Michael Wimberly: Master Of Global Grooves

michael wimberly

Djembe Master

The djembe is the large goblet-shaped hand drum originating in West Africa, where some say the Bamana people of Mali define the drum’s name as “everyone gather together in peace,” while others translate it as “unity and harmony.” Since the 1300s it has been part of social and ritual music-making practice and is an important instrument for funerals, marriages, harvest ceremonies, and courtship rituals. There are colorful tales about the origin of this drum ranging from a mortar used for pounding grain to chimpanzees, who entertained themselves with it in the trees and a djembe drumhead made from a hybrid of a zebra and giraffe. Today the djembe can be found throughout the African continent in a variety of sizes and materials. And since the 1950s, it has been exported around the world, becoming a popular choice for drum circles.

In his newly released book/DVD package, Getting Started On Djembe, Wimberly introduces the basic strokes of “tone” (close to the rim), “slap” (with fingers spread apart while hitting closer toward the center), and “bass” (with a flat hand position, aiming just off-center). He then moves on to other techniques such as muted finger rolls, harmonic finger touches, and overtone fingering. We asked Wimberly for some tips on playing the instrument for those just getting started. Here was his response:

Wimberly’s 5 Djembe Playing Tips

  1. Keep your fingers in a close triangle formation with index fingers together at their tips.
  2. Bounce your fingers on the drum like it’s a basketball.
  3. If you are sitting, sit up straight and close to the edge of your chair.
  4. Keep one of your feet at the back of the drum’s tail.
  5. Stay relaxed and have fun!

Want to learn how to change a djembe head? Check out Wimberly’s online video lesson beginning with the tools you need. He instructs about soaking the new skin and recommends paying attention to the patterns in the rope when untying the horizontal and vertical “up and downs” with your hands and the tip of a screwdriver. After removing the skin and outer hoop, he cuts the skin away from the inner ring, which is recycled, becoming part of the new instrument.

On Wimberly’s on-line videos for Toca, you can see him play “casinos,” the fan-like accoutrements with jingles, which vibrate, creating a counter rhythm to the djembe patterns played on the drum.


The six-sided, wooden cajon is a 200-year old, resonant box drum, originally from colonial Peru, with lots of rhythmic possibilities and a history of accompanying dance. This versatile South American instrument has traveled around the world for people who didn’t have drums or were forbidden to make music with them (like the African slaves in Peru). They played boxes (which resembled seats), using recycled shipping crates from transporting fish, flour, meat, vegetables, and fruit. Today the cajon is found everywhere from campfire jams and street fairs to Afro-Peruvian jazz, Cuban dances, and flamenco performances.

Wimberly treats this musical box (which can be made of everything from plywood or pine to mahogany) as a bass and snare drum in his hand-drumming kit, but also suggests using it for gigs requiring a pared down setup. In his 2012 DVD, Getting Started On Cajon With Michael Wimberly, he demonstrates drum fills and finger roll techniques, incorporating them into a rock beat as well as traditional grooves from Cuba, Colombia, Brazil, and the Dominican Republic. Wimberly transcends a world music approach, including funky hip-hop patterns where he suggests coming back from fills or embellishments and blending in James Brown grooves. In addition to these driving dance rhythms, he includes several play-along tracks, enabling you to try out the rhythms in his accompanying book. As with the djembe, we asked Wimberly for a few quick tips for beginning cajon players.

Wimberly’s 5 Cajon-playing Tips
Listen to music that features the cajon to expand your knowledge of the instrument and its musical palette.
Sit on the box while tilting the instrument on an angle; then strike the head between your knees in the center of the drum.
A resonant bass sound is produced by placing your hand just above the middle of the box.
A strong slap (or higher-pitched) sound may be made by positioning your hand about 2" from the top of the drum.
Most of the sound comes from playing the front of the box, but you may use the sides to produce additional tone colors with your palms and fingers or attach guitar strings or drum snares to create a buzzing timbre.

The Secrets To Success

While Michael is a classically trained percussionist with a B.A. from The Baldwin Wallace Conservatory and a M.A. from Manhattan School Of Music, he is also equally comfortable teaching those who don’t read music. His books include both Western music notation as well as drumming techniques for those who play by ear.

Colombian percussionist Memo Acevedo, who was honored with the Percussive Arts Society President’s Industry Award, is an LP Education Specialist and highly regarded Latin percussionist who has known Wimberly for many years after meeting at the Drummers Collective in New York City. He applauds Wimberly’s dedication to music education and his musicianship. “He has the elements that make him an artist of his caliber: creativity, ingenuity, and skill. Love is his motivation for all that he does, and I’ve witnessed Michael’s students’ smiles and satisfaction after a lesson with him.”

Wimberly has taught at the annual Summer Drum Camp, KoSA, where their philosophy of building a musical community encompasses the idea that sharing music makes the world a better place. KoSA founder Aldo Massa believes: “Music is the only universal language. It transcends social, economic, cultural, and political boundaries.” And this environment is one in which Wimberly thrives, sharing his unbound enthusiasm for drumming.

John McDowell, who achieved international recognition for his global soundtrack to the Academy Award—winning documentary Born Into Brothels, leads the world music band Mamma Tongue, and has worked with Wimberly for more than two decades on stage from Lincoln Center to the Montreal Jazz Festival. McDowell calls Wimberly “warm, personable, and hugely talented. He is an all-around musician with a big heart and an infectious energy in his playing.”

In addition to being a versatile percussionist and a warm and fuzzy guy who exudes a positive energy while teaching hand drumming, touring with world-class ensembles, or recording studio tracks, Wimberly is also a sound designer and widely commissioned composer for chamber orchestra, dance companies, film, television, theater, and the Web. This global groove master – who is clearly as passionate about what he does as others make him out to be – speaks of being 100 percent committed to his music, while offering sound advice: “As a musician you must learn to be sincerely open to everyone, so that they are open to receive your music.”

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