A Brief History of Tonbak (Zarb)

A Brief History of Tonbak (Zarb)

An Article by Dr. Peyman Nasehpour

"When I started playing on zarb, the instrument had fallen into disrepute. The zarb player was considered a low-level musician, a joke; no one dared to want to play zarb. To do so was to give up all prestige, all respect as a musician. Nonetheless, I began to play it. Love for the instrument outweighed the derision and scorn. At this time, I decided that I should change this negative view in any way possible. To this end, I practiced the zarb incessantly." - Ostad Hosain Tehrani from his book, 'Amouzesh-e-Tombak'


Knowing and appreciating the history of the Tonbak may not be essential to being a great tonbak player. For some, it may not even be of interest. But I believe that understanding and being familiar with the history of music and its musicians gives one a broader perspective, and a more comprehensive view of what it means to be a musician. In this article I will try to give a brief history of the Tonbak.

The Tonbak (also called Zarb, the Persian goblet drum) and the Daf (the Kurdish frame drum) are the only national drums of Persia. Also the presence of goblet drums in Asia, North Africa and East Europe shows the importance of this class of drums. Unfortunately, the origin of the Tonbak is still in dispute. Etymologists say that the Pahlavi (Persian pre-Islamic language) name of the Tonbak is 'Dombalag', and it was known to be present in the Zourkhaneh (the Persian traditional gymnasium) so we know that it is ancient, pre-dating the Islamic period. Various names for the Tonbak, throughout its history, trace the application of this instrument in different parts of ancient Persia. For a lexical discussion please refer to the article section of the Tombak Network. There is a very good ancient manuscript (Kanz-al-Tohaf, by Hassan Kashani) on theoretical Old Persian music, in which, at the end of the book, the author tries to describe the methods of making the various musical instruments of his time. But unfortunately he has not included the drums (particularly the Tonbak) in his descriptions. Still, our information about the Tonbak and tonbak players of the Ghajar period is sufficient, thanks to two important books on the history of Persian art music ([KH] and [M]).

Ostad Hosain Tehrani 

The Tonbak before the late Ostad Hosain Tehrani was considered as an accompaniment instrument that was played by tasnifkhan-s (tasnif performers). Here I should explain that in Ghajar period vocalists were of two kinds: avazkhan and tasnifkhan. The Avazkhan's job was to sing the non-rhythmic compositions of Persian radif repertoire and the Tasnikhan's job was to sing the rhythmic compositions of Persian art music. 
The first person that tried to give an independent role to tonbak was Ostad Hosain Tehrani. He devoted his life to promote the Tonbak in Iran and Europe. Along with the help of some other musicians, he also wrote the first instructional book for the Tonbak, i.e. [T]. 

The skin of the Tonbak is quite sensitive to changing humidity. This was a problem for every tonbak player. He asked Ostad Ebrahim Ghanbari-mehr (maker and designer of musical instruments) to find a solution for this problem. In fact Ostad Ebrahim Ghanbari-mehr was introduced to Ostad Hosain Tehrani by Ostad Abol-Hasan Saba (multi-instrumentalist). This resulted in Ostad Ebrahim Ghanbari-mehr designing the tonbak-e-kouki (tunable tonbak). Alas, this kind of tonbak has not a good luck. It seems that tonbak players prefer not to use tonbak-e-kouki. Tonbak players today still tune mostly by the old method, garm-kardan-ru-ye-atash (i.e. heating in front of a fire). 

A Bright Future 

Step by step the Tonbak has gained respectability as a serious instrument. Ostad Tehrani's activities have stirred interest in the Tonbak, throughout Iran and Europe. The efforts of Ostad Tehrani and the other tonbak players (particularly Ostad Nasser Farhangfar) have assured that the Tonbak has a secure place in instrumental music. Before these artists, the Tonbak was little more than a metronome! Fortunately I am able to say that today the public image of tonbak is really very good. Many young players promote it. 

Some tonbak players have even started integrating tonbak into fusion music ensembles. Perhaps this type of music is not of interest to those who only like pure Persian art music, but still, the drum's use in fusion music can only mean one thing: more worldwide popularity for the Tonbak. 

And judging by the number of tonbaks sold by the manufacturers, the number of books being written on the Tonbak, and the number of young people who enjoy it, it seems that the Tonbak has a very bright future indeed. May it be so!

Acknowledgement. The author wishes to thank Eric Stuer for his edition. 


[KA]: Hassan Kashani, Kanz-al-Tohaf, by effort of M.T. Binesh, Tehran, 1992. 

[KH]: Ruhollah Khaleghi, Sargozasht-e-Musighi-ye-Iran, Tehran, 1974.

[M]: Hassan Mashhoun, Tarikh-e-Musighi-ye-Iran, Tehran, 1994. 

[N]: Peyman Nasehpour, Personal Interview with Ostad Fereydun Helmi (tonbak maker), Tehran, 2001. 

[P]: Mehran Poormandan, The Encyclopedia of Iranian Old Music, Tehran, 2000. 

[T]: Hosain Tehrani, Amouzesh-e-Tombak (Tombak Rudiment), Tehran, 1970.

This article was first published in

Persian Tonbak

Photo by Nafiseh Seyedeh

Photo by Nafiseh Seyedeh