Originating from the musical traditions of Mali in West Africa, the djembe (normally pronounced “jem-bay”) has become one of the most well-loved hand drums in the world today. Because of their goblet-like shape and thinner skins, djembes have a broad range of tones that gives them truly excellent voices.
They usually look stunning as well, as most are hand-carved or finished in expressive West African patterns.
In this review, we’re going to look at eight very different djembes. We’ll teach you how to spot a lemon and how to select the Best Djembe for your needs.
So, let’s get started!
Top 8 Best Djembe of 2023
1 Meinl Rope Tuned Headliner Series Wood Djembe – Best Value for Your Money Djembe
Size: 10″ diameter, 20″ tall
Finishes: carved and stained wood in Black River motif (Nile, Artifact, and Congo motifs available)
We begin with a classic-style drum from German percussion builder Meinl. This rope-tuned wooden djembe is made from sustainably-farmed mahogany hand-carved into a stunning instrument. The outside is carved into a cool flowing “river” pattern that rings the drum.
Taking a peek inside, we see that the interior surface is also carved in rougher scallops, rather than smoothed out. Now you might think this is laziness on the builder’s part, but you’d be wrong. Smoothed drums can echo too much, causing reverb and muddiness in the overall sound.
How does this thing play?
With a traditional goatskin top, this djembe has a very bright sound. The bass or open note offers a decent boom considering the smallish diameter of this drum.
Slapping near the rim gives an explosive pop. The drum plays quite loud and feels great on the hands, even with that new goatskin hasn’t been broken in yet.
Overall, this drum really sounds great!
If we need to look at some downsides, we can mention a couple of things that might put some players off this drum.
It’s solid hardwood, and though it’s not the heaviest drum around, it might be a bit heavy for kids or for playing standing up.
Also, the traditional Mali weave in the nylon cord can be quite tricky to tune. You have to untie it, adjust the tension, then re-tie it without it slipping. But that traditional tie-down also looks the part, so is it really a negative?
- Great sound and great looking drum.
- Excellent price!
- A bit of a small diameter for a djembe.
- The rope tuning system can be tricky.
2 Remo Mondo Djembe – Best Premium Djembe
Size: 14″ diameter, 24″ tall
Finishes: composite material in brown Earth monochrome (also available in Serpentine Day, Kintelkloth, Black Earth, Multimask, Green Kinte, Flame, Shadow Flame, Salsa Deco, Sahara Brown, Jubilee Red, and Adinkra motifs)
Remo flips the djembe market on its head with their all-synthetic Mondo Djembe. Instead of the traditional hardwood, Remo uses its wood fiber composite material to create a seamless shell.
Unlike the Meinl headliner, the inside of this drum is smoothly finished, though both the inside and outside feature a slightly rough texture.
A durable synthetic…
The head is synthetic, too, of course. This is Remo! They’ve used a Mondo Skyndeep head on this djembe. If you’ve ever tried a Syndeep head, you know that they are tough and durable, giving bright tones and lots of attack.
The bass or open tone is deeper on this drum, owing to it being much bigger than the Meinl. Despite the ability of the Acousticon shell to absorb reverb, this drum has a bit too much for our liking, leading to a muddier sound. The slap tones really pop, though!
By far, the best feature of this drum is the hardware. Rather than using a rope weave system, the head is held on and tuned using powder-coated steel rings and brackets. The tuning lugs are useable with a standard drum key and allow you to tune instantly and effortlessly.
However, the synthetic head rarely goes out of tune as it’s not susceptible to changes in temperature and humidity like a real skin.
Altogether, this is a great, very durable drum. But it sure isn’t cheap!
- Durable and very well-built drum.
- Easily to tune.
- The price – this is the priciest drum on our list.
- Slightly muddy bass tone.
3 B.N.D. TOP Djembe Drum – Best Budget Djembe
Size: 8″ diameter, 16″ tall
Finishes: brown-stained hardwood
Dropping back to the very cheap side of things, we had the chance to look at the simply named djembe drum by B.N.D. TOP. Now, this is not a well-known percussion brand such as Remo or Meinl.
