The Story of a Block of Wood and a Bloody Goat Skin

While I was in Kpalime (pronounced Pal-em-aye) this weekend, I got the opportunity to purchase a Djembe.  Not only did I get to buy it, I got to see it be transformed from a block of wood and a bloody goat skin into a beautiful drum. 

When we arrived at Ayivor Fofo Asser’s workshop on Saturday morning (around 10ish), he was just finishing shaping two ‘medium’ sized djembe’s and was passing them off to his brother / assistant.   After  a couple of introductions, he realized that I was the one that wanted the djembe (Josh called one of his friends in Kpalime to warn Ayivor that I was interested in buying a drum).  He looked at me and asked if I wanted one of these, pointing to the smaller djembes, or did I want ‘the big one’.  I smile and said ‘the big one’.

After finishing shaping the smaller djembes, Ayivor made the first chops into the center hole of my djembe (as seen above).  At first, the drum wasnt that impressive.  It was basically just a block of wood, but as he continued to shape and carve the drum, it started to look more like a djembe. 

The djembe maker, as the locals call him, used a number of different tools to carve and shape the djembe, from a hatchet to an axe, a machete to a number of hand-made, custom tools specifically designed by his own hands. 

Once he finished shaping the outside of the djembe, he went back to cutting the hole through the center of the drum.   First he hacked away with axe and hatchet (as seen above) then carved away with a small blade attached to the end of a pole, which he slammed down into the center and carved away bits and pieces, slowly getting closer and closer to the thickness/thinness that he desired for the djembe (right around thumbs width, measured by a metal plate). 

Once he finished shaping the outside of the djembe, he went back to cutting the hole through the center of the drum.   First he hacked away with axe and hatchet (as seen above) then carved away with a small blade attached to the end of a pole, which he slammed down into the center and carved away bits and pieces, slowly getting closer and closer to the thickness/thinness that he desired for the djembe (right around thumbs width, measured by a metal plate). 

The great thing about watching Ayivor work was the fact that he invited me to help carve my own djembe.  Above, is me using the unique machete tool.  Now, I am part of this djembe, not because I bought it, but because I helped to make it.  Well, that’s what Ayivor said anyways. 

My bunkmate, Paul (seen below), also got to help smooth out the outside of the drum.   I agree with Paul when he said “He [the djembe maker] makes it look so easy.”  Trust me, it’s not.  Ayivor has been making djembes for the past ten years, he knows what he is doing. 

Soon after, we parted for the day, after sitting and watching the djembe maker for over six hours (take note that he started about 3 hours before we got there). 

The next morning (Sunday) I arrived at Ayivor’s workshop shortly after he did.   After he showed me that he fired my djembe (dried out all the moisture from the wood, decreasing the weight by more than half) he proudly announced that he had just purchased the goatskin and was ready to begin stretching it.  So, he pulled out a plastic bag and dug out a handful of fur.  He shook it out, and I noticed that it was still soaked in blood.  When he said fresh, he ment really fresh. 

Note to PETA and all the animal lovers out there:  The goat was not killed for its skin.  Somebody killed it to eat it, then sold the skin for extra money.  This is Africa, they use everything.  They ate all the meat, used the skin for a djembe, and made the bones into tools, or carved them into jewelry to sell at the marketplace. 

So, after Ayivor nailed the bloodied skin to let it dry out, he started to cut a bar of iron and bend it around the djembe.  He made three loops of iron, two larger loops for the top of the djembe and one smaller one looped around the middle of the drum (as seen below).

After that the djembe maker went off to find the welder.  ‘Only ten minutes’ he told Paul and me.  Almost an hour later he came back, iron rings welded and ready to go.  He then cut some strips of cloth (above) to wrap one of the large rings and the smaller ring which was welded around the djembe, and it won’t slide off. 

Between wrapping the cloth around the iron rings and chatting in broken english, Ayivor took the second large ring (the one not wrapped in cloth) and stretched the skin over it, using threads from a nylon piece of rope that he stripped apart.  To help dry it out, he held them over the small fire that he built (as seen above). 

From there, he started to string the djembe with rope and the two iron bars.  Soon, the drum started looking like a djembe.  He slid the stretched skin over the top and under the cloth wrapped iron ring.  From there, he started to tighten up the drum head (as seen above).  

As it tightened, he carved off the extra skin from the sides of the drumhead and gave the djembe a haircut, much to Paul’s amusement (as he is the ships hair stylist). 

After the first couple series of tightening and drying of the djembe head, it was time for the carving. 

Side story:  The night before, I tore out the drawing from my sketchbook that I wanted on my djembe so that Ayivor could have it for reference.  Unfortunately, his brother / assistant decided it would be a good idea to use it to roll a smoke in.  So, it went up in smoke, literally. 

As you can see from the above photo, Ayivor based the carving of a lion head off some of my remaining sketches and drawings from my sketchbook.  In addition to my sketchbook, he constantly asked me to clarify my sketches by correcting his drawings directly on the drum. 

Over the next couple hours, the djembe maker paid special attention to my drum, constantly checking it and finally tuning it to perfection.  Even as he continued to work on the other two djembes that had been started before I got there the morning before. 

Eventually, he finally finished work for the day at around four in the afternoon.  After 30+ hours between when I first got there, I walked away with a djembe over my shoulder.  It was an amazing experience to sit and watch a block of wood transform into a drum. 

Even Ayivor Fofo Asser finally sat down and relaxed. 

Now I have a beautiful djembe that is a lot more than just a drum, but an experience that will never be forgotten.  I was able to put my hands into its construction and have stories that come from watching and spending time with the djembe maker. 

God Bless and PEACE

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3 Comments »

  1. Now this is a great site full on hot content and relevant information. Keep posting information like this and I will bookmark your website for more great content for the followers of our website.

  2. Any finished photos? Great job!

    • stkerr Said:

      Just the ones in the post, sorry. I still have the djembe and it is a beautiful instrument


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