In a 1995 Percussive Notes article, drum-circle guru Arthur Hull referred to hand drums as the "folk guitars of the '90s." But what Arlo Guthrie once described as "the great folk music scare" of the 1960s only lasted a couple of years, being quickly replaced by electrified garage bands in the aftermath of the "British Invasion" spearheaded by the Beatles. The drum circle movement, by comparison, has endured into a second decade, finding its way into all sorts of community gatherings as well as nursing homes, business conferences, and school curriculums.
Having lived through both eras, I can tell you that it was a lot easier to find a decent, inexpensive folk guitar in the 1960s than it has been to find a decent, inexpensive djembe or doumbek over the past several years. Wood instruments with skin heads tend to be fairly expensive, and even the synthetic hand drums are not cheap—plus the plastic heads just don't feel the same, which is a bigger issue when you're playing with your hands.
Toca has addressed the price and the feel issues with its new line of Synergy Freestyle drums. The shells are made of PVC material, which is inexpensive, consistent, sturdy, and lightweight. The heads are natural goatskin, giving the drums the feel of traditional instruments.
In another nod to tradition, Synergy Freestyle djembe heads are attached with a rope-tensioning system. Changing a head on one requires more time than changing a key-tensioned synthetic head. But it's not as bad as it might be.
Because traditional wood drums are hand carved, their shell diameters can vary widely. As a result, one has to purchase a flat skin head, soak it in water, mount it by hand around a metal ring, and then fit it over the drum's rim to create a collar. Having done it, I can attest that it's quite a job. However, because Synergy Freestyle shells are absolutely consistent, pre-mounted goatskin replacement heads are available from Toca. So even with the rope-tension system, head changes are relatively painless.
Synergy Freestyle djembes are available with 9", 10", and 12" heads. (The 10" model was unavailable for this review.) The head on the 12" drum is large enough to allow for deep bass tones, rich open tones, and bright slaps. The synthetic shell gives the drum a slightly brighter sound than that of a traditional wood djembe, falling somewhere between a djembe and a doumbek. But the Synergy Freestyle djembe also sounds warmer and more traditional than djembes I've played that were fitted with synthetic heads. This is a good alternative to a traditional djembe for a beginner, a "hobbyist" hand drummer, or even for a serious djembe player who wants a sturdy, lightweight instrument for settings in which a heavier, expensive wood drum would not be appropriate.
Whereas the 12" Synergy Freestyle djembe sounded somewhat like a doumbek, the 9" djembe sounded almost exactly like one. It had a rich, doumbek-like bass tone in the middle of the head, while at the edge it produced the very bright, almost metallic ring of a traditional doumbek. Its light weight made it perfect for tucking under the arm and playing with a combination of hand and finger techniques.
By contrast, the 9" Synergy Freestyle doumbek sounded more like a toy drum. It had a decent bass tone, but the high tone was not all that high, and it had very little ring. The main problem with this drum is its tacked-on head. If you get a tight, high-pitched one, the drum might compare favorably with the 9" djembe mentioned above. But the doumbek we received was pitched too low, and there is no easy way to tension the tacked-on head. This drum would be good for children who want a small, lightweight drum to play with, but it won't do for someone who wants to play doumbek rhythms with traditional techniques. (Again, the 9" djembe could be used for that purpose.)
Synergy Freestyle drums are available in two finishes: Snake and Bali Red. The drums we received for review had the Snake covering, which looked very nice. At trade shows and local shops I've seen some Bali Red finishes that looked great, but I've also seen a couple in which the finish's seams didn't line up properly. Be careful mail-ordering a drum in that finish if you can't see it first.
Perhaps the best aspect of Synergy Freestyle drums is their affordability. When quality, lightweight, affordable drums such as these are available, I daresay that even more people will be enticed to get involved with hand drums and drum circles.
(860) 509-8888, www.tocapercussion.com