While many of us may now think of drumming as a secular activity, the activity is rooted in the spiritual realm. Even today, in parts of the world where the origins of an instrument’s use may be remembered and the traditional ways followed, we find that spiritual offerings and rituals are still followed. Whether discussing the didgeridoo or the drum, percussion instruments have always played a central role in ceremonies. For this reason, the spiritual connection of drumming should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the history of the instrument.
The djembe drum, in particular, has an interesting spiritual connection with which many lovers of djembe may not be familiar. In West Africa, where the djembe holds a special significance, the drum would have been the domain of a special caste of people called the Jeli. The Jeli were essentially a group of artists who roamed the lands keeping the histories of the people alive. They were djembe drummers, storytellers, and vocalists given the honor of maintaining the oral traditions. Their sole purpose was to create music and retell the stories of the great Mali empire.
Due to the significance of the role of the Jeli in West African life, the musicians were highly trained and skilled. They also took seriously the spiritual connection of drumming. The tree from which the djembe drum would be made was given offerings, as was the animal from which the head would come. Because the drum would speak and bear significance on the direction of people’s lives, the spiritual nature of the drum and the materials used for its construction took on a significance modern day drummers may find difficult to comprehend.
The person who constructed the djembe was once considered part of the spiritual essence of the drum, as well. The Jeli were considered skilled enough to be able to bring forth the magical qualities of the drum. The Jeli was comprised of three, specific roles. The Kuma told the stories, the Donkili sang the songs, and the Maninka played the drum and other instruments. The Jeli still retain a prominent role in West African life, telling the histories during ceremonies and celebrations.
While these days we may not place much emphasis on who can or cannot be a djembe drummer, traditionally the instrument has had a spiritual significance. While many of us are fine with the way things are, those of us who feel the spiritual connection of drumming should feel free to explore it. After all, that is the origin of the drum and making that connection could help improve our drumming and, possibly, our lives.