Over the next few weeks, our weekly blogs will focus on giving tips for teaching different genres of world-music in the classroom. Regardless of the genre, our tips will always come under the following headings which we believe are the most important areas to think about when teaching a world-music lesson or scheme of work:

  • Instrumentation

  • Technique

  • Cultural Significance & Classic Motifs 

  • Leadership & Classroom Management

This week we’re focusing on teaching West African drumming.

Key Stage 2 West African Drumming Workshop

Key Stage 2 West African Drumming Workshop


We advise the following diameter djembes as they will be an appropriate size for the children’s hands and a suitable diameter for them to hold the drum with the correct posture between their knees:

  • KS1 & KS2:        9” djembe

  • KS3:                 11” djembe

  • KS4/Teacher:    13” djembe

  • Dumbek/darabouka

  • Conga

  • Cajon

  • Any hand drum capable of playing bass, tone and slap sounds.

Suitable classroom replacements:

  • Dumbek/darabouka

  • Conga

  • Cajon

Any hand drum capable of playing bass, tone and slap sounds.


Djembes should be played either with the musician in the seated position, or standing up with the drum on a strap. We advise you get the students in your whole-class djembe lesson to sit on a chair on bench:

  • Sit on the front of the chair with feet flat on the floor.

  • Tilt the drum skin away from you so a little air can get in the bottom of the drum. Use your knees to hug the drum to keep it in position.

  • Sit up with a straight back.

  • Bass – full flat hand played in the centre of the drum

  • Tone – four fingers played near the edge of the drum closest to your body

We don’t advise turning the djembe on it’s side and sitting on top of the drum as it will be easy for the student to bruise their forearm whilst playing bass notes, it’s very hard to achieve a good slap sound and the students are much more likely to have their heads looking down at their drum rather than up at you.

Slap – a West African master djembefola would achieve the slap sound without appearing to move his hands from the tone position. We advise you teach your students to move their hands to a different position as a) it will be easier for them to create the slap sound and b) you will easily be able to see if everyone in the class has understood which notes within the phrase are supposed to be slaps. We tell students to put their hands on the drum in the 20 minutes past 8 o’clock position, move their hands a little further into the drum than the tone position so their knuckles are on the rim of the drum and spread the fingers apart to achieve a slap sound.

Key Stage 3 West African Drumming Workshop

Key Stage 3 West African Drumming Workshop

Cultural Significance & Classic Motifs.jpg

It is important that some cultural background of the genre or piece of music is conveyed. Sadly, all too often children in UK schools do a project on African drumming and learn nothing about the cultural significance of why the piece is played in West Africa, which would determine the instrumentation, tempo, length, structure, and timbre.

West African music is often described as music for purpose - every piece is played for a specific cultural reason. One piece we frequently teach in West African drumming workshops, Kuku, is a fishing celebration song, which would only be performed when the ladies of the community have returned with a big catch. The full notation, including the song melody and lyrics are in Mike Simpson’s Teach & Play African Drums book+DVD.

The role of the Master Drummer is very important as he will determine the structure of the piece by playing ‘Signals’ on his drum (never blowing a whistle or using hand symbols). As the teacher of the whole-class lesson, it is logical for you to act as the Master Drummer by playing the Stop Signal on your drum:

Master Drummer Stop Signal.png

The Master Drummer is also the only person able to improvise a solo within the music. Other djembefolas can only play a solo when the Master Drummer invites them. You could use this fact to initiate a musical game with your students only playing a solo when you invite them!

The three dunun drums (bass drums) play the melody and the djembes are the accompaniment. Dampened tom-toms will be suitable classroom substitutions for dununs. In the West African Malinke tradition, the dunun drummers also play a cowbell with a thin metal stick (like a triangle beater or 6” nail).

Leadership & Classroom Management.jpg

Set up chairs or benches in a horse shoe so you can clearly see every student’s hands whilst they are playing. Avoid sitting in rows as you will not be able to see the students playing as clearly and discipline is likely to be more challenging.

Encourage the children to always look at you and your drum rather than theirs to ensure they are playing in time and notice the Master Drummer Signals. Before Inspire-works facilitators use a new piece in a workshop they practise playing one of the djembe parts whilst saying the other – takes a bit of coordination! This is really useful to keep the whole ensemble together.

To ensure students only play the drum when you want them to, ask them to carefully push the drum slightly away from themselves after the Stop Signal and always put their hands on their knees unless you’ve asked them to play the drum. 

Related resources from Inspire-works: