Monday, September 19, 2011

Finding a “Good” Doumbek Drum…(On a Budget!)

Most of us have a djembe, but another fun, and very versatile drum to consider getting is a doumbek. The goblet shaped doumbek is a beautiful sounding drum, with lots of range, and delicate sound nuances to it. Even after playing one for over 20 years, I am still discovering new sounds in mine.

For those of you that might be new to this kind of drum, the body is usually made of ceramic pottery, machined aluminum, or copper. Some are even made of wood Aside from the sound, I like the portability of them. They are smaller than most djembes, pack a good punch for their size, and can easily fit in a gym bag.

Most of the drum heads are synthetic, so it can withstand all kinds of extreme weather conditions, and they are very durable. Even here in Florida’s heat and humidity, I can just leave my doumbek in the trunk of my car with no worries. You never know when you might run into a drum circle emergency! I hate it when I stumble onto a circle, and don’t have a drum with me to play. It’s even handy if a text goes out for flash drummers. It’s possible, right?

In my opinion, one of the best models that gives the most bang for the buck is the Alexandria doumbek. They are pretty easy to spot, they usually have it clearly marked in blue under the clear drum head. And they are usually rather plain looking – just a rough looking textured heavy cast aluminum. Most of them are a solid anodized color, or just unfinished aluminum. (Notice the bronze colored one in the photo.)

There are many fancier models out there that have beautiful etchings, designs, and so on. It costs a lot more for those, and practically speaking, you can’t see it when you are actually playing the drum. But they are so tempting because of their sheer beauty, and the artwork on them. They do look mighty good just sitting around on display in your home. Sound, quality, and performance are what really matters to me, so I tend to lean in that direction. If you look around, you can probably find a very good Alexandria doumbek for just over $80 brand new. Most new ones come with a carrying case, tuning wrench, and a spare drum head.

As far as tuning a doumbek is concerned, it’s really no big. Most of them have 8 lugs like a regular kit drum has. So they are very easy to tune, a couple turns with an allen wrench, and that’s it. When you are done, you just lightly tap your finger about an inch from each lug, and make sure they all have the same sound, (or are tuned to the same pitch). Once you tune the drum head to where you like it, you can pretty much just forget it, play on it, indoors or outside, and never need to tune it again.

Generally speaking, even with doumbeks, I like to play a drum first before I buy it. I want to hear it, feel it, and see if it talks to me before I buy it. The exception is buying one online, because you pretty much know what it’s going to sound like, but for a few important differences. The quality of the drum shell thickness, and construction. The older ones were made much more solidly. So, the older, the better. As the saying goes…”They don’t make them like they used to.” That applies to a lot of things these days doesn’t it?

For my “kit” of facilitating drum circle drums, I like to use the polymer/PVC/synthetic body drums, such as the Remo or Toca djembes, or the like, and lots of aluminum doumbeks with the groups I teach and work with for many reasons. If you plan to acquire a kit of drums and facilitate a group drum circle on a regular basis, you need good sounding, durable, and lightweight drums that are easy for non drummers to be able to play right away. They also need to stay in tune in our constantly changing climates. Aluminum drums, with synthetic drum heads are also easier to clean, and disinfect after use, with anti-bacterial wipes. An important consideration for at risk groups, children, elders, and special needs groups.

The weight issue is another big factor when hauling them around, so I don’t knock myself out before I start the drum circle. Most wooden body drums are heavy, especially if you have 45 of them to move. Add to that, the extra fuel usage during transporting them.

A pretty good way to get a first drum if you are a little short on cash, is buying a used drum that someone got tired of and/or traded in for something else. I’m a firm believer in buying used drums and giving them another musical life. Especially if you ever run across something that’s vintage. I like to support local business whenever possible, or at least in the state I live in.

If you ask them, most music stores will keep your name on file and give you a call when something that might be of interest to you comes in to be sold on consignment. Another alternative to check out is the pawn shops periodically, but you don't get the same kind of knowledge, service, and usually the person is anxious to talk you into buying a drum and a power chair. If you have any Arabic stores in your area, many of them have a few excellent quality Alexandria doumbeks. I’ve even bought a few nice ones in some Arabic convenience stores. Keep an eye out for those in your travels hidden high up on the shelves. I was shocked to find some imported beautifully constructed, great sounding doumbeks worth well over $150 for only 60 bucks each! And they were happy to sell them, and share some of their culture.

