The woman who wrote to me wondered if it would help to put clove oil on the drum heads in hopes of covering the smell. (Not a good idea.)
It took me awhile to compose a reply, and then I thought the info might be useful to other drummers. In the last few months I have spent time around two very smelly drums from Africa (really nauseating), so I know that brand new drums often have poorly prepared skin heads that stink to high heaven.
So here is what I have learned about getting rid of nasty smells without harming drumheads:
CAUTION: Be very careful about actually applying anything to drum heads, especially natural skin heads.
My djembe teacher would have advised using palm oil if necessary to protect a drumhead in a dry climate. But only the tiniest, tiniest bit.
Normally drums that are used constantly get enough oil from the hands of the drummer.
To remove any excess oil you have applied, you could store the drums skin down on paper towels in a warm place (not hot, or the skin could split). The paper towels will absorb excess oil.
Assuming excess oil is not part of the problem, there are ways to remove odor that you can try.
The smell will eventually weaken some on its own.
However, here are some methods that may help.
The best deodorizer is to place a drum in a big trash bag with a some apple slices. You slice up an apple or two and spread the slices out on a tray (for maximum exposure), then put a wire rack (such as those used to cool cakes and cookies) over the tray to keep the drum from touching the apple slices.
Seal up the bag and leave it sealed up for at least a week.
Apple will absorb quite horrible organic odors (as of dead bodies, for example), so it should work for your drums.
After the apple treatment, if there is any remaining smell, you could try using baking soda in the same way you used the apples slices (tray, wire rack, sealed garbage bag).
Baking soda is not nearly as efficient as the apples but could help remove the remnants of scent after the apple treatment. If there is any residual odor after the apple treatment, I would try the baking soda treatment for a week.
Do NOT try to combine the apple and baking soda in the same treatment. They will sort of cancel each other out. They must be done separately.
After the apple treatment, you could try sealing the drum up in a bag with incense (not burning) and leaving it for a few days. If the incense is strong, that should mask any remaining odor somewhat. (If you do the incense before or with the baking soda, the soda will just absorb the incense scent, negating the effect.)
Or you could actually smudge the drums with incense smoke to mask any remaining odor.
Essential Oils (Not Recommended)
As to the clove, essential oils are not actually oils. They are the fine, volatile particles of the plant. The difference between oils like corn oil or almond oil and essential "oils" is like the difference between vasoline and jet fuel. Both vasoline and jet fuel are petroleum products, but you would not put jet fuel on your skin.
Only the citrus oils, such as orange, lemon, lime, mandarin, etc. (which are not true essential oils) are actually oils pressed out of the plant. It is possible that a **tiny** dab of orange oil might be OK to use to mask any remnants of rancid scent after you do the apple absorption method, but it is risky.
Anything that you would not rub directly into your own skin is risky to put on a drum, and lots of things that are good for your skin are still bad for drums.
Drum heads are just dead skin after all. As such, they are fragile. Being stretched so tightly under such high tension as they are on a drum, they are incredibly vulnerable to any substance that may weaken them even slightly. Any liquid is risky to apply to a drumhead.
Scents During Storage
You could put any essential oil that you like on a pad of some kind and store it in a sealed bag with the drums. Just be careful to make sure the essential oil does not touch the drum head. Once you figure out a way to do that, you may want to store the essential oil pad in the drum case with your drum all the time.
Or you could simply keep a couple of boxes of richly scented incense in the drum case instead. Nag champa, for example, smells nice and will eventually permeate anything it is stored with.
I would only do that after deodorizing the drums with apple and baking soda, but you may want to experiment. Good nag champa incense is inexpensive and you can always try it again after the apple treatment.
Remember, though, sliced apple works better than anything that I have ever heard of.