The djembe has become nearly ubiquitous in the modern music scene, with most all major hand drum percussion manufacturers having several lines and models for consumers to choose from. The explosion of hand percussion popularity and instrument availability in the djembe world, however, has lead to a certain standardized, low-cost approach to making functional, no frills, “Westernized” instruments. While this trend has had its positive aspects in making decent quality, affordable drums available to the public, it has also contributed to a dearth of what many traditionalists would consider the real deal – djembes made with the unique sound, feel, craftsmanship, and attention to detail that finer West African instruments have. Enter the boutique manufacturers – a handful of small, dedicated importers and drum builders that seek to introduce players to the joys of drumming on a truly fine instrument that an indigenous traditional player or serious Western student or professional would be very comfortable performing on – the opposite of what is known in African countries as a “tourist drum.”
Some of these boutique drum companies have a vision of making one-of-a-kind, unique, superior djembes available to players worldwide. Wula Drum, located in Long Island City, New York, is one such manufacturer with the goal of not only purveying the highest quality West African instruments, but also pursuing the additional social benefits of being environmentally aware while supporting higher wages and sustainable incomes for traditional craftsman in Guinea, West Africa, as well as the USA.
Michael Markus and Tom Kondas founded the Wula Drum company in 2006 in Long Island City (Queens), after having already established careers as players and budding Stateside drum builders. With the help of performer and clinician M’Bemba Bangoura, as well as Yamoussa Sylla, Wula’s production manager in Conakry, Guinea, Wula Drum company not only creates singular works of hand-percussive art, but also offers performances and workshops, team-building programs, repairs, educational products, and trips to Africa for those interested in immersion in the drumming culture of Guinea. In addition to djembes, they also sell balaphones, shakers, bells, and accessories.
Wula Drum imports finished pieces from Guinea, West Africa. As such, each drum is a unique item; they do not have “lines” as we have come to know them from major manufacturers. Wula has what they call “models,” but again, this could be a little confusing to those who have grown accustomed to factory drum making and marketing as typified in the U.S. and Europe. Wula models are roughly attached to price points based on the many wood types and qualities used in their shell construction, as well as the specific level of intricacy in the carving, along with size. Prices range from $200 for a basic model to what are known as “Special Pieces” and “Master Pieces” which can retail from $850 and above. Great care is taken with each piece, but sonic superiority and aesthetic quality cost more. Wula also offers a custom “design-your-own” option; you can request a drum-build that creates a djembe made to your specific standards.
The djembe that I was sent for review is a “typical ’Special Piece’,” according to Galen from Wula Drum, which is near the top-of-the-line in Wula’s catalog. It was made from Afzelia africana heartwood, and features intricate carving and decorative metalwork/“drum jewelry.” It also includes an extra-thick goatskin head mounted with a two-ring system, using custom rope for the Mali-weave made to Wula Drum’s specifications. The model number is #0605.
The drum has 34 individual points of tension (each tension point actually has a double-strand, so you could say 68 points of tension). The effective playing surface is 13" in diameter, and the drum stands 2' high. Shell thickness is 1". This drum is not light-weight by any stretch of the imagination! It also came in a custom gray Wula djembe case, which is sturdy, padded, and includes two long additional pockets for stowing a strap or accessories such as kessing (jingle-plates that can be placed in the drum weave for extra rhythmic emphasis). The djembe case is sold separately.
The aesthetic aspects of the Wula Drum Special Piece have been given much attention – it is a beautiful example of African art, and the build quality is exceptional. But with any instrument of this caliber, the proof is in the sonic characteristics – “What does it sound like?” is a pretty important question, as is “How does it feel to play?”
The Wula Drum Special Piece was used in an educational setting, an informal jam session, in the home and rehearsal studio, and it was also used in a side-by-side comparison with another well-known boutique manufacturer’s imported djembe (a personal favorite of mine). In all these situations, the Wula drum fared well.
The drum looks and sounds great, which makes it much more enjoyable to play, whether practicing solo or playing with others. The goatskin head has intentionally been left a little rough; it has a similar feel to playing an old calfskin snare drum head with bare hands. This makes for a very satisfying way to “connect” with the drum that is hard to put into words; it’s a bit organic, primal, and it just feels right to play. The head is tuned expertly, which made it easy to coax and tease out intricate tonal variations and rhythmic elements at lower volumes that might be lost on other drums, especially those with less-responsive synthetic heads. But the Wula has plenty of power, too, and can take a beating at high volume without sounding “choked” in any way. Open tones, open and closed slaps, key tones, muted sounds, and non-traditional finger techniques all provided a variety of crisp sonic possibilities. The Special Piece is an expensive drum, but an excellent drum for the price – the care and craftsmanship that went into its creation could easily double the $750 price tag.
The only (minimal) drawback I could find with this particular Wula Special Piece is that it seemed to be lacking in bass tone somewhat – not significantly, mind you – just a bit less projection and “acoustic 808” style rumble than my own boutique djembe from another manufacturer. Each Wula is an original, however, so it’s most likely something specific to the particular drum that I reviewed – they do come in larger diameters so I’m sure there are plenty of models with all the tones that sound just right to your ears (and that feel just right in your hands!). If I was in New York City, I would definitely take the train to Wula’s HQ in Long Island City to try the plethora of varieties of awesome djembes pictured on the Wula Drum website.
If you are a professional percussionist or serious student looking for a truly fine-sounding, beautiful piece to add to your hand drum collection, Wula Drum should be on your very short list of expensive, hand-crafted instrument manufacturers to look at. The price for a high-grade model may be a bit out-of-reach for the beginner or those on a tight budget, however.
Model & List Price
Special Piece #0605 $750
Hand-crafted drums available in various wood types and grades – lengue, khadi, acajou, douki, and more; intricate carving; studded “drum jewelry”; thick goatskin heads; double-ring mounting; custom-made rope; comfort-curve—type bearing edges.