So, how does their djembe rate?
First things first. This drum is apparently made from mahogany like the Meinl. However, it’s not handmade, or at least not entirely. It may have been roughly shaped by hand, but the surface finish shows clearly that it has been turned on a lathe. This has created a smooth finish, inside and out.
This drum is much smaller than the Meinl, and it’s also a lot straighter than both drums we’ve seen so far. Its raw goatskin head is attached traditionally by woven nylon rope, just like the Meinl.
However, there’s very little else that makes this drum actually sound like a djembe.
Lacking in sound clarity…
The bass tone is muddy and quiet and really lacks in personality. The tone note, halfway between the bass and the slap, is the only tone that sounds alright. The slap tones coming out of this drum don’t pop at all.
Not only was the sound completely dull, but when we tried to tune this drum higher, a good part of the weave came loose. It took forever to retie the rope, and when we did, the sound really hadn’t improved at all.
Only for those on a very tight budget…
Sorry B.N.D. but we’ll have to recommend this drum as one to avoid unless you are on a very tight budget or you want a Djembe as a decorative piece.
- The price. This drum is cheap, and that’s about it.
- Nearly impossible to tune.
- Tones are dead and muddled, with none of the bright top-end of a djembe.
- Quiet – if this drum was going to sound dead, at least some volume would have helped!
4 Pearl Top Tuned Djembe – Best Mid Priced Djembe
Size: 12″ diameter, 24″ tall
Finishes: composite material in Purple Haze or Tribal Fire motifs
This next drum is a very interesting addition to the mix. Like the Remo Mondo, Pearl’s Top Tuned Djembe is a synthetic composite shell topped by a synthetic skin. But it’s also basically half the price of the Remo. And Pearl is definitely a trusted name in percussion.
How does this drum stack up?
Most obviously, the Remo drum is bigger than the Pearl, which is only 12-inches in diameter. The Pearl also follows a much more traditional goblet shape than the Remo, which has a bigger bowl and much narrower stem. This seems to give the Pearl a clearer bass note, but volume-wise, the Remo is a bit louder.
Since Remo is primarily a skin or head manufacturer, they’ve placed a huge emphasis on the Skyndeep heads topping their djembes being the best imitation of a real skin possible. Pearl, on the other hand, has offered up a skin that feels essentially like a regular synthetic drum head.
What difference does this make to the tone?
The Pearl drum does have a clearer bass tone, as we mentioned before. It’s just not deep. It rings out clearly but sounds pretty much like a tightly tuned snare (with the snares switched off). The tone note and slap notes, however, produce much brighter sounds with tons of attack.
So, in general, this drum lacks the warmth of wood and the depth of a big natural (or pseudo-natural) head. It’s still decent sounding, easy to tune like the Remo, and undoubtedly durable, though. This is why it is on the Best Djembe list.
- This is a well-built, durable, and tunable djembe.
- Good price for a high-quality composite drum.
- Disappointingly high bass tone and overly attacking slap tones.
5 Deco 79 Wood & Leather Djembe – Best Looking Djembe
Size: 7″ diameter, 12″ tall
Finishes: carved and stained hardwood
The all-synthetic Remo and Pearl drums showed a great amount of variation. So what about wooden djembes – are they all pretty much the same?
We’ve already seen the Meinl Headliner and the B.N.D. TOP djembe, and these were obviously very different. While the somewhat more expensive Meinl was a truly well-built, great-sounding handmade drum, the B.N.D. TOP Djembe Drum left a whole lot to be desired.
But we can still say at least one thing about it – at least it really was a drum!
Certainly looks good…
With Deco 79’s Wood & Leather Djembe, we’re really not sure if it was actually made to be played on or not. At a cut-rate price, we certainly didn’t expect much. But when this drum first came out of the box, we were pleasantly surprised.
Sure it’s quite small at only 7” x 12”. But it’s a real hardwood drum, and the carving and stain on it look funky and unusual. It really did look like a drum.
Then we tried hitting it.
More decorative than drum…
Despite being called a “Wood & Leather” djembe, it turns out that this drum is topped by a synthetic leather skin that lacks all the stretched tautness of real skin.
