and skill levels so I could be prepared for anything at the drop of a hat. That's the goal of most musicians, is to be able to play any song in any genre after hearing a few measures. The ability to work and make adjustments on the fly was what kept people wanting more.

Many are adamantly against the idea of mixing alcohol and drum circles, but the opportunity presented itself at wedding receptions, and steady weekly gigs at night clubs, so I tried it. Obviously it was challenging because you have people drinking, and things can get out of control very easily. But the experience was invaluable. If you can host a drum circle and keep things running smoothly under those circumstances, I think you can work with just about any group, and in any situation. That’s a real training ground.

Looking back, I think working with church groups helped a lot also, because it is more casual and I could try more rhythm ideas out. After years of experimentation, I still say that allowing any group you work with to just make music is the most satisfying for them and for me. I just start them out with different rhythms, step back, participate, and let the group go. A drum circle is more about the people than the actual music. But the better it sounds, the more fun they have. After 5 or10 minutes depending on the groove, if it doesn’t end on it’s own, I will end it usually through the music, and move onto another rhythm. An hour goes by like it’s 10 minutes.

Observing and participating in local open drum circles was also a very good training ground. I could really see what worked and what didn't. Taking lessons or training is useful, especially if you are a new to this, but in my opinion you learn more just by doing. Just get out there and work for whoever you can regardless of the pay. You will have to make lots of on the spot choices and decisions. Some will be right, some will be wrong and flop. Learn to laugh at your mistakes, and everyone else will laugh with you. But your confidence will grow, you will learn from it, and add more things to your mixed bag of rhythms and ideas for future gigs. This is a constant learning process.

I think bringing your own life experiences into your style of hosting or facilitating drum circles is a key also. You are unique just like your fingerprints. I worked for years as a musician, and also as an actor. I couldn’t afford acting classes early on because it was too expensive. It was either that, or pay the rent. To build up my confidence I started trying out at open mic’s at comedy clubs. I would write up a different routine each week, and perform live usually in front of other comedians who were not in the mood to laugh. Sure I bombed at first…A Lot. Then I started getting better. For me, it was like free acting classes. My timing improved very quickly. I didn’t want to go on tour as a comic anyway, I had a family. But after performing in front of hostile audiences, going to an audition for a national commercial in front of a bunch of ad execs, directors, and clients, seemed like nothing compared to that. As a result, my confidence was there, I could improvise, and I worked a lot. It also helped my drum circle skills as well. I hope some of this helps you.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

More Notated Drum Circle Rhythms

An Egyptian drumming rhythm called ♫♫ Jaark ♫♫♫ in 4/4 time (shorthand):
D-kkT-tkDDtkT-tk, D-kkT-tkDDtkT-tk
*note* (Various notation methods shown in older posts.)

Drum circle rhythm WaaHida in 4/4: 1+2+3+4+ ♫♫ Doum-tekkatekkaTek-tekkatekkaTek-ka-, Doum-tekkatekkaTek-tekkatekkaTek-ka-, ♫♫

♫♫♫ Bolero Drum Circle Rhythm in 4/4 time, accents in caps:
Doum tekkaTek ka tek ka tek ka, Doum tekkaTek ka tek ka tek ka ♫♫♫♫

A variation of an Egyptian drum rhythm called
♫♫ Karaatshi ♫♫ in 2/4 time: Doum-tekkatek-tekkaDoum-tekkatek-tekkaDoum

♫♫ One of many Native American heartbeat drum rhythms in 4/4 time: Boom__boom__boom,boom,boom, - (1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &) Boom__boom__boom,boom,boom - ♫♫

A fun drum circle rhythm the bellydancers request a lot. It's a Greek line dance in 2/4 ♫♫ Doum-tekkatek-tek, Doum-tekkaDoum-tek. ♫♫

Here's a basic Irish beat that sounds like this: Boom-ba-da-ba, Boom-ba-da-ba Boom, Notated in Bodhran speak, it looks like this: 0 \/ /\ \/, 0 \/ /\ \/ 0, - Have fun and add some more beats to it: - Boom-ba-da-ba-da-ba-da, Boom-ba-da-ba-da-ba-da Boom, - In Doumbek speak: Doum-tek-ka-tek-ka-tek-...ka, Doum-tek-ka-tek-ka-tek-ka Doum - Djembe speak: Gun-pa-ta-pa-ta-pa-ta, Dun-pa-ta-pa-ta-pa-ta Gun ♫

♫ Djembe speak...B/S...SSTTS.....SS..TTTT....B....STTS...This is a fun rhythm with the base/slap flam thrown in...a bit of a jig

This drum circle rhythm is the same one the Greek national hymn goes to: ♫ Doum-tekkaTek-tek-Doum-tek-, Doum-tekkaTek-tek-Doum-tek ♫

tekka Doum, tekka Doum, tekka tekka tekka Doum, tekka Doum, tekka tekka Tek, tekka tekka Tek, tekka Doum, tekka Doum, tekka tekka tekka Doum, tekka Doum, tekka tekka Tek, tekka tekka Tek

Cool djembe support rhythm for the drum circle: ♫ Gun Dun godo pa-ta-pa, Gun Dun godo pa-ta-pa ♫♫ (or) Doum Doum tekka ka-tek-ka, Doum Doum tekka ka-tek-ka ♫

"A Drum Circle Rhythm You Can't Refuse" ♫♫ Ba-da Bing, Ba-da Boom, Ba-da Bing_Bang_Boom, ♫♫ (or) Go-do Pa, Pa-ta Go, Go-do Pa_Ta_Pa ♫♫

Sort of a trance drum circle rhythm.
♫♫ Doum-tek-ka-Doum-tek-ka-Doum-tek, Doum-tek-ka-Doum-tek-ka-Doum-tek ♫♫♫

♫♫ Tek tek-ka-Tek doum, Tek-ka-tek-ka-Tek doum, ♫♫ Tek tek-ka-Tek doum, Tek-ka-tek-ka-Tek doum, ♫♫ (I heard it in a movie, and thought it was a cool drum rhythm.)

4/4 time: Pum Ba-da Bum Ba-da Pum Ba-da-Ba-da Bum ♫♫ Pum Ba-da Bum Ba-da Pum Ba-da-Ba-da Bum ♫♫

The default universal drum circle beat! Boom boom bhap pa boomba boom bhap. LoL

Da-di ki na doum. Da-di ki na doum.

Copyright © Shannon Ratigan All Rights Reserved.