If you visit drum circles in your area regularly, you will probably run into a few people who might want to sell their drum for about half price of retail. I see that happen a lot. I’ve also gotten a few nice drums at local newsgroup online sites, like Craig’s List, for example.

If you look at the online auction sites like Ebay, and put in the keywords doumbek drum, you get 1000’s of results. Try going to the advanced search area, where there is a box to put in key words to be “excluded” from your search results. Put in words such as “new” or “free”, and your price range, etc, to exclude most of the dealers, and that narrows the results to mostly just individual people selling one nice doumbek. Sometimes you can find a real bargain, and get a really nice drum that way. Many drums just get lost in all the myriad of search results

Many consider the doumbek to be a bellydancing drum, and call it a doumbek. So if you search, try the different spellings of the drum when looking for one. Depending on the region or culture it can be called a Doumbek, Dumbek, or Dumbec, depending on who you talk to and where they are from. They might use a Dohbeck on The Simpsons. I just use the term Doumbek. I think it is the most common spelling of it over here. They come in a few different sizes. Try to get one with the drum head that is 8 – 10 inches across. Playable size, in other words, the actual size of the head, not the drum size from edge to edge. For me, the best head size is 8 inches or 8.5 inches.

Unfortunately with the ceramic ones, they tend to break pretty easily. Once it falls, and tips over, it’s over. I was at one drum circle where somebody was walking by, they accidentally bumped it, it fell, and shattered into dozens of pieces. Luckily, the portion near the drum head didn’t break, and later a buddy of mine gorilla glued it back together. It still played okay, but I was pretty heartbroken. But oh, those ceramic drums sound so clean and crisp, and some do have beautiful artwork on them.

I go with the aluminum, stainless steel, or copper tunable lug doumbeks mostly. Since they are metal, they also have a beautiful sort of metallic sound to them when you play them. I’ve gotten to where I love that sound, they are loads of fun, comfortable to jam on, and as I mentioned, much easier to just toss in a gym bag and carry it along with you. It’s the perfect “commuter” drum. And it’s easily cleanable, since it is all constructed of synthetic, and aluminum materials.

I used to play a doumbek during the early 1980’s with the break dancers on the streets of New York City. It was easy to transport, and got out pretty good for a smaller drum. Everyone seemed to be fascinated with this strange looking, and unique sounding silver metal drum. Since they are aluminum they usually weigh under 8 pounds. So, it’s very handy to take with you on vacation, or for letting other people to play it at drum circles.

The real good ones to look for are made of thicker cast aluminum - like 1/8 to 1/4 inch thick. They are the professional sounding ones, that have the nice full resonant Doums (bass notes) and Teks (tones) I like the range of the 8 or 10 inch playable size drum head. A lot of them out there are 6 inch, and that’s a bit small. There is much more beautiful range of sound, and longer resonation in these drums if they are made of the thicker cast spun aluminum, or copper, and have a larger drum head.

One of the most beautiful and sought after goblet style drums is the GAWHARET EL FAN mosaic cast aluminum doumbek. (It deserves to be in caps.) These have superior sound, and intricate tile work that is unbelievably beautiful. Try a search and look at one, if you have never seen one before. The only problem with them is, they are around $300 or more, and heavy as heck because of all the inlaid tile work and mortar around them. I do see them at online auctions for around $200, but it’s hard to know if they are authentic. There are lots of knock-off copies and fakes of these drums out there, so finding a reputable dealer that has the genuine item is hard to do.

Some cheaper doumbeks are almost as thin as tin cans, and will dent very easily. I stay away from those. I have one that I was holding and I lightly bumped it against a kitchen counter, and it left a big dent in it. (See the photo of the drum with the dent.) I barely even bumped the thing! And, I also don’t want anything without lugs that isn’t tunable. Some of them have the drum heads that are just glued on. You can’t even tune those babies. Some have fish, or goat skin heads. Most doumbeks are usually 18 inches tall with 8 inch playable size clear synthetic drum heads. A related style of drum is an aluminum tunable Darbuka. Some even have tambourines mounted inside them underneath the drum head. Those with “jingles” in them are lots of fun, it adds another dimension of sound to your playing. Get a Darbuka with jingles. Two cool sounds for the price of one.