It’s just left there, slapped over the wood shell, and not tuned-up at all. Despite our best efforts, we couldn’t get this “skin” to tune up to anywhere near playable.
In short, this is either just a children’s toy or a home decor item and most definitely couldn’t possibly be intended as a real drum.
- Looks pretty in your living room.
- Cheap, cheap, cheap!
- Leather definitely doesn’t refer to the skin, which is artificial and slack.
- In just one word: unplayable.
6 B.N.D. TOP Mini Djembe – Best Child’s Djembe
Size: 6″ diameter, 14″ tall
Finishes: fabric wrapped plastic in bright floral print motifs
With our next djembe experiment, we were much savvier. This time we knew we were looking at a drum meant for children. We knew it was small, very inexpensive, and just too cute. But we also wanted to know what we might be in for in terms of sound and durability.
Kids can be pretty rough on their toys…
At first look, you may very well fall in love with this tiny djembe. It’s coated in a sort of applique fabric in some randomly assembled African prints. It’s heavy on floral patterns and bright colors.
The head is also decorated. It’s covered in cartoonish pictures of people, masks, plants, and animals, almost like a graffiti wall for kids.
Does it sound any good?
For way less than $50, what you’re getting here is a very cute kid’s toy. The body of this drum is made of hard plastic; our guess is ABS, and it has a rubberized bottom ring to protect it when put down hard.
The head is made of some sort of tightly applied hard plastic. Together, this combines for a very cold, plastic sound that’s missing all the warmth of a wooden drum. Still, you can manage to get two or possibly three tones out of the thing!
Superb for the kids…
But at 6” in diameter, that’s not really the point. Even tiny hands aren’t going to find enough surface area to effectively strike different tones on this drum. Instead, it can be played hanging over the shoulder as the kid, because that’s who will want to sport this cute drum, running around banging it one-handed.
- Small, cute, and cheap.
- The sound is poor, but kids will still have fun on this little drum.
7 Remo Apex Djembe – Best Sounding Djembe
Size: 12″ diameter, 22″ tall
Finishes: plastic decorated with Green Kinte, Orange Kinte, Red Kinte, Black, or Mystic Red motifs
From that little side-trip into kids’ instruments and home decoration items, we return to the world of real djembe. Real, that is, if you count an all synthetic drum as real.
Coming in somewhat cheaper than their Mondo djembe, Remo’s Apex djembe is as much of a work of art and a durable percussion piece.
This time, however, the body of the drum is made with ABS plastic instead of wood fiber composite, and this is surely what has brought the price down a level. The plastic body comes in five different colorful patterns to make this drum look funky and cool.
The hardware on the Apex is similar to the Mondo. It has black powder-coated steel rings and brackets. Although we actually preferred the hardware on the cheaper Apex.
It also has a Remo Skyndeep head up on top. In this case, it’s an R-Series head rather than a Mondo. We have to assume this is a lower quality head because of the price point.
However, when playing the two drums, we didn’t notice much difference between them at all in terms of responsiveness.
Well, how does it play?
This drum has some really nice sounds, perhaps even better than the more-expensive Mondo. The bass is deep and loud, the open tone solid and bright, and slaps towards the rim produce loud, explosive pops as well.
Made of plastic, this drum is extremely loud. However, that’s mostly in the attack, and then sound falls away quickly. In that way, strikes are clear but also sound a bit separated and staccato.
- Great distinct tones.
- Tunable and durable drum.
- Very heavy on attack but lacking warmth.
8 Sawtooth Tribe Series Djembe – Loudest Traditional Djembe
Size: 12″ diameter, 24″ tall
Finishes: carved and stained hardwood with Unity, Congo, Elephant, or Spirit carved motifs
The last djembe on our list takes us back to the traditional construction of a djembe – wood with a goatskin tied on top. Simple.
A very traditional djembe…
Sawtooth has produced very smart looking drums with their Tribe Series. Each is hand-carved out of a single, solid piece of farmed mahogany, stained, and then decorated with carved designs.
