Written in 2013…

First drums

Since childhood, crafts and music have been my biggest interests. French language skills proved very helpful when I started to spend time with my new Senegalese friends at the age of 15. I became friends with them, and in 2003 they invited me to their band. We played in the streets and got gigs at various occasions. The band grew and developed, and we needed new djun djuns. I thought ordering the heavy bass drums from Africa would be pointless when I could make them myself.

My first drums were completed in 2004. The bass drum set was made from a tree felled with the permission of my grandfather. I got the skins from a local slaughterhouse and prepared them myself. The metal parts I made at school. When the drums were completed, my Senegalese friends cheered. They were proud that I had made all the effort, and managed to make real African instruments. The drums have been in continuous use to this day.

Study trip to Senegal

My interest in African culture grew. I wanted to see where all the musical virtuosity and joy of life comes from. In 2007, my dream came true and I spent three months travelling and learning around Senegal.

I was able to follow the everyday life of people and saw things that few people see as a foreigner. I began to realize that music and dance belong to Senegalese basic needs. They are part of the turning points of human life from the cradle to the grave. Every feast has its own rhythm and dance. Djembe, sabar and the talking drum (tama) have their own age-old traditions thriving and continuing to develop.

Frenzied dancing is a way to break away from the heavy burden of everyday life. It was great to see how the people, from babies to grandparents, gathered on the street to have some fun together. The most important thing is that everyone involved.

Teachings of a griot

In Dakar I got to know master drummer Ndongo Diop, who took me as an apprentice . Ndongo Diop is a griot in the tenth generation. He taught me that the drums are speaking. Senegalese drums have been developed over time so that they can imitate spoken words, and thus “speak” the wolof language. This permits them to drum messages from village to village. I understood that Senegalese musical instrument manufacturing is very sophisticated and requires a lot of knowledge and skill.

Drum carving skill runs in the family

I went to watch the drum carver’s (Laube) work. The drums were carved by hand tools from a log of local hardwood. The work was carried out in three stages. The youngest boys did the heaviest work, they hollowed the log and made the raw form. Then a more skilled young man was able to form the final shape of the drum. Then the drum shell was tuned by a master carver by tapping and removing wood according to the sound. The oldest of all, an already white-haired master blacksmith focused only on talking drum manufacturing. His work was very precise and a result of decades of training. I learned that the drum carving skill runs in the family, and some families have focused on it for dozens of generations.

The African adze did not bite Finnish wood

From my trip to Senegal, I brought ten hours of video, photos, notes and recordings, as well as the necessary tools for drum carving. I continued to study the music I had learned with the griot and translated drum poetry into Finnish.

I needed new instruments and so did many of my friends. I carved several drums with my new adzes (carving tools from Africa). Although they required a lot of practice, the work became easier. I tried different types of wood, and I noticed that Finnish wood couldn’t be cut the same way as the African species. Despite practicing, I could not achieve the same forms as I had seen in Senegal. I realized that I had to develop other working methods.

Study and research

I tried different options. I hollowed wood using fire, but it was slow and cumbersome. A possible solution began to take shape in 2008. I had tried a lathe at school and I wondered if it’s possible to turn such large and heavy pieces. I consulted a professional turner and, despite doubts, I studied the theory of woodturning from books found in the library.

The exterior shape was easy to do, but hollow turning was problematic. I managed to acquire a decommissioned lathe. I built the special tools myself, most of them were not available on the market, or I couldn’t afford them. During 2008-2010, I developed the turning and drying methods, planned, made and tested the tools.

Djembe hobby in Finland

Today the djembe drum is one of the world’s most widely spread musical instruments. The number of amateurs has been growing since the 1980’s and education is now more easily available. In Finland, decent education is still quite limited, and activity is concentrated in the metropolitan area. We need more teachers with knowledge about djembe culture.

My enthusiasm has led me to look for information, even if it is not very easy to access. Many potential players might lose interest due to a lack of education. However, African dance is very popular, and even our ex-president Tarja Halonen does it. As drumming is the other half of dance, I believe that djembe playing could also be very popular in Finland.

The environmental problem

I made a second study trip to Burkina Faso and Mali in early 2010. Bobo Dioulasso, where I spent two months, is one of the main djembe tourism centers in the world. African rhythm enthusiasts from all over the world gather there. Everyone wanted to take a djembe home. I saw traders filling containers with djembes to resell in Europe.

West African deforestation is a crucial issue today, and desertification is already a major problem in many places. Several drum carvers I met had faced the same problem: the drums are so much in demand that it´s difficult to find enough raw material. Logging in West Africa is not sustainable, and desertification is already a serious problem in many regions. Illegal wood trade is rampant.

Finnish wood is available

I studied the different types of wood that are used in percussion building and noticed that many of the northern species could be used as well. Percussion Instruments have hardly been made in these latitudes. I combined information from the traditional use of wood, turning and carpentry, and made my conclusions. Then I made prototypes from different woods. The best species so far have proven to be maple, birch, rowan, ash and elm. All of these species are quite easily available in Finland.

For the lumber industry, logs must be direct and knot-free for at least 3m length, not to mention completely rot-free. Because of these criteria a big percentage of wood felled in Finland ends up either as firewood, woodchips, or pulp.

For percussion making the criteria aren´t that strict. I can use only 0.5-1.0m long straight logs and even logs with butt rot are often usable as the rotten core wood is removed.

The drum skin is easily available

I use only natural skin because of it’s tonal properties and I want to keep things organic. At the moment, I use African drum skin to support my musician friends there. I have also noticed that Finnish calf and goat skins are suitable.

Developing the working methods

At first, I carved trunks using chain saw and chisels. It is heavy work, and it’s very difficult to obtain symmetrical drum shells. Carving with adzes is very slow and physically demanding. In addition, these methods impose certain restrictions to the shape of the shell. When using a lathe, there are no shape restrictions. Also, the surface finish can be made on a lathe.