What Are The Differences Between Bongos & Djembes?

Let's examine two drums with very interlinked backgrounds: the bongos and the djembes. Both drums are of African ancestry but also diverge in many aspects.

What are the differences between bongos and djembes? The differences may boil down to the following:

  • Djembes are larger than bongos and sport a distinct shell design.
  • Djembes produce louder and more profound sounds than bongos.
  • Both instruments are played using different hand techniques.

In this article, we'll explore in more detail the differences between bongos and djembes just delineated. However, let's first approach both instruments from a historical perspective.

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The Backgrounds Of Bongos And Djembes

Earlier, I stated that both bongos and djembes share a common African heritage. The drums appeared on the continent during the Sub-Saharan African iron age (approximately in 1,000 B.C.), and many versions of the original drums have emerged since then.

Let's now glance at each drum in its own right.

The Background Of Djembes

The djembe's earliest historical records seem to suggest that it was invented in the 13th century around the region formerly known as the Mali Empire in West Africa, comprising modern-day Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Mauritania (southern part), Guinea, Ivory Coast, and Ghana, among others.

This instrument was initially only reserved for a select caste called the djeli. Upon the independence of these African countries from European powers, the djembe began to be adopted by many as a national cultural landmark.

Beyond African soil, the djembe was largely unknown even as recently as the 1950s. Fodeba Keita was the first known African (from Guinea) to bring a djembe to Europe on tour, and the instrument started becoming relatively popular in the continent by the '60s and '70s.

The advent of the world music movement helped cement the instrument in European and American musical circles.

The Background Of Bongos

Despite having a distinctively African design philosophy, the bongos were not made in Africa. They were, however, inspired by earlier African drums that were brought by Bantu slaves to Cuba (specifically the eastern part) during the height of the European slave trade.

These drums appeared on the island around the early 1900s In Eastern Cuba. Two particular rhythms made heavy use of the bongos as primary rhythmic instruments: The Changüi and the Son, two rhythms inspired by Bantu religious dances but with a decidedly secular twist.

The Changüi utilized larger bongo variants than the ones usually marketed worldwide. The smaller bongos used in the Son became very popular eventually in the American and British rock and pop scene, with the likes of The Beatles making generous use of them.

What Are The Differences Between Bongos And Djembes?

In this section, we'll be elaborating on the distinctions between bongos and djembes that were mentioned at the beginning:

Differences 1: Design

First, I stated that:

“Djembes are larger than bongos and sport a distinct shell design.”

Let's first analyze the size differences, which are readily apparent upon ocular inspection.

The djembe is relatively compact compared to other Cuban instruments, such as the conga (tumbadora). Still, it dwarfs the bongos to a great degree, coming in at roughly 25″ in height and 14″ in diameter versus the bongos' 9″ in height and 7-10″ in diameter. (the smaller bongo drum – called the macho – has a diameter range of 6-.7″ approximately.)

In terms of design, the shell of the djembe is shaped like a goblet with a small taper towards the bottom.

The bongos' shells, assessed individually, have a barrel-like design that slightly broadens towards the top end. In addition, the bongos come in pairs bound together by a center block or “bridge”,

On another note, the tuning mechanisms of both instruments are drastically distinct from one another.

The djembes retain a system of ropes fastened towards the head and the base of the goblet (near the portion where it stretches out). To fasten or loosen the head, djembe users must stretch the ropes while undoing and redoing knots.

Meanwhile, the bongos are tuned via tuning logs carrying bolts or nuts at the bottom, which must be maneuvered with a wrench. In general, this tuning system is much more practical than the one included in the djembe.

Regarding the heads' materials, the bongos traditionally carried heads made of cowhide or buffalo skin. On the flip side, Djembes are built with heads made out of goatskin, which is slightly less resistant and would have to be replaced more regularly.

Lastly, djembes are prone to show off decorations and carvings on their shell, often with religious overtones. In bongos, this is less common, though it's not impossible to find bongos with ridges and other ornamental finishes.

Difference 2: Sound

In this regard, I affirmed the following:

“Djembes produce louder and more profound sounds than bongos.”

Djembes are particularly loud instruments and are perfect for use outdoors or in large venues. They also have a decent sustain and reverberation.

By contrast, the bongos deliver drier staccatos at higher frequencies and a slightly lower volume (requiring harder strikes). However, they are sharp enough to cut through a recording mix.

Nevertheless, despite these observations, both the djembes and bongos are very comparable in tone, especially when compared with other similar instruments like the congas or the tambora drums.

Difference 3: Playing Method

Lastly, I pointed out that:

“Both instruments are played using different hand techniques.”

This distinction has to be coupled with other factors, such as the fact that djembes are regularly looser around the head than the bongos, which allows for different hand techniques.

With that said, both instruments have their own playing methods.

The djembe has three main tones: The bass tone (striking towards the center), mid-tone or “tone” (striking at the center with the other hand resting on the edge), and slap (hitting the bearing edge).

Other djembe tones include the “muffled tone” (with one palm resting on the head), and the ping (similar to the “tone” but with the fingertips hitting the edge)

On the other hand, the bongos can be played with up to five different techniques. Some of them are similar to the ones on the djembe. Still, you can additionally perform finger rolls which, as the name suggests, consist of hitting the bongo head with each individual finger successively to render fast notes.

Read How Bongos Compare To Other Instruments

Read How Djembes Compare To Other Instruments

This article has been approved in accordance with the My New Microphone Editorial Policy.


Arthur is the owner of Fox Media Tech and the author of My New Microphone. He's an audio engineer by trade and works on contract in his home country of Canada. When not blogging on MNM, he's likely hiking outdoors and blogging at Hikers' Movement (hikersmovement.com) or producing music. For more info, please check out his YouTube channel and his music.

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