Born in to the Malinke caste of blacksmiths (Malinke are decendants of the founders of the powerful Mali Empire), the djembe is also played by other tribes which inhabit the region of the former Mali Empire - the Bambara, the Wolof, the Fulani, the Djola, and the Susu. Traditionally played by men, it is common in Guinea, Senegal, Mali, Gambia, and to a lesser extent in other countries of West Africa such as Sierra Leone, Cote D' Ivoire and Ghana.

Carved from a solid block of wood goat skin (formerly antelope) is stretched taut over the large opening on top. A complex lacing system controls the tension. The range of a single djembe spans four different fundamental notes: open tone, bass, muff, and open slap for exclamation. Djembe's of different sizes perform together, expanding the tonal range. The music is composed with rhythms which interlock to form a conversation.

In traditional West African society, music and dance is the focal point for all social activity. Important events such as naming ceremonies, marriages and deaths are marked with music and dance. Music is played during harvest festivals and can be sacred or secular. Some occasions invoke and honor a specific deity. Others are social occasions when people gather to have a good time.

The drum calls living people, ancestors and spirits together. Like other African drums, djembe will sometimes speak the language of its players, usually in proverbs. Master drummers are attuned to each moment of a gathering and know when to introduce these proverbs. On sacred occasions, the drummers will play a phrase that calls a specific deity who then "possesses" an initiate. Not every drummer may do this; it takes years of study, apprenticeship, and initiation before such power is entrusted to an individual. In secular performances the drums still "talk" , usually in a combination of proverbial messages, and social commentary.

Bata Djembe Dunun Mbira Talking Drum Supplemental Reading