LOW WOODEN CHAIRS, CARVED TABLES, AND DRUMS of varying sizes crowd the sidewalk in front of Keur Djembe, one of the few commercial shops on an industrial stretch of Union Street just east of the Gowanus Canal. Translated from Wolof this is “The House of Drums,” but there is no music to be heard—just the irregular rhythm of basketballs being dribbled by two boys who linger at the entryway.
Inside, a tall, solidly built man sits in a chair. At the moment he is intimately occupied with a djembe, a traditional African covered drum with an elongated wooden base. Hugging the top with his thighs and the base between his bare feet, all of his appendages are in use as he weaves cord through the steel rings that encircle the widest and narrowest points of the drum’s swell.
The man is Ibrahim Diokhane, and this two-room shop is his domain. Although he sells imported African wares like masks, furniture, and a variety of percussive instruments—djun djuns, krins, tambourines, shekeres, and balafons, to name a few—here, the djembe is king.
A native of the Senegalese capital of Dakar, Diokhane crafts each djembe by hand. Today, he is changing the skin on a drum—not one of his—brought in by a customer. As he strings it up, Diokhane cannot help but critique it.
“This drum is two pieces. They’re using pine for the base,” he scoffs. “My drum is a single piece of log. I shape it like this,” he says, pantomiming an hourglass form, “and scoop it out from the bottom. It’s all one single piece.” Diokhane uses dimba wood from Senegal and has it carved in his workshop in Dakar. In the basement of his Brooklyn store, he assembles the drums. “Mine make the best sound, honey, because the wood is so hard, and the wood has to be hard to make the better sound.”
Diokhane looks up from his work when a tall, curly-haired woman enters the store. This is his wife, Cathy. She carries a bowl of watermelon and offers it to her husband. Without missing a beat, Diokhane reaches for a slice and continues his appraisal.
“This skin here is plastic,” he says, pointing to an off-white disk that was once part of the drum. “I take straight goat skin, clean it, bleach it beautifully, clean and nice. It’s got to be fresh skin,” he explains, tossing his watermelon rind into the discarded plastic skin.
Diokhane’s skills are self-taught. He started making drums as a 13-year-old in West Africa. “I was a poor kid from a poor family,” says Diokhane. “I was making everything, anything, but drums came easy. I used to make them with cane, any fruit cane, sugar cane, tomato cane, an oil bottle—anything hollow, I make a drum out of it.”
After he moved to the States in the early 1980s, Diokhane held down a number of odd jobs—as a baker, taxi driver, street vendor—before he started selling his drums on the streets of SoHo, the East Village, and Seventh Avenue in Park Slope. He opened Keur Djembe in 1998. “I made every single drum in this room,” says Diokhane, pointing to walls lined with them. He reckons there are about 400 in his store right now, and just laughs when I ask him how many he has made in his lifetime.
In addition to selling djembes, which run from $25 for the smallest to $300 for 14-inch drums, Diokhane also repairs drums and teaches drumming to children and adults, for $10 and $20, respectively, per session.
Diokhane pulls a handsome chocolate-brown drum from the wall. A fringe of zebra-striped goat hair hangs over the drum’s edge. “I play it right now and you’ll cry,” says Diokhane. “All of them sing well, because I’m the one who makes them sing well.”
Keur Djembe, 568 Union St., Park Slope (R to Union), 718-522-7324, www.keurdjembe.com.
Gabriella Gershenson has written for The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and The Boston Globe. She is a former food columnist and critic for the New York Press.
Additional Shop Reviews (By Erica Brody):
It was a sad day when Helen’s Fabulous Cheesecake on Union Street shuttered its doors, bringing an end to a very tasty era. But accepting change, albeit grudgingly, is part of the New Yorker’s lot, and this variety of urban mourning is often eased by a top-notch new arrival like Baked. The tricky thing about this Red Hook bakery is deciding which sweet treat to sample. A peanut butter, honey, and banana tart? A chili-cinnamon brownie? Some fluffernutter cake? An oatmeal white-chocolate pecan cookie? A moist, but not overly sweet cupcake with butter-cream icing? Cheesecake? Lemon marshmallow? While you’re trying to make up your mind, you can watch the bakers at work making up the next batch of delectable treats. There’s only one complaint to be had: Why, oh why isn’t the red-currant bread pudding available on demand? The red-hot velvet cake and the luscious lemon bar, however, have helped us take this in stride, too. 359 Van Brunt St., Red Hook (B77 or B61 bus), 718-222-0345.
This independent Cobble Hill gem features a superb selection of new fiction and nonfiction, particularly the unusual, the noteworthy, and the work of Brooklyn authors. Book Court, which has been in business for 25 years, draws up its own top-50 bestseller list, updating a display each week to showcase its customers’ favorites. (And the store offers these at a 20% discount!) Children’s books occupy a cozy nook, and the basement’s walls are lined with modest sections on history, travel, cooking, psychology, and the arts. And if a book isn’t in stock, the store’s helpful employees won’t blink twice before ordering it for you. Located in an increasingly writer-dense neighborhood—Jonathan Lethem and Jonathan Ames live nearby, for starters—the store hosts frequent readings, and it’s not uncommon for local authors to pop in to browse and sign a few books. 163 Court St., Cobble Hill (F or G to Bergen), 718-875-3677.
