Daf The Persian frame drum

Peyman Nasehpour on the daf

Daf the Persian Frame Drum

by Peyman Nasehpour

Introduction. Frame drums are the most ancient type of musical instrument. They have a simple structure with strong spiritual and entertainment effects. Frame drums are usually round and made of wood with animal skin, and sometimes metal rings or plates are incorporated into the drum to provide jingles. They have different sizes; the larger drums are used mainly in spiritual rituals and medium-size frame drums are usually played on festive occasions. Frame drums originated in the ancient Middle East, India, and Rome and reached medieval Europe through Islamic culture. The similarity of the names of frame drums in these regions shows the common history of these drums. The "daf دف" is one of the most ancient frame drums in Asia and North Africa. In Iran, Sufi musicians play the daf during their "Zikr ذکر" rituals (spiritual chanting); in recent years, Iranian musicians have successfully integrated it into Persian music.

A brief history of the daf. The antiquity of the daf, with the Pahlavi name dap دپ, dates back to the pre-Islamic ages. Persian literature shows the importance of this Persian frame drum in Persian music, in particular, in "Sufi صوفی" music. The daf was considered a spiritual drum played in khanghahs of Iran. Note that similar frame drums with similar names are played in some other countries such as the "daf" in India, "al-duf الدُف" in Arab-speaking countries, and finally, the "dap دپ" in "Uyghuristan اویغورستان" of China.

Today, a kind of frame drum is called "tef تف" in Turkey. As James Redhouse reports on p. 906 in his 1890 dictionary, the "def دف" is a kind of tambourine. He explains that "def chalmagh دف چالمق" is a Turkish expression meaning "to play the tambourine". He also brings an interesting expression so-called "Arab defi عرب دفی" which literally means an Arabic daf but illustrates as a plain tambourine without cymbals.

The Pahlavi (Persian ancient language) name of the daf is "dap دپ" and the daf is an Arabicized form of the dap. Some pictures of the dap, which have been found in the paintings to be painted before the birth of Christ, show the antiquity of this instrument. The Persian dap has been found in the stonecutting of Bisotun also. Note that the monuments of Bisotun are located in the mountains, 25 kilometers from Kermanshah city. Also, there is a kind of square frame drum in the stonecutting of "Tagh-e Bostan طاق بستان", the famous monument located 5 kilometers northeast of Kermanshah city. It is said that in ancient Persia, the daf was performed in Nowruz (Persian new year festivals) and the other festive occasions in the period of Sassanian (224 A.D. - 651 A.D.). In this period, the dap was performed to accompany the "khosravani خسروانی" songs. For more see my note on Nowruz Songs.

The presence of the word daf in the poems of many Persian poets shows the popularity of this instrument in the past. For example, Hafiz who was a very famous Persian poet and the shining star of rich Persian literature applied the word daf in his works ten times. His famous verse that includes the word daf is:

من که شب‌ها ره تقوا زده‌ام با دف و چنگ

این زمان سر به ره آرم چه حکایت باشد!

This verse can be translated into English as follows:

"I, who nights, with the daf and the chang [=harp], have dashed down the path of piety,

I, suddenly, bring my head to the path! What a tale this is!"

The moors introduced the daf and other Middle Eastern musical instruments to Spain, and Spanish people adapted and promoted the daf and other musical instruments in medieval Europe. In the 15th century, the daf was only used in Sufi ceremonies and the Ottomans reintroduced it to Europe in the 17th century.

The art of daf playing in Iran has reached us through the efforts of the Iranian Sufis such as the late Seyyed Baha-al-Din Shams Ghorayshi (1872-1947), Ostad Haj Khalifeh Karim Safvati (1919-2003), Ostad Haj Khalifeh Mirza Agha Ghosi (1928-2007), Mohi-al-Din Bolbolani (1929-...), Seyyed Mohammad Shams Ghorayshi (1930-...), and Masha-Allah Bakhtiyari (1940-...).

Thanks to some famous daf players, the daf has been integrated into Persian art music. It has become so popular, in particular among young musicians, that it is considered to be the second national drum of Iran. The chief national drum of Iran is the tonbak (Persian goblet drum).

The structure of the daf. The daf has six parts: (1) Frame, (2) Skin, (3) Pins, (4) Hooks, (5) Rings, and (6) Leather band.

1. Frame. The frame of the daf is wooden. The diameter of the frame is 48-53 centimeters. The width of the frame is 5-7 centimeters.

