Due to the delicate nature of the materials used in a Djembe, it is normal for the drum to need periodic maintenance and tuning in order to produce its best sound and keep the drum in top form. If a Djembe begins to sound dull when played, it is probably time to tighten the head. The wood and skin of a Djembe are vulnerable to various weather conditions and handling problems that can occur through regular use, storage or transportation.
Tuning Djembe drums is more than matching a pitch, and can vary depending on the size of the drum, the type of drummer and the desired sound within a chorus of drums. Drums are rarely tuned to a note on a scale, but are tightened in order to produce a crisp sound with little to no decay, or to compliment the other drums being played. The beauty in this is that these drums blend nicely with other African percussion instruments, regardless of the notes produced.
For key-tuned Djembes, the process of tuning is made simpler by the hardware involved. A key-tuned Djembe relies on the tension created between its rim and the lugs and hardware fixed to the base of the drum that keep the skin of the head tight. Tuning these drums requires little more than a drum key or wrench to tighten the lugs. With a key-tuned Djembe, it is best to tighten each lug slightly, moving in a clockwise or counter-clockwise direction, in order to maintain a consistent sound around the entire head of the drum. Once the head of the key-tuned Djembe is tight, the sound quality should improve, creating crisp tones across the entire drum head.
Rope-tuned Djembes require more time and skill to tune than key-tuned Djembes. These drums are more authentic in their construction, with the head of the drum affixed to the base by smaller metal rings around the rim, and then attached securely to the base with a series of vertically-woven ropes. With rope-tuned Djembes, the ability to tighten the head of the drum relies on the “Mali Weave” technique in which additional ropes are woven through the vertical lines and knotted, creating diamond patterns and reducing the slack of the vertical ropes. Tuning a rope-tuned Djembe in this manner helps to accommodate any variances in the natural-skin head of the drum, the unique qualities of the wood used in its base, and gives the Djembe drummer more control over the overall sound of the drum.
For the professional, amateur or hobbyist Djembe drummer, the ability to tune the drum can be a beneficial exercise that strengthens the relationship between drum and drummer. By keeping a Djembe tuned and in good condition, the drum can last through any performance, gathering, drum circle or living room solo for years to come.