Brooklyn Terminal Market
Perhaps because it is more than a half-mile from the nearest subway, this sprawling Canarsie marketplace remains one of Brooklyn’s best-kept secrets—outside of restaurateur circles, that is. While greenmarkets have cropped up throughout Brooklyn, their offerings are limited and pricey when compared to the Terminal, which extends from East 83rd Street to East 87th. The senses awaken here, with stall after stall of fresh produce, flowers, California wine grapes, pumpkins, and Christmas trees—depending on the season, of course. Geared to wholesale buyers, the market has kept up its bustling pace since Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia dedicated it in 1942. (For those who make the trek to the market, it’s worth also checking out the nearby Pieter Claesen Wyckoff House, built circa 1650, one of the nation’s oldest wooden structures.) Entrance at the intersection of Foster Avenue and East 87th Street, Canarsie (L to Canarsie-Rockaway Parkway, 2 or 5 to Newkirk and transfer to B8 bus), 718-444-5700.
Hôm brings a Brownstone Brooklyn vibe south into the shadows of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. For those looking to outfit their apartments in a motif other than faux gold and marble, Hôm provides an array of stain-glass lamps, hand-carved furniture, tchotchkes, and sweet-smelling oils and soaps. Welcoming both established neighborhood residents and new crops of Brooklynites fleeing the higher rents found elsewhere in the city, this artsy shop hosts occasional events to help those new to the area feel at home—and furnish their habitats. 8804 Third Ave., Bay Ridge (R to 86th Street), 718-238-4466.
Hong Kong Supermarket
For all things Chinese, head to the Hong Kong Supermarket’s outpost in Sunset Park, home of Brooklyn’s largest Chinatown. This bustling emporium carries everything from house wares to an extensive, inexpensive fish counter guarded by bins of dried fish and buckets of live, fist-sized frogs and writhing eels. Herbal and traditional Chinese remedies are well stocked at the medicine counter near the entrance. Leek flower sauce, fresh palm root, dried logan, frozen dumplings and dorian, canned shark-fin soup, cheeseburger-shaped confections, myriad teas, quail eggs in water, and dragon-decorated bowls represent a small sampling of this market’s wares. Not everything is Chinese, though, with shelves carrying international beverages like Café du Monde chicory coffee, Lucozade, and Horlicks, along with a Goya Latin foods section. A parking lot provides limited spaces for those looking to restock their pantries. 6023 Eighth Ave., Sunset Park (N to Eighth Avenue), 718-438-2288.
Main Drag Music
Main Drag, which sells, buys, and repairs musical instruments, prides itself on its collection of “odd-ball” guitars and basses, mostly used and vintage. But it also has plenty of standards, as well as keyboards, effects pedals, and tube amps from the 1960s. With a stock of replacement parts, the staff makes repairs quickly, which musicians with looming gigs appreciate. Guitars start at $100 and rise into the thousands. Two musicians started Main Drag in a tiny basement storefront on Bedford Avenue. As the local music scene burgeoned, this neighborhood musicians’ store grew too, recently relocating to its newest digs. 330 Wythe Ave., Williamsburg (L to Bedford), 718-388-6365.
“Cartoon art should be exhibited, admired, and generally have a wider availability for appreciative fans,” says edict No. 2 of Rocketship’s manifesto. And that’s just what this stellar satellite of the comic-book explosion has been doing since its July launch: providing an indie-slanted haven where one can savor the output of artists who present their narratives frame by frame, whether it’s Mike Mignola’s Hellboy, Guy Delisle’s Pyongyang, or Charles Schulz’s Peanuts. The comic-book store’s exhibits and signings remind us that this is a living, breathing art form. 208 Smith St., Boerum Hill (F or G to Bergen), 718-797-1348.
Brooklyn may have a history of criminal kingpins, but there’s no mobster memorabilia (or Don DeLillo references) to be found in this Borough Park Underworld. In fact, there’s nothing seedy about this matter-of-fact mini-universe of undergarments for women. For women looking for a little something-something, naughty or nice, Underworld offers up the usual suspects of name-brand undergarments at cut-rate prices, from no-frills to frilly: bras and panties, nighties and negligees, bustiers and bathing suits, thongs and tummy-tuckers. The knowing salesladies can size up a woman in a flash, briskly directing her to a better fit. Unsurprisingly, given its environs, this shop caters to a heavily Orthodox clientele of Jewish women, and the front room showcases trendy dresses and gowns of the arm- and leg-covering variety. 1421 62nd St., Borough Park (N to New Utrecht, D or M to 62nd Street), 718-232-6804.