However, in contrast to the Meinl Headliner that we reviewed earlier, the inside surface was smoothed out instead of left roughed. This contributed to some lack of clarity in the sound, especially in the bass note.
The goatskin head we felt was identical in quality to the Meinl’s and came tensioned up nicely. An almost identical Mali weave ties the skin onto this drum, and tuning is thus just as tricky. You have to know your knots, or at least know a boy scout!
What sound can you expect?
This drum plays very nicely. Its skin was easy on the hands despite being new, and the whole thing gave us some very satisfying tones. The bass, though a bit muddle and reverberating, was still satisfyingly deep. Open strikes gave punchy bright tones, and rim slaps gave loud and punchy pops.
Head to head (literally!) against the Meinl, though, we don’t think this drum was the better. With a larger diameter and height, the Sawtooth gave us more low-end, but it just wasn’t as clear. The Meinl clearly won the high-end with cracking pops and warm tones throughout.
Still, at only slightly more than the Meinl, this is a great drum.
- Large and powerful, loud drum.
- Good-looking and fun to play.
- Somewhat muddy bass tone.
- More expensive but not as clear as the Meinl Headliner.
Best Djembe Buying Guide
Djembefolas, bashers of the renowned djembe drum, know what they’re looking for in a drum. And so should you. So here’s our guide for getting your hands on an excellent yet affordable djembe.
Traditional drums are, of course, made from wood. In the case of djembes, this means solid pieces of hardwood, though the type of wood varies and can affect the sound.
Extremely dense and heavy woods can deflect sound and be extremely loud. However, somewhat less dense woods, like mahogany, can absorb some sound and produce warmer tones.
Synthetic shells are generally more durable in that they can resist changes in temperature and humidity well, while wood can crack or warp over time. Most synthetic shells, especially those that contain plastic, can be very loud and heavy on the attack while lacking in sustain.
No matter what they’re made from, djembes should share a fat cup and flaring stem goblet shape. This helps build and focus their unique sound. Roughed interiors, especially in wood djembes, can act as baffles to reduce reverb and project clarity in the drum’s voice.
The djembe originated as an ensemble-leading instrument to accompany a dance. It should have a loud, piercing, and expressive voice to cut through the din and tell a story or even direct a dancer.
To do this, Djembefolas learn to produce many different tones. But they can only do this on solid and dependable djembe drums.
A quality djembe should, therefore, have at least three very distinct and easy to isolate sounds.
The three sounds…
The bass tone is made by striking the very center of the drum. This should produce a deep, rich, and warm bass tone like a man’s loud call. But the bass should be clear. The wrong shape of the drum’s bowl, or too much reverb inside of it, can muddy up that sound so that repeated strikes can’t easily be distinguished.
This is also true of the open tone, or just “tone” of a djembe, a sound made by striking about halfway between the center and the rim. This tone should be much higher and very pure and clean. And of course, it should be loud!
Djembes need to be able to pop up over the background noise. These loud and bright pops come from slaps near the rim and result from tight, snappy heads. That’s why goatskin or tough but thin synthetics are used to top djembes.
To be honest, we were stunned at how cheap some really great djembes can be these days. In general, hardwood drums with goatskins are tremendously cheap, and a great drum shouldn’t break $100.
Synthetic drums do have their benefits in both durability and especially tenability. Expect these drums tend to cost more in the range of $200-300 for some excellent instruments.
In any case, when buying a great djembe, check out the materials and the price, and also take a listen to some high-quality videos on Youtube or wherever, so you can hear what it sounds like being played by an experienced musician.
Looking for some other drums or percussion instruments?
So, what is the Best Djembe?
This time, our review of djembes took us all over the map, from kids’ toys to traditional drums, to sophisticated synthetics.
But because of its great look, solid and clear tones, and an outstanding price for the Best Djembe, we chose the…
…as our overall winner. Some of the synthetics were great, and some of the other wood drums were good, but none offer the combination of playability and price that the Meinl does.
Which one was your favorite?
Pick a djembe and start playing – you’ll be glad you did!
Until next time, may your beats always be merry.