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Feeling the Rhythm of May

I Fell in Love With the Djembe

There's nothing quite like the sound or the feel of slapping a djembe for the first time. The smooth, organic touch of the taught drumhead can produce the cleanest, crispiest tones. There's variety too: the higher pitched sounds will snap through the air, while striking the middle with an open palm, fingers curled upward, will reward you with a resonant, booming bass. Shaped like a chalice and used in many a drum circle, djembes can be as small and portable as a mason jar and large enough to require straps and a carrying case if you want to stand and play it to your heart's content. The djembe also has a deeply spiritual and communal history.

I'd always loved the sound of drums, from enjoying a band to anticipating a parade. It was when an old friend of mine in Chicago formed an all-female drumming troupe and they began to host public drum circles that I developed a serious interest in learning to play.


The very first djembe I ever purchased was from a wonderfully resourceful woman, Helen Bond, who taught classes, performed, and sold drums. Her company was Medusa's Musical Mysteries, on the border of Illinois and Wisconsin. She helped me pick out "Fighter" (yes, I named my drum) from her eclectic collection. I liked Fighter because she was obviously scrappy and no-nonsense. The goat's head skin was naked and unfinished around the rim and I'd never seen one before without the decoration. Plus, Fighter was originally made in Madison, Helen had told me, which just so happened to be my hometown. Best of all, Fighter had a wonderful sound when I played her that sang to my soul. It was destiny. I still remember the first rhythms I learned to play on my djembe using the slap/slap/tone/tone/bass/bass of the three basic hand positions.

Over the years, Fighter has traveled with me to Pagan Spirit Gathering (PSG), drumming several times by Lake Michigan, and many a circle of people between Chicago and Milwaukee. Fighter happily rang out in a performance procession at a writer's retreat at The Clearing in Door County, and sometimes just helped me alone at home when I needed to vent and work through some frustrations.

Drum SOS

Finally, last year during the pandemic (wouldn't you know it), there was a loud ripping CRACK in the living room. After 20 years of loyal service, Fighter's head had split. I'd noticed a small crack forming and had meant to get to it, but alas, it was not to be salvaged.

When I recently had the privilege of interviewing Helen for my latest episode of "Women Who Howl at the Moon," and told her the story, she laughed heartily. She told me that often drumheads need to be replaced as often as "every two years." I shouldn't feel bad, but instead welcome the opportunity to give Fighter "her new voice that needs to be heard." She also put me in touch with a local drum repair guru. In honor of International Drum Month, why not dust off your old drum? Or better yet, re-head it to bring a new voice forth. Revel in the beat and see what visions your warrior instrument of music sings to you.


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Colleen DuVall has written articles, plays, short films, and a novel. Most recently, her work has been featured in her new blog, Off The Beaten Path for the Shepherd Express online (, and the Wisconsin Life radio show for WPR. She recently adopted a little grey and white cat named Tessa, after beloved 22-year-old Bootise passed on.


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