The best way to start looking for the best drum for you, is to first find out what kinds and sizes you like, either at a music store, or simply by trying somebody else’s drum out at a drum circle, and then buying it brand new at major music store, or an online retailer. Buying a drum is an important decision, and you want to get the one that’s best for you and your body. Most musicians are very supportive, and will let you play their drum if you treat it with respect. Remember that they are expensive, and to ask permission first before you touch anyone else’s drum at public drum circles.

With most drum retailers now, the drum market is so very competitive that all you have to do is locate the best online price, and most of them will match or beat it, to get your business and probably will ship it free, to boot. As a general rule of thumb, most of the bigger music stores and online music stores will negotiate on the list prices with you. They just don’t advertise that. I can often negotiate at least 10 - 15% off the list price. Even more if I offer to by a couple of drums.

Goblet drums go back 100’s of years and have a rich history in various cultures. Goblet drums are one of the broadest classes of drums. They’re played heavily across Asia, North Africa, The Middle East and Eastern Europe. They have many similar names, and similarities in use. Most of these names are derived from two names, the Pahlavi (The Middle Persian language used by Persians during the Sasanid period). Also the dombalak, and the Arabic name darbouka.

As near as I can tell, the doumbek originated in the Middle East. It's traditionally played by holding the drum in your lap under your left arm and striking it with the fingers of both hands. The heavy down beats in Middle Eastern, and bellydancing rhythms are usually played on the right (dominant) hand and the other hand is used for fill beats and other accents. If you've heard bellydancing music, you've heard a doumbek. Being smaller and lighter than the Djembe, this is the style of drum I travel around with the most.

I suspect that the modern classical Arabic style of playing the doumbek, (the under the arm, one hand dominant), is a direct descendant of frame drum technique. Classical frame drum technique relies heavily on the dominant hand. The second hand usually holds it, and adds a couple of fingers to add fill, snaps, pops, or muffle the back by pressing against it.

But at drum circles, I see a lot people playing a doumbek like a djembe, between their legs. If that’s more comfortable for you, try it. It is a comfortable drum to play, sort of ergonomically designed for the comfort of the hands with it‘s curved bearing edge. It’s your drum, and the beauty of drumming, is that you can play it however you want to. You might invent a new way to play it that’s better for you. You might create new sounds nobody else has before.

They even sell these “Commuter Doumbeks” now. It has a heavier padded carrying case, a long carrying strap for over the shoulder, and a zippered sleeve on top, of the other top to hold a spare head and tuning wrench. So now I’ve got a laptop on one shoulder, and a doumbek on the other. Many have simply beautiful carvings, inlaid mother of pearl tile work, or magnificent etchings on them. Some of the most beautiful drums I have are playable art doumbeks.

Many drummers at drum circles play a goat-skinned djembe drum which gives out great bass tones, and high slap tones. A doumbek may seem dwarfed by the size of a djembe, but played properly, it can cut right through and be heard in a sea of djembes. So it is a very versatile drum, and the good ones still yield a rich bass tone. The thinner models…not so much

Drum heads can get damaged, (which is not easy to do, but it happens.) One time, I had this outdoor firespinning gig, with 5 poi firespinners, and 2 other drummers. It was quite a dynamic and fun 4th of July show. But half way through it, a little bit of flaming fluid came flying over and landed right on the drum head. I was 15 feet away from it, but a small blob came flying my way. I wiped it off real quick as I was playing. It of course melted a big hole in it. Amazingly, the drum still did play even with a ½ hole in it. I continued playing it, and got through the job okay. Fortunately the heads are pretty easy to replace, and only cost about $12 if you need to buy one.

The critical thing when replacing a doumbek head, is that you put the drum rim back on EXACTLY the same way it came off. In other words, the drum should be reassembled the same way it came apart. Each lug hole back where it was, and each lug back in the hole it came from. This is really important, because aluminum screw holes can strip out very easily. Most of these drums have lots of machining defects or nuances, and are made such that they have to be reassembled the same way they come apart. You might say that I learned this one the hard way. And I’ve seen it happen to many other drums. You get a stripped lug hole, and it can’t ever be properly tuned again. Unless the hole is machined out, which costs more than a new drum.

When replacing the drum rim, take extra care to tighten the lugs equally. First, slide the rim back and forth to seat it properly, and locate the exact same place it came apart. Then equally hand tighten all the lugs. Then with the allen wrench, equally tighten all the lugs in a back and forth criss cross pattern, like you would a car rim. This will help you to avoid stripping a lug out. Take your time, and tighten them just a little bit at a time.

