There are lots of options for the drummer looking for an alternative to a large drum kit. Drum kits are cumbersome and heavy, so an acoustic drum is the perfect replacement for a larger set. In particular, the cajon and the djembe are preferred by acoustic drummers during performances.
A djembe is a West African hand drum designed for usage in a drum circle. This drum is meant to encourage community involvement, and is relatively easy to play. Ben Harper, Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel are known for including the djembe in their typical percussive line-up.
Traditional African drums are favored by professional djembe players, due to the superior materials. African female goats lend tougher skins than American goats, to the drumheads, as a result of the rough life of the African goat. African djembes also use hardwood instead of plastic or softwood, which makes for better sound. Many less expensive, mainstream djembes are made with plastic, which provides longevity but sacrifices on the quality of sound.
Djembes produce a range of sounds, called the bass, tone and slap. The bass is the lowest sound, and is produced by holding the fingers together while playing, like the tone. The tone produces a round and full sound. Finally, the slap creates a high, sharp noise, produced by relaxing the fingers while playing.
A djembe is much smaller than the typical drum set, with size averaging out at twelve inches in diameter, twenty-four inches in height. You can find smaller djembes, down to 8 inches in diameter and eighteen inches in height.
The djembe was prominently featured in Thomas McCarthy’s 2008 film, The Visitor. The film focused on the cathartic experience of playing the djembe, and how the musical expression can become part of overcoming grief, as a result of the emotion. Djembe playing is not about skill; it is about community and passion.
Unlike the West African djembe, the cajon is an Afro-Peruvian hand drum that is played by slapping the sides. A box drum, which was created to combat Spanish boycotts on African music, the shape of the cajon allowed the instrument to be disguised as a stool.
The cajon is traditionally used to play the rumba or the flamenco, but has become an important part of contemporary music in the last few decades.
Jennifer Lopez and the Dixie Chicks have used the drum, as well as Alejandro Sanz, Fleetwood Mac, Norah Jones and Ben Harper.
When playing on the cajon, the drummer sits on the top of the box and slaps the frontplate, which is usually made of plywood. The other parts of the box are made of thicker wood, which creates stability for the musician, with rubber feet for the protection of floor surfaces and the bottom of the cajon.
Cajons today have a variety of sounds as a result of bass pedals, snare wires and nylon strings in the production of the drum. Musicians use their hands, as well as plastic and metal brushes to vary the sound for the music.