THE ESSENTIAL GUIDE IN WHAT TO LOOK FOR...
When you buy an African drum you are essentially looking for three things, a good shell, a good skin and a good sound. Fairly obvious but worth saying. Also, if it's a djembe drum make sure it's is from West Africa the home of the djembe drum, be it either Senegal, Mali, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso or Ghana. There's a lot of cheap, badly made drums pretending to be African drums out there from places such as Indonesia, China, Pakistan - so stick to this guide and any further questions please don't hesistate to contact me.
The shell of the drum is the most important part. The wood must be of good quality and by that I mean there shouldn't be any large cracks, major defects or have any holes in the top chamber. The inside should be smooth and well chipped out without any lumps or splinter pieces hanging off as this will deaden the sound.
The shell should be made from a single piece of wood, check inside the drum and look for lines and colour differences which could mean the djembe has been reconstructed using multiple pieces of wood.
Ideally you want the drum hand carved as more time and care will have taken taken to chip out the wood than a machine. Most of the West African drums are hand carved and you can tell as the inside will have marks indicating that metal tools have been used to chip the inside out.
There are various arguments for heavy wood compared to light wood however, The non Ghanaian drums are much heavier and produce a more solid sound as they are made from hard woods but they are also a lot more expensive as the wood is much more expesnive to work on and buy. If the drums is lightweight as well, well that's a bonus as you don't have extra weight to lug around.
The wood my carvers use in Ghana is tweneboa, which is a Ghanaian cedar wood. This is a soft wood but produces a fantastic sound. The weight of a cedar wood djembe drum depends upon where the wood was cut on the tree. If the drum is quite heavy the wood will be from the bottom of the tree, if it is lightweight it will be from the younger wood at the top of the tree. On average a full size djembe drum - 12"/13" x 24" - weighs between 6-9kg.
The woods my carvers use in Senegal is either linke, dimbe or khari woods. These are hard woods and give the drum an extra louder sound. The weight of the drum also increases.
In Burkina the wood is gueni or heavy weight dugara wood. and in Ivory coast the wood we use is iroko wood. All give a loud, harder sound to the djembe drums.
The wood must be treated, usually this is done with a waxy protector over the stained wood finish. This prolongs the life of the djembe and protects it from moisture and marks.
No drum is ever perfect and small line cracks along the top and bottom edge of a drum are normal, as they appear during wood drying process.
The skin for a djembe drum is usually goatskin but can be calf, cow or antelope on occasion. Djembe drums must have shaved goatskins free of any holes or minor splits. You can tell what sort of quality skin you have by simply holding to the light and checking for any bits that are substantially lighter than the other part of the skin. Ideally you are looking for an even colour all the way round this indicates a good quality skin.
Goatskins are tough wearing so don't worry about any minor colour changes when you do this test. Some djembe drums have fur around the outside, some don't, it's just a manufacturer preference.
Djembe drums in particular produce a nice deep bass and very crisp high notes. You're looking for a warm, resonant bass sound when you strike the middle, a sound that holds the bass note continuously. The bigger the upper chamber the bigger the bass sound.
The slap sound should be sharp and quick, it is the highest pitched sound of the djembe and the longer the stem the greater the pitch of slap, if it' sounds "tinny" or dull then leave that drum alone and look elsewhere.
The tone is the middle sound of the djembe drum, is often called the natural sound of the drum and it is slightly deeper than the slap but should still sound sharp, once again if the pitch doesn't sound good to you then walk away and look at another drum. Remember that a djembe drum can be tuned but these are the basic sounds to look for.
OTHER THINGS TO LOOK FOR
Ghanaian djembe drums are double roped all other West African djembe drum manufacturers choose single ropes - I have found there is little difference in the standard of both roping systems and it is more to do with the quality and strength of the rope and skin than how it is bound on the rings.
Design plays no part in the sound of the drum - as you'd expect - but there are some superbly designed drums out there. We have a choice of traditional African symbols on the drums, or animal/jungle designs. or no carvings at all. But as I say, they are purely aesthetic.