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Decorating Djembes and Hand Drums with Henna

Published by Kristin Stancato on 18th Mar 2015

Some hand drums just stand out above the others, whether with their sound, size or even just the way the drum looks. Most hand drum players start with finding the “right” sound of a drum, whether a djembe, doumbek or a set of bongos. But, appearance can always be a factor that sways even the best drummer – we’re human, after all, and we aren’t afraid of a little snazz on our drums.If you already have a djembe, for example, you can always add some personal touches to it like ksink ksink or kessing – the sheld-shaped adornments that are placed around the rim of the drum. Or, you can get a little more artsy and try your hand at hennaing your djembe or other hand drum head.

In a historical context, henna on a drum head is fairly common, especially in the North African and Middle Eastern cultures where henna was already used for other decorative purposes. However, there weren’t a lot of djembe drums there – the hennaed drums were tambourines and other frame drums, and on doumbeks and darbukas. Today, however, we see henna on all kinds of drums, including djembes, bongos and other natural skin drums.

If you consider that painting your hand with many different kinds of paint just results in a flaky mess when it dries, the same is true for a natural skin drum head. It isn’t recommended that you use any kind of paint on your djembe or other hand drum – not only will the paint not stay, it could degrade the quality of your drum head.

However, henna works on a natural skin drum head much like it works on human skin; it is a pigment that darkens over time. But, when it comes to a drum head, the staying power of henna is much stronger. The natural skin doesn’t continue to regenerate, so there is no shedding of skin cells that leads to henna fading on a person. Plus, you don’t wash your djembe or other hand drum head (ever!) like you do your own hands or body.

The recommended animal skin drum head for a henna-dyed or painted drum is goat skin. Not only is it more common to find, but, it is also thinner than other animal skins, and more like our own. Henna will not work on synthetic drum heads, no matter how hard you try.

Tips for staining or painting a hand drum with henna:

  • Make sure your natural skin drum head has not been treated with anything. An untreated natural goat skin head will be somewhat rough to the touch. Smooth skins have been oiled and may not take the henna at all.
  • Before you begin, clean your drum head with ammonia, lightly removing any dirt or debris.
  • Mix your henna powder with lemon or lime juice, only. The oils normally used for henna on human skin will prevent the pigment from soaking into the drum head.
  • You can draw your own freehand henna patterns, or use a resist technique where you lay a design down on the drum head and paint the open areas with henna.
  • Allow your drum to sit for about a week, in order to fully absorb the henna pigments. Then you can lightly scrape or crumble the dried henna from the surface of the drum head. The henna will continue to darken over the next few days, or, you can apply more ammonia to the design to bring out the richness of the color a little faster.

From there, you can just enjoy the unique style of your djembe or other hand drum, knowing that you were the artist who created such a beautiful playing surface, all on your own.