A Brief on Time, Rhythm, and Hand Drums - Tonbak, Ghaval, Daf, and Tabla
A Brief About Time, Rhythm and Drums
A Note by Dr. Peyman Nasehpour
In this article, I will discuss about time, rhythm and drums. Drums (percussion skinned instruments) have their unique role in music. Though different sounds to be extracted from any drum by applying different techniques is one of the characteristics of the drum, but it is supposed that there is one characteristic common among all of them and that is to keep the rhythm of any musical piece. According to some topics of applied mathematics music has at least three important dimensions: melody, rhythm and accent.
So the role of drums is as important as the role of the other musical instruments that produce the melody. Since rhythm is the framework of time so it is good to start from a discussion of time.
Time and Rhythm
Rhythm is to measure the time among the strokes. But how do we measure the time? Of course we need a criterion. What is the criterion for measuring the time?
The first step is to distinguish that this time is longer than the other, similarly to this case that this mass is heavier than the other one. For measuring we need a unit. The movement of the pendulum of the metronome causes to have a unit and by that we are able to measure the time. In fact we compare which movement follows the other. But how do we understand that this movement follows the other one? By remembering! (Man learns the concept of the past by remembering. [Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, p. 231]).
Drums are percussions skinned instruments. The drumhead can be stretched by natural skin or pre-fabricated head which is unaffected by changes in humidity, unlike natural skin.
Sound is obtained by striking the drumhead with a stick or hands of the drummer (fingers, palm and so on).
Though the main role of drums is to keep the rhythm, but some drums can produce melody also. A very good example is the tabla-tarang. Tabla-tarang is an Indian musical instrument composed of numerous wooden tabla-s tuned to different pitches.
Different techniques can produce different sounds but the main trick that a drummer has in his hand is to play with the duration of the times among the different strokes. To use more variations can make the rhythmic piece more beautiful. This is at most the concept of the mathematical complexity of the rhythms, which a good example for this concept is the tala-s of Hindustani sangeet (rhythms of the Northern Indian system).
My Favorites Drums
These are my favorite drums: tonbak (Persian goblet drum), ghaval (Azerbaijani frame drum), daf (Kurdish frame drum) and tabla (Indian pair of small drums).
The most popular percussion instrument in Persian music today is a Dumbek-type drum known as the Tonbak. The Tonbak is a large wooden instrument with a goatskin head. Unlike other Dumbeks, this drum has a much more squared-off shape and produces lower-pitched and softer tones due to its size and skin being put on with less tension. Other names for this drum are Donbak, Tombak, Dombak, Tompak and Zarb. Maybe the name Zarb has its origins in the Arabic word darb, meaning to strike, as mentioned above. The other names have a more interesting origin. The two main strokes played on this drum are known as Ton, for a bass tone played in the center of the drum head, and Bak, for a treble tone played on or near the rim. Combining the terms results in the name Ton-Bak. It is highly likely that the name Dumbek is derived from one of the Persian names. At the end it should be declared that in Iran there is another kind of Goblet Drum and its name is Tempo. This instrument is the same as Arabic Dumbek and it is noted as an Arabic instrument and sometimes it is used for accompanying Persian banal songs.
Ghaval (not be confused with qawwali music) the Azerbaijani frame drum is played in Azerbaijani folk and art music. In folk music of Azerbaijan Ashigh (poet-musician) sings and plays on gopuz (nine-stringed long-necked lute) and sometimes composes poems in different festive occasions. The drum that usually accompanies the Ashigh is ghaval. In Azerbaijani art music a traditional ensemble contains a singer, which plays on ghaval and two instrumentalists, one plays on tar (long-necked lute) and the other plays on kamancheh (bowed spike fiddle). In modern art music of Azerbaijan an ensemble can contain more than two instrumentalists. Usually the drum that accompanies the modern ensemble is naghara (a kind of cylindrical drum that is called in Armenia dhol).
Daf is one of the most ancient frame drums in Asia and North Africa. As an Persian instrument, in 20th century, it is considered as a Sufi instrument to be played in Khanghah-s for Zikr music but now this percussion instrument has recently become very popular and it has been integrated into Persian art music successfully.
Tabla (Tableh) of India
This is a pair of drums. It consists of a small right hand drum called dayan (literally means right) and a larger metal one called bayan (literally means left).
Undoubtedly the most striking characteristic of the tabla is the large black spot (called siyahi) on each of the playing surfaces. The siyahi (Siyah literally means black) is mixture of gum, soot, and iron filings. Its function is to create the bell-like timbre that is the characteristic of the instrument. The invention of sitar and tabla and many other things is attributed to Amir Khosro Dehlavi. There is a tendency among Indians to attribute the development of almost everything to him. Anyway it is unfortunate that the history of the beginning of tabla is still in dispute.