The Differences Among Tonbak, Darbouka and Djembe

Different Goblet Drums

The differences among tonbak, darbouka and djembe

An Aeticle by Dr. Peyman Nasehpour

The Differences among Tonbak, Darbouka, and Djembe

There are lots of different goblet drums in Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe. Though I have an article about the many names of doumbek, but at that article I have not mentioned to the following goblet drums:

Dabakan is a goblet shaped drum from Philippines and I don’t have any info about that.

Djembe is the very famous goblet shaped drum from West African countries like Mali and one can find lots of info about that in Internet fortunately.

Klong-Yaw is a large goblet shaped drum, the bowl of the drum is more slender than the djembe and it comes from Thailand.

Tarija is a small goblet drum used in Melhoun genre of Moroccan art music.

The reason is that so far as I know these goblet drums are not played in the way that tonbak (Persian doumbek) and darbouka (Arabic doumbek) are played.

So without discussing more about the recently mentioned goblet drums, I start my discussion about the difference between tonbak and darbouka.


The structure of all goblet drums can be theoretically divided into five parts:

Skin, Large opening, Body, Throat and Small opening

For tonbak goatskin, sheep skin, cow skin, camel skin and horse skin is used and the most popular is goat skin, while for the darbouka the fish skin is used. Also many use prefabricated head for the darbouka; I have never seen any use of prefabricated head for the tonbak.

The body of tonbak is wooden, while body of Arabic darbouka is traditionally clay and body of Turkish darbouka is metal.

We have clay and tin-plated tonbak but they are not used in Persian art music. The tonbak-e-zourkhaneh that is a large-sized tonbak used in zourkhaneh (Persian traditional gymnasium) has clay body but it is rarely used in Persian art music.

The skin of tonbak is not very tight because most of the tonbak players don’t like sharp-sounded tonbak and such a sound for tonbak is undesirable for musicians of Persia (Iran). I personally like sharp-sounded tonbak but its pitch should not be as high as darbouka.

The skin of darbouka should be so tight that it produces a very sharp sound particularly when the rim of the skin is stroked.

Some tonbak players use more head stretching techniques and one of those tonbak players was maestro Hussein Tehrani, the father of modern tonbak. Also please consider that most of the pitch-changing isn't produced by pressure on the skin, but by using the fingertips and the side of the hand to vary the effective size of the playing surface for producing higher tones. Maestro Nasser Farhangfar was not used to produce pitch-changing sounds on the tonbak, but the sound of his tonbak was still not sharp. In fact he was always used to wet his hand and run it over the drum head, bringing the pitch down a bit. Some believe that this will damage the skin of tonbak if this is done for many times. The better method is to put the tonbak on the tiles of your room up-side-down that the skin can absorb the earth’s wetness and bring the pitch down a bit.

Also if the pitch is too low, then traditionally the skin was heated in front of fire that this will damage the skin if it is done for many times. Recently some use heat-pads and I think it is a better method. Anyway, the best solution is to have two tonbaks, one high pitched and the other low-pitched. One of them will be hopefully suitable for your performance.

Some tonbak makers have tried to make tunable tonbak that you can tighten or loosen the head, but it seems tonbak players prefer not to use such tonbaks and it is because its sound is not as pleasure as the traditional non-tunable tonbaks.

I explained all these things to emphasize that the lowness of the pitch of the tonbak is more related to the taste of the tonbak players than to the techniques that some tonbak players use for playing the tonbak.

The shape of the tonbak is more squared than the darbouka. Also the edge of the Egyptian darbouka is rounded, while the edge of the tonbak and Turkish darbouka is squared that lets the tonbak and Turkish darbouka players play the finger-snapping techniques easier. 


For playing the tonbak and darbouka wrists and fingers are used broadly but in different ways. And as far as I know darbouka players use fingers more than their wrists. Using the wrists is definitely better than using the shoulders for the strike (which is the tendency of many beginners and djembe players).

Tonbak players have a sort of "floppy wrist action" for producing a technique called full-roll that you do not usually see in Arabic style darbouka. The full-roll on the tonbak requires the fingers to be extremely loose that wrist can basically fling the fingers onto the skin of the tonbak.

Wonderful Persian Calligraphy by Ostad Gholam Hossein Amirkhani

The poetry belongs to the very great poet of Persia, Sa'di.

The poetry belongs to the very great poet of Persia, Sa'di.