Hand Drum Lessons & Notation for Djembes, Dununs & Bells


Djembe Drummers
FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)

  • What are the bass drums called?

In general they are called dununs, or dunduns (pronounced doon-doons). This music and type of drums comes from Guinea, or the Malinke area of Mali; in Senegal the bass drum would tend to be called a “junjun.” There are three sizes: from large to small, the dununba, sangban, and kenkeni. They can be played separately or strapped together in combination of two or three, either on a stand, played horizontally, or upright (vertically) on the floor. Usually a bell is played as well, tied to the drums in the horizontal position.

  • How do I tune or tighten the head on my djembe?

See the information on this page, or click here for a video lesson.

  • Which of your Roots Jam rhythm books is best for a beginner?
RJ1 cover2-trim African djembe rhythms dance arrangements

All 3 Roots Jam books have plenty of material for a beginner, as well as rhythms and lessons for more experienced players. To compare the three volumes to best suit your needs, choose from the following links:

overview and comparison chart | sample pages | complete descriptions

Using the “Gun – go – Pa” notation system I have adopted, if you are left-handed a good choice for notation would be Vol. 1 of Roots Jam: Collected Rhythms for Hand Drum and Percussion; while most of the rhythm patterns of Roots Jam 2 and 3 are notated leading with the right hand.

The order page also has the comparison chart along with prices and order options.

Still can’t decide? Let’s make it easy. Order all three Roots Jam books in special discount bundles, in print or ebook format:

new Roots Super Jam (printed format): combined Roots Jam Volumes 1, 2 & 3. (Paperbound, 8.5 X 11, 236 pages.) Order now for the introductory price of $29.99.

eBook Combo Offer: Buy 2, get 1 free! Order the e-book combo option now and get all three volumes of Roots Jam for the price of two. Throw in the audio mp3 files for books 2 & 3 and you get the “whole enchilada” for $15 off the full price of the books and audio files.

  • How can I study drumming in Africa?

The teacher I recommend most is Famoudou Konate. You can find some personal information, links, and photo slideshows here.

  • How do I start a local drumming group where I live?

Don’t by shy. Just start getting together with a couple of friends and go from there. Or if necessary, put up a notice or posters in your community. You can meet in someone’s living room or basement, or rent studio space cheaply in the afternoon. To read about my early experiences with a drum group in a small rural community, click here.

  • What do you recommend for drumming CDs for listening or practice?

I have a list of favorites with thumbnail reviews listed here. There is also an extensive resource list covering books, CDs, videos, and websites in my Roots Jam books.

  • How can I read written drum notation if I don’t know how to read musical notation?

Don’t worry, standard music notation isn’t very good for drumming anyway, because it’s designed for notes that are sustained. Drum notes are struck once and then you need to see clearly how much space is left unplayed. For this purpose a drum notation system is much easier to follow. The Roots Jam rhythm books use a simple notation system that I introduce here. You can use it to read and write drum rhythms using plain text or a box-type grid, such as appears in the notation for Kuku solos here.

  • How can I get the right timing for pauses between drum beats?

Whenever you see a rest or unplayed beat [-] in a line of notation, give it almost as much weight as if it were a played beat: feel it in your body, make a silent grunt, or even play it lightly on the very rim of the drum. “Playing” or at least feeling every single beat (even the rests) in this way should help give you a smoother sense of flow or continuity.

  • What’s the difference between playing djembe vs. other hand drums?

I like the djembe for a number of reasons. Perhaps foremost is that it can be played as part of the body (I strap it from my waist), so that the movement, the life of the music can be felt. Especially if there are dancers–and the history of the djembe is all about a vital connection with dance. I also love the sounds of this drum: the range of notes even if just the basic three (bass, rim, slap). The bass can give a deep resonance similar to the electric bass: the all-important body frequency. Then there’s the double-handed motion: giving equal access to both hands and both sides of the brain as well as body. This balance feeds the creativity of both left and right brains and also helps in the synthesis and integration of the two: resulting in a psychic as well as physical balance, and also in a state we call trance.

ashikosTo go a little further on the subject of choosing the djembe in the context of other instruments… The djembe in my experience has a curious resistance to stock western music: rock and roll, folk, Celtic, even blues. It seems to demand its own genre, the African dance beat. Naturally, compromises can be made, and I’ve devoted many a Friday night’s jam to just that effort. Sometimes it works; sometimes it gives those tired four-fours something else to do; and sometimes it just has to go elsewhere to say what it has to say.

It shows its best potential as a stimulus and accompaniment to dance, where even one djembe can provide enough sound and motion for a room full of dancers. I’ve done this on more than one occasion, though always appreciating it more when others come to play with other drums and percussion. At the other end of the scale, thirty djembes in a single room playing at once is running the serious risk of overkill. Again, not necessarily: there is power to be savored in a thirty-djembe groove, at two or ten in the morning!


  • How can I find more ballet (upright) style dunun parts?

Roots Jam 3, like RJ2, mostly has traditional style duns with bells.  Variations for upright ballet style are only included for a few of these: Kassa, Yankadi/Makru, and Mendiani.  On the other hand, the upright combo patterns are easy to adapt yourself from the given rhythms (whichever book you’re using).  For example, the mute notes (M) can be played by the sangban, and selected bell notes (x) by the kenkeni. The grid layout is useful for seeing the 3 separate dun patterns as a single melody; from this you can adapt a pattern to play on the 3 drums in combination.  Here’s an example of how it’s done with Mendiani:

Instead of the dununba playing:
O – O O – x x – x – O O
you can play all three like this:
D – D – – S – – K – D D

Here’s another example, Kassa:
O x x O O x x O
D – – D D S K D

Roots Jam 2 should give you lots of patterns to work with, and I would encourage you to be creative with these and adapt your own combinations.  The basic principle, I would suggest, is to start with the dununba pattern as in the example above, and just substitute for some of the bell notes with notes from the sangban and kenkeni patterns.