Skin Talk: How To Rehead A Djembe

Djembe

In the djembe’s folklore, the drum is believed to contain three spirits: the spirit of the tree from which the shell was made, the spirit of the animal from which the drumhead was made, and the spirit of the instrument maker.

If it looks like it might be complicated to string and rehead a djembe, your eyes aren’t deceiving you. There is a lot to consider when assembling one of these sacred African drums, which first made an impact outside West Africa in the 1950s, with the world tours of Les Ballets Africains led by Fodeba Keita of Guinea.

Supplies

To start from scratch, here are the supplies that you need:

Drum shell — Remember the rule of thumb: the top edge of your drum should look like the tip of your thumb from the side, where the nail part of your thumb is the inside of the shell (i.e., flat). The outer edge should be rounded over, not flat on top. The rounding allows the head to tune more smoothly and evenly.
Rings and fabric — Flesh hoop, loop ring, lower ring, fabric to cover (for decoration, if desired)
Skin and rope - The amount of rope that you need will depend on the distance between the lower ring and the top ring of your drum, the number of verticals you have (or plan to have), and the diameter of the rings you are using.

Here’s how to prepare your rings, if you need to:

Covered ring - Cover the lower ring and the loop ring with fabric of your choice. This is just for decorative purposes, and can also serve to cover any discoloration or sharp edges on your rings. Use fabric in 100 percent cotton or 50 percent cotton/50 percent polyester for best results. Using strips about 1.5" wide, glue one end to the hoop using craft glue. Wrap strips around the hoop in an overlapping fashion. When you get back to the starting point, use more glue and secure the other end. Once you have covered the two rings, you need to create the loops on the ring. The diameter of the ring determines the number of loops to create. Each loop should be about two finger widths wide once tied. The bottom ring also has to accommodate the same number of loops, but will be smaller — about one-finger-width wide when finished.

Lacing The Verticals

Lace the bottom ring to the top (loop ring).

Take a candle and rub the entire rim with it, any place the head will touch, so the skin does not stick to the rim.

Start to lace verticals — Leave the verticals long enough so that the top ring is about .75" above the rim. This will allow you to slip the flesh ring through the top ring without too much difficulty.

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Turning The Skin Into A Head

Soaking the head — The skin needs to be soaked next. Put the head into a container large enough to hold the skin, and in enough water to cover the skin completely. The skin will be stiff initially, but will become more flexible as it soaks up water. You’ll need to change water a couple of times, and continue to rinse the skin well when changing.

Putting the head on the flesh hoop — After it has soaked for a couple of hours or longer, take the skin and lay it hair side up. Place the flesh ring in the center of the skin, keeping the spine in the center.

Cut the skin and leave about 5" or more outside the flesh ring.

Cut holes all the way around the skin close to edge (.5") in the skin about 2" apart using a sharp pointed knife. Make sure there is a hole in line with the spine and halfway up the spine.

Fold the skin over from the side of the spine to the center. You need to keep in mind where the spine (center) is at all times.

Use artificial sinew and tie it so that the spine stays in the center.

After tying the sides, use a long piece of sinew (keeping the spine in the center) to go to the end of the spine and loop through. Then go to the other end of the spine, pulling it snug.

Important! When you tighten the sinew (or whatever you use) be sure not to tighten too much, because this is the point when you are regulating how far the rings will come down on the drum. If you over-tighten, they will not come down very far. If they are too loose, they will come down too far. There isn’t a gauge to tell you exactly what tightness is optimal, but basically all you are trying to do is get the majority of folds out of the skins along the edge and make it easier to tighten the head after you start pulling the verticals. Remember, you are not trying to make a hoop drum out of this process, so do not over-tighten.

Tie spine to spine - Weave the sinew back and forth, and try to keep weaving it directly across from one hole to another, keeping the folds out of the skin, but somewhat loose.

A completed flesh ring with skin.

Backside of completed flesh ring with skin.

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When you finish doing the weave and you have all the wrinkles out of the folds, you are ready to put the head on the drum. If there are more folds, you can always add more sinew to pull them out, or just pull them out by hand once you have the head on the drum (recommended). If you feel as if the rings will go too low, you can also take a piece of sinew and tie the weaves together in the center, pulling the skin tighter once you have started the head on the drum.

Putting The Head On The Drum

Depending on the thickness of your rings (some are more flexible than others) you can slip the flesh ring inside of the top ring without too much difficulty. If you’re unable to do it that way, go to plan B, which is to take just enough verticals to slip the flesh ring under the top ring from the side. Then lace the verticals back as far as you can without pulling the head tight.

Start pulling the verticals down from where the head is up the highest. You always want to pull the slack in the verticals, in the correct direction. When you tie the drum off through the end of the verticals with a loop, all the slack you pull will come through that loop. So the loop is basically stationary and the other end is where the slack goes.

Djembe Djembe

Some drums, such as those from the Ivory Coast, have a notch in the bottom for the ring to fit into. If this is the case, you do not have to worry about keeping the bottom ring level. Don’t pay attention to the next step (Keeping The Bottom Ring Level) if that is the case. You do not want to try and pull hard to start with. I will go around a wet head pulling verticals six times or more. This ensures (well, almost ensures) that the head will be level.

Keeping The Bottom Ring Level

The bottom ring also has to stay level, so you need to pay attention to it. It takes a fair amount of tightening to seat the bottom ring before it stops moving up. Then start pulling the verticals. Personally, I don’t use gloves when I do this, primarily because I don’t want to pull too hard. At this point you’re only trying to get the top ring level — not tight. You also have to keep the rings in the center of the drum. They have a tendency to move around a lot, so pay attention to them. When you have the top ring pulled down about level with the rim, turn the drum over to make sure that the bottom ring is level. By this time I put on gloves and pull fairly hard to get the bottom ring level. Switch back and forth checking the top and bottom rings to make sure they both stay level.

The final goal in pulling the verticals on a wet head is to have the top ring about .75" below the rim. It will go down further once it dries and then you really crank the verticals.

I usually stop pulling verticals when the ring is down .75" below the rim. Cut all the artificial sinew (if it wasn’t previously cut) to allow the head to go down further, and pull all the extra skin down the side of the drum. Use an Ace bandage to hold the skin that is hanging down, and cut off this extra skin after it has dried for a few days.

If you don’t hold the skin down when it dries, it will stick up and be in the way. The Ace bandage works well because it allows the skin underneath to dry along with the rest of the drum. Masking tape will also keep the skin down, but the skin under the tape stays wet longer.

A Close Shave

At this point you have a head that is fairly tight and soaking wet. It’s time for the dreaded shaving. Use a plain Bic razor. All you have to do is break the plastic guard off the front of the blade using a small set of needle-nose pliers, exposing the blade completely (be careful not to touch the blade when doing that). Then take a fine file, wet stone, or sandpaper and file the corners of the blade off at a 45-degree angle. This will prevent the blade from cutting into the head.

Shave in the direction that the hair lays (go with the flow, not against). Going against the grain will end up nicking the head. Keep the handle of the razor parallel to the surface of the head to keep the blade at almost a 90-degree angle to the surface of the drum — kind of like dragging the blade across as opposed to trying to slice the hair off.

Be careful along the rim of the drum. Use less pressure because it has a harder surface, and the blade will tend to scrape some of the top layer of skin off. You can press harder as you feel more comfortable. When shaving, start the blade above where you have already shaved, and be sure to use nice, even strokes.

After you’ve completed shaving, let the drum sit out in the sun for two days. Then wait an additional two to three days before pulling the verticals again.

And now … it’s time to play!