The best way to remember about how to put a rim back on exactly the same way it came off, is to put a piece of blue painters tape, above, and below one lug on the drum. Then you can see exactly how and where it goes back together. If you have to buy a drum head somewhere else, the chances are good that it won’t fit as snugly as it did before, and you will have a gap between the rim and body. It doesn’t really affect the performance of the drum, it just looks kind of crappy.

Check out the photos of the drums I posted to get an idea. The dark green one is an Alexandria model. It’s about 40 years old. Very solid, thick cast, beautiful sound. It was $35 on Ebay. It’s kind of beat up, but sounds brilliant. The plain aluminum one is an older model also. It’s very heavy thick machined aluminum like an aircraft part, but notice the gap under the rim. It still sounds fantastic. $50 from Craig’s list. Somebody put a lot of love into this drum. Notice the artwork on the inside, there's an ocean island, with the sun shining above it to the left.

The bronze one is an Alexandria model. It is about 2 years old, and cost about $80 new with a case and spare head. This is a good choice to buy new. It has Superior sound, very solid and thick casting. The other red dented one...well, that sort of speaks for itself. It is one of the cheap thinner ones, and it's covered with dents. The other models shown, have taken years of wear and tear, a few chips, but no dents. You would almost have to use a car, to dent them. In the photo showing the top of the drums, notice the blue Alexandria logo on the drum heads.

You can’t really tell how thick the drum is by just looking at the bottom of it. Most of them have a thicker base on them, and they thin out as you go up the sides. The cheap ones are easy to spot if you just knock on the upper side of it with your knuckle, like you would on a front door. If it goes clink, or clank, it’s a cheap one. If it goes thud, and it hurts a little, that’s a sign of a good one. Another way to test, is reach your hand up ¾ of the way up the inside, to where the drum body widens out. And with your other hand tap it in the same spot on the outside. Try to feel how thick the cast aluminum is where it matters, by holding one hand in, and the other hand out, in the same spot. You can get an idea how thick the metal is. Test it about 6 inches down from the top.

I have bought a few nice doumbeks at here in Florida. Their regular prices are pretty good, and their seconds, and blemished area on the site often has some very good deals, but they go fast, and quality does vary. They do sell the Alexandria models.

The cheaper doumbeks are generally in the $50 – 80 range, and the good ones with the thicker casting are $80 - $120. (Unless you get into the high end decorated tile ones, like the El Fal, etc. I mentioned). The one’s with all the decorative tile are magnificent works of art, the problem beyond the cost, is the practicality of them. With all the grout that holds the tile in place, comparatively speaking, they are very heavy drums. I’ve had a few, and liked to use them for high end stage gigs, because they look so beautiful under the stage lighting. But, if they happen to fall over, or get bumped against something, you can break some of the tiles out.

For the price difference, I would go for a better quality, plain, yet thick cast aluminum one. If it’s cared for, a good doumbek will last practically forever, and your grand kids can inherit it. The thicker the casting, the deeper and more rich the bass sound is with these. They tend to have a thicker gauge drum head on them also, which gives you fuller sound, and even more range. Look for the ones that have the “Alexandria” name on the drum head. (Like in the photo) Those tend to be real nice drums that are imported from Egypt. And with everything that’s been going on over there in the last year, Alexandria doumbeks are getting a lot harder to get, and much more expensive. That tell tale blue logo is something to look for.

Another quality of construction indicator to look for is how snugly the drum rim, (or bearing edge) fits against the drum body. If it is tight, with little or no gap, that’s a good sign. Some have as much as a ¼ inch gap between them. If you see a gap, it’s a sign that it’s not as well made, or somebody put a new drum head on it. With most doumbeks they are not made to particular specs. A lot of the older ones were made one at a time, so the tolerances are different from drum to drum. They might be the correct diameter, but where it seats often varies in height. So a new drum head might be too shallow, or worse, not deep enough to fit and tune properly. Fortunately, most new doumbeks come with a spare head that was made for that particular drum, and it fits properly.

I have also bought a few new doumbeks, and even djembe drums from and and been pleased. Although both are out of state companies, they will usually meet any advertised price, and I believe still ship free if you spend over $100. They both also have a clearance area like mid-east does with some good deals.

I hope some of this helps to get a good drum, at a good price, and that you find the drum you love!

If you are new to doumbek drums, check some of my other blog posts. There are a few with lists of drum rhythm notations, as well as various ways to read, understand, and play them.


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