What Are The Differences Between Djembes & Tablas?

Moving on with our drums comparisons, we'll be taking a deeper look at two drums that, despite looking strikingly similar, have a surprisingly diverse use case and sound: The djembe and the tabla.

What are the differences between djembes and tablas? The differences are as follows:

  • The djembes are larger than the tablas and have different head designs.
  • The tablas have a wider tonal range than djembes.
  • Tablas and djembes are both played with the hands, albeit using dissimilar techniques.

In this article, we'll be going over these distinctions in more detail. Notwithstanding, it's important to flesh out the history of both drums first.

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The Backgrounds Of Djembes And Tablas

Drums have existed for thousands of years. It is said that the first drum was devised during the Neolithic era in China before being disseminated all across the Middle East and Africa, appearing in Greece and Rome around the 3rd century B.C.

Both the tabla and the djembe emerged much after the aforesaid period and in very different locations. However, they might likely be rooted in some of their regions' most ancient drum variants.

Let's now look at each drum in isolation:

The Background Of Tablas

The tabla is a direct descendant of the medieval pakhawaj, a double-headed hand drum that appeared in India sometime before the Mughal era (in the 14th century approximately) and became highly popular in northern parts of the country.

According to the legend, the tabla was invented during a drum competition when a mad drummer sliced a pakhawaj in half with a sword in a fit of rage.

However, other sources point to drummer Amir Kushru as the inventor of the tabla (using the pakhawaj as a template) in an attempt to create a more melodic instrument suitable for a new style called the Khayal, which arose during the first half of the 18th century.

The Background Of Djembes

The djembe, just like the pakhawaj, is also presumed to exist since around the medieval era (13th century, to be precise) in the region formerly known as the Mali Empire.

It was originally reserved for a privileged caste called the djeli, a custom that waned after Western African countries gained independence from European yoke in the 20th century.

The djembe was largely unknown in Western Europe and America until quite recently. They would gain recognition during the 60s and 70s, but most especially with the advent of the “world music” movement.

What Are The Differences Between Djembes And Tablas?

Next, we'll be elaborating on the differences that were laid out at the beginning of this writing:

Difference 1: Design

Firstly, I pointed out that:

“The djembes are larger than the tablas and have different head designs.”

Regarding the first assertion, djembes can be as large as 14″ in diameter and as tall as 26″. Conversely, the largest tabla (called the dagga) has an average diameter of approximately 9″.

The difference is heavily noticeable, more so when comparing the djembe with the smaller tabla (the dayan), coming in at barely 6″ wide and 10″ tall.

Regarding the head, the tablas and the djembes sport very dissimilar designs. While both instruments carry goatskin heads, they're not installed in a similar manner.

The djembe's head is a seamless piece of goatskin, whereas the tablas' head structure is much more complex. Let's elaborate a bit more on the tablas' heads.

Tablas are equipped with two distinct goatskin layers and an inner core made of various materials, including charcoal, iron fillings, soot, and gum. That way, these heads form three concentric circles:

  • The outer ring, called “Keenar”
  • The middle ring, called either “Lao”“Maidan”, or “Lava”.
  • The dark inner circle, called the “Karani” or “Syahi”.

Apart from these distinctions, there are other design differences worth mentioning:

The shell in djembes is outlined like a goblet, with a contrastingly wider top half and a narrower base slightly tapered toward the bottom.

The tablas, on the flip side, have two distinct shell shapes. The bayan has a narrower barrel-like form, whereas the dagga has a bulkier bowl-like outline.

On another note, both the djembe and the tablas have a rope-like tuning system, with a net of woven “threads” distributed across the shell.

In tablas, those threads are made of leather strips under the name of “Baar,” which are stretched towards the bottom and are handled via wooden blocks called “Ghatta”.

The djembes, instead, carry braided ropes stretched from the edge of the drumhead to the top of the goblet base, and they are maneuvered by doing and undoing knots, making this tuning system a bit less practical by contrast.

Difference 2: Sound

Next, I emphasized that:

“The tablas have a wider tonal range than djembes.”

These distinctions are not hard to discern once you listen to both instruments side-by-side (you can watch an example here.)

However, I must also observe that the djembe has a stronger mid-range sound and a much more resounding tone overall.

The tablas' stronger points are their treble and bass notes, which carry more fundamental frequencies. These bass notes are owed to the very peculiar “centrepiece” that the djembe lacks.

Difference 3: Playing Style

Lastly, I affirmed that:

“Tablas and djembes are both played with the hands albeit using dissimilar techniques.”

The first noticeable difference can be ascertained in the way the hands move relative to the head.

In the case of the djembe, the hands rotate almost entirely on the elbows, and the head is struck with four fingers.

Meanwhile, the tablas are struck primarily towards the center, with the hand rotating from the wrist, which, in turn, rests on the head (specifically on the dagga's head). Tabla players can use from one to four fingers to generate different tones.

Moreover, the rhythm, notations, and metrics are starkly different, owing to the contrasting musical traditions in which these drums were developed.

Lastly, It must be stressed that the djembe is commonly played as a standalone drum, while the tablas come traditionally in pairs. In fact, it's virtually required to play both tablas in tandem to perform specific North Indian patterns.

Read How Djembes Compare To Other Instruments

Read How Tablas 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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