Zarb, Dombak or Tonbak

An Article by Dr. Peyman Nasehpour



There are many Persian drums, but the tonbak is the chief percussion skinned instrument of Persian art music. In this article, I explain different names of the instrument and conclude that tonbak is the most suitable name for it.


Tonbak is the chief percussion skinned instrument of Persian art music, though it is used in Persian folk music too. This instrument, after the great masters of tonbak especially the late Ostad Hossain Tehrani and the late Ostad Nasser Farhangfar  has advanced in the last century and it has become more popular [Z, p179]. Through the history it has been applied different names for this instrument but the two names, tonbak and zarb have been used more than the others. In this article by explanation of the different names of the instrument I try to get this result that tonbak is the most suitable name for it.

Explanation for Different Names of Tonbak


On the whole applying the word zarb for this instrument is error allowed by usage. If we refer to different Persian dictionaries, we will find many meanings for this word that one of them is zadan (to play). By taking its different meanings into consideration perhaps we deduce that since the act of playing is done on this instrument, in other words, with a view to the fact that it is played on, so it has been named zarb; then immediately the question arises, setar (Persian long-necked lute, with 4 strings, 25-28 movable frets and wooden body) that is also an instrument and is played on, why it is not called zarb!

Zarb that has been applied for this instrument of music, is apparently on this occasion that osul-e-zarb va ahang (rhythm) is underpinned to by this instrument [Saj, p9] and this justification is closer to fact. In order to complete this justification it should be stated that the job of tonbak players, as an accompanist, is to underpin to the composition to be performed by the soloist, though occasionally tonbak players perform tonbak solo after the great maestro, Hossein Tehrani.


Dombalag was one of the current instruments during the time of Khosro Parviz (the famous king of Iran in the period of Sassanide) and it was a small drum, the old form of dombak [Dehkhoda dictionary]. Dombalag is Pahlavi (an ancient Persian language) name of this instrument and the oldest text that its name has been mentioned, is a Pahlavi text named Khosro va Gholam [Se, p294]. Also Dr. M. Forough in one of his works has mentioned that in the period of Sassanide, a kind of percussion instrument that it is similar to tonbak of today has been called donbalak or dombalak and both are Pahlavi words and maybe donbak and dombak are transformation of the words [R, p15]. It is good to know that dombarak is another dialect of dombalak [B, p128]. At the end it should be mentioned that in Persian language the pronunciation of the letter "n" is altered to "m" when the letter "n" in a word, comes before the letter "b" without existing any letter between them, so e.g. tonbak is pronounced tombak.


Though khorazhak has been taken into consideration as an Indian elliptical drum [Sac], but the first part of the word, khor, comes from the word, khordan, in the concept of zadan (to play) and esabat kardan (to hit) and this concept can be perceived in the meaning of zarb (tonbak) [B, p128].


Different Persian dictionaries such as Borhan-e-Ghate', Anjoman-e-Ara', Rashidi and Anend Raj have mentioned that the meaning of the tabang is tonbak. Also the Persian poet, Suzani, has mentioned to this word as a percussion instrument. Dr. M. Mo'in in his dictionary mentions to this point that from the explanation of Anend Raj, it arises that tonbak and donbak are altered forms of tabang.


Khonbak is a kind of percussion skinned instrument that it is played by hands. In these days it is called tonbak or donbak and transformation of "kh" to "t" and "d" is common in Persian language [Anend Raj dictionary]. The famous poet, Nezami, has mentioned to this word in his works. Also it is good to know that khom is abbreviation of the word khonb and it is a kind of barrel for keeping water, vinegar, wine and so on in; khom also means a big kous (kettledrum) [M, p12]. So it is obvious that khomak and khonbak have the same root and both mean tonbak.


In Persian texts they been applied different names for this instrument but it is obvious that the two names, tonbak and zarb, have been used more than the others. There is an interesting opinion about the word tonbak; tonb means belly and tonbour (a very ancient Persian long-necked lute) means owner of belly. Perhaps the words, tonbak and tonbour, have the same root [Sh, p144]. At the end it should be mentioned that the name of this instrument in Lorestan prov. (west of Iran) and Hormozgan prov. (south of Iran) is tombak and tompak respectively [BD, p127 & p133].


Now that we are acquainted with different names of this instrument, the name tonbak seems to be more suitable than the others. Also there is another justification for the name tonbak, in this way that, some people believe the name of this instrument comes from its sound, for if we play on tonbak in the centre of its skin by the cushions of the fingers, then we will hear a sound like ton and if we play on tonbak at the side of its skin by the cushions of the two, middle and ring fingers, then we will hear a sound like bak.


The author wishes to thank Prof. Sayyed Abd-Allah Anwar and Ms. Ferdos Navabi for their helpful advice.


[B]: Binesh, M. T., Shenakht-e-Musighi-ye-Iran, Tehran, 1997.

[BD]: Boustan, B., & Darvishi, M.R., Morouri bar Musighi-ye-Sonnati va Mahalli-ye-Iran, Tehran, 1991.

[M]: Mojarrad, M. I., Chaghane-ye-Tarab, Amouzesh-e-Tombak, Tehran, 1970.

[R]: Rajabi, B., Tonbak va Negareshi be Ritm az Zavaya-ye-Mokhtalef, Tehran, 1977.

[Sac]: Sachs, C., The History of Musical Instruments, New York, 1940.

[Saj]: Sajjadi, Z., Bahs-e-Loghavi, Amouzesh-e-Tombak, Tehran, 1990.

[Sh]: Shoushtari, M. A. E., Iran, Gahvare-ye-Danesh va Honar, Tehran, 1969.

[Z]: Zonis, E., Musighi-ye-Kelasik-e-Irani, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1973 (Translated from English to Persian by M. Pour Mohammad).

Note. All references are in Persian language except [Sac].


A Note by Dr. Peyman Nasehpour: The lexical discussion on the many names of the tonbak, such as tombak, donbak, dombak, zarb, or even tompak, was the first article that I translated from Persian into English and requested Hormoz to publish at his website, Tombak Network. This article was published at Tombak Network on Dec. 3rd, 2000. After the wonderful feedback from readers of my articles at Tombak Network, I published a couple of other articles on other percussion websites to promote Persian percussion music. Most of my articles have been gathered in Articles section of my official website.