Out of Africa – Ballet Dununs Found a World Beat

>Best of Ballet Dununs YouTube (16)

>Mix – Essential Ballet Style Dunun YouTube (50) (Some traditional)

>DununMultimedia Encylopedia

>Playing Ballet Style Dunun vs Traditional Style Dunun

>West African Drumming: Djembe & Dundun

Dununs were used to set the heartbeat of African dance ensembles for countless eons and then migrated with the Diaspora and into urban theatrical performances. In the villages each of the dunun drums from small to large were played by single players in line, many singly equipped with “musical aesthetic percussion” typical of Africa’s use of village unique metal percussion included with the deep tones of the dununs. The Aesthetics were part of the rich ancient history of functional African music, for example each village adding it’s unique percussive metal effect to mark it as a unique village sound identifier when the dununs are played elsewhere, a “yellow pages” of that village’s footprint in Africa. (Tour Guide Education, Musical Instrument Museum, Phoenix, AZ)

“The dunun create the melody and feel and the djembe come second in importance in the musical arrangements in traditional drumming in the village in most cases. If you were to think of a western rock band you have a bass player , keyboard player, rhythm guitar, etc. Together they make the rhythm and melody section. Its the same on the dunun.”  (“Advanced Djembe Immersion: Dununba Family and Mamady Keïta Innovations”, 2018) ,(Pluznick, M. (2018)

African Music is functionally integrated into every minute of village life and everyone wants to play and dance with it. There are more Africans wanting to play than drums so there was no issue having enough players for every dunun drum.

Out of Africa

When the dununs left the villages, they entered a new performing medium where musician roles became specialized and drummer access limited. On the stage were experiments in large performances turning the drums upright like kettle drums in a western ballet orchestra. Now one drummer could command all 3 drums with two freed hands with special heavy drumsticks like kettle drummers do. This became known as the Ballet non-traditional style of Dunun drumming(Makepeace, 2018)

“The ballet style of playing the dunun was created in the city in and for ballets and performing groups in Guinea, Mali and Senegal as a way to modernize the music arrangements and for stage performances. The desire of the music arranger or arranger of the dunun parts was to make the music faster, to be more creative and to be more exciting … One player playing all three parts can play the rhythms faster, with more flash … Many people see the ballet style being played in dance classes or events in the USA and outside of West Africa and don’t realize that this is not a traditional style.” (Pluznick, M. (2018)

What happened then was a magical transition of playing style where creative drummers using their whole body rhythm (maybe dance-playing) created hypnotic and eclectic dance heartbeat, polyrhythm and melody to lead and accompany energetic djembe drummers. The Diaspora drummers made the transition so quickly it left the impression that Ballet style came from Africa.

Origin of the Ballet Dundun Rhythms

It turns out the original Ballet rhythms were based on their traditional dunun counterparts including the traditional bells. The bell rhythms are transferred to the drums. This is why traditional drummers already knew the timing, the beats and the pulses to use for the ballet dununs. African music was mostly unwritten until recently and the recent written notations used for traditional dununs can be translated to the ballet dununs patterns.

  • “How can I find more ballet (upright) style dunun parts?

Roots Jam 3, like RJ2, mostly has traditional style duns with bells.  Variations for upright ballet style are only included for a few of these: Kassa, Yankadi/Makru, and Mendiani.  On the other hand, the upright combo patterns are easy to adapt yourself from the given rhythms (whichever book you’re using).  For example, the mute notes (M) can be played by the sangban, and selected bell notes (x) by the kenkeni. The grid layout is useful for seeing the 3 separate dun patterns as a single melody; from this you can adapt a pattern to play on the 3 drums in combination.  Here’s an example of how it’s done with Mendiani:

Instead of the dununba playing:
O – O O – x x – x – O O
you can play all three like this:
D – D – – S – – K – D D

Here’s another example, Kassa:
O x x O O x x O
D – – D D S K D

(“FAQ – Djembe Rhythms from West Africa”, 2018)

Complete written notation for traditional dunun rhythms and percussion are found in:


Improvisation and polyrhythm comes later as proficiency and skill of the dununba set player evolves.

Dunun or Dundun?

Dundun or Dunun and definitely not Djun Djun! I originally thought Dunun was the original term from Africa and everything else western derivatives. It turns out only Djun Djun was created here but actually a misnomer since djun djun in Africa is a talking drum. Its getting a bad rap here as result and getting shunned. Dunun or Dundun word preferences are traceable to different parts of Africa. It seems in the west “Dundun” is heard and “Dunun” written, however I like the sound of the latter (dununba  🙂 

“Three different sizes of dunun are commonly played in West Africa.

  • The dundunba (also spelled dununba) is the largest dunun and has the lowest pitch. … “Ba” means “big” in the Malinké language, so “dundunba” literally means “big dunun”.
  • The sangban is of medium size, with higher pitch than the dundunba…
  • The kenkeni is the smallest dunun and has the highest pitch…”  (Wikipedia ,2018)

Dununba is also used to describe all 3 drums as a set. It’s possible these drums inherited this name from being used for the popular dununba dance ceremony originally used to “act out” conflict resolution by playing exciting rhythms on the drums and men with sticks move around each other pretending blows. This has been performed by ethnic dancers in many western performance venues, especially diaspora festivals. (Diallo & Hall, 1989, p. 111)


Advanced Djembe Immersion: Dununba Family and Mamady Keïta Innovations. (2018). Retrieved from http://publications.pas.org/World/1409.76-77.pdf#search=”dunun”

Diallo, Y., & Hall, M. (1989). The healing drum. Rochester, Vt.: Destiny Books.

FAQ – Djembe Rhythms from West Africa. (2018). Retrieved from http://djemberhythms.com/home/faq/#10

Makepeace, A. (2018). Introduction to the Djembe and Dundun. Retrieved from http://www.makepeace.biz/west_african_drumming/djembe_dundun.htm

Musical Instrument Museum. (2018). Geographic Galleries – Musical Instrument Museum. [online] Available at: https://mim.org/galleries/geographic-galleries/ [Accessed 3 Sep. 2018].

Pluznick, M. (2018). Playing Ballet Style Dunun (aka Djun Djun) vs Traditional Style Dunun. Retrieved from http://michaelpluznick.com/playing-ballet-style-dunun-aka-djun-djun-vs-traditioal-steyle-dunun/

Wikipedia contributors. (2018, May 5). Dunun. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 04:01, September 3, 2018, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Dunun&oldid=839731075

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