2. Skin. The skin is glued to the frame from one side. The most popular skin is goatskin.

3. Pins. The pins are applied in the rear part of the frame in order to keep the skin on the frame tightly.

4. Hooks. The hooks are applied in order to hang the rings in the inner part of the frame.

5. Rings. The rings are the jingles of the daf.

6. Leather band. The leather band is applied in order to help the drummer to hold the drum appropriately during long performances.

Note that the other instrument that is played in the "khanghah خانقاه" is the "Tas طاس". It is a kind of small kettledrum that is played with wooden or leather sticks. Its body is a copper bowl and the skin is stretched on it. It doesn't have a standard size, however, its diameter can vary from 20 to 30 centimeters. It is only played during the "Zikr-e-Ghiyam ذکر قیام" ceremonies.

Different dafs. In case of need, different dafs are used in Persian art and folk music. In the following, we introduce different dafs briefly:

  • The solo-daf: This is a kind of daf that is used in solo performances. It should have a very strong sound and its jingles should have a clear sound because a daf soloist should be able to easily show the art and power of the finger patterns during the performance.

  • The studio-daf: This is a kind of daf whose skin is not so sensitive to humidity changes because the drummer should not worry about the skin of the daf changing during recording.

  • The orchestra-daf: This one is a kind of daf with not a very strong sound because in general, the daf has a strong sound and if the sound of the daf is very strong, like the solo-daf, then the orchestra-daf player should always pay attention to the loudness of the drum which may bother other musicians performing in the orchestra. Moreover, an orchestra-daf should have a warm and soft sound.

  • The bass-daf: This is a daf with a bass sound. Usually, its size is larger, and its skin is thicker.

  • The treble-daf: This is a daf with a treble sound. Usually, its size is smaller than standard dafs, and its skin is thinner. In wintertime, such dafs can be more comfortable.

  • The ring-daf: This is a kind of daf with thin skin and lots of jingles. Its benefit is that when it is played, the sound of the rings is louder and can be used for special purposes.

  • The summer-daf and the winter-daf: The skin of a summer-daf is not stretched on its frame tightly, while the skin of the winter-daf is stretched on its frame firmly.

Remark. A daf ensemble may use different dafs such as the solo-dafs, the bass-dafs, the treble-dafs, and the ring-dafs.

Online Daf Drum Lessons

Khalifeh Mirza Agha Ghosi

Khalifeh Karim Safvati

Ostad Bijan Kamkar

The Daf and The Tas

Khalifeh Mirza Agha Ghosi, outstanding daf player and master of Sufi vocals, was born in Sanandaj, Kurdistan province of Iran, in 1928. He learned the art of daf playing and Sufi vocals in his teenage years from his father and later from Darvish Karim. He was appointed to be a "khalifeh خلیفه" (a spiritual leader) by Sheikh Abdolkarim Kasnazani of Kirkuk.

Iran, France, Colombia, Turkey, Panama, Peru, and Ecuador were some of the countries he performed in. His sons Abd-al-Rahman and Ali-Reza are fine daf players and singers who often accompanied their father and now keep the tradition that they belong to. Khalifeh Mirza Agha Ghosi passed away in 2007.

Khalifeh Karim Safvati, outstanding daf player and master of Sufi vocals, was born in Sanandaj, Kurdistan province of Iran, in 1920. He learned the art of daf playing and Sufi vocals from his father Darvish Abdolmohammad. He was appointed to be a Khalifeh by Sheikh Abdolkarim Kasnazani of Kirkuk. His sons Mashallah and Jamal are skilled daf players who accompanied their respected father.

Ostad Bijan Kamkar was born in Sanandaj, the Kurdistan province of Iran, in 1949. He started learning music under the tutelage of his father, Ostad Hassan Kamkar. He also learned how to play the tonbak. After receiving the "high school diploma", he entered the Faculty of Fine Arts at the University of Tehran to continue his musical studies. He is among the first drummers who played the daf in Persian music ensembles. More precisely, he was a member of Shayda Ensemble conducted by Mohhamad Reza Lotfi, and he performed the daf in Shayda Ensemble's performance at the Shiraz Festival of Arts.

Acknowledgements. The author wishes to thank Khalifeh Mirza Agha Ghosi and his sons Abd-al-Rahman and Ali-Reza for their help.


[B]: Arfan Beomid-e-Hagh, The School of Playing Daf, Ebteda Publication, Tehran, 1998.

[H]: Khajeh Shams-al-Din Mohammad Hafiz Shirazi, Divan-e-Hafiz, by the effort of Ms. Salehe Salehpour, Persian to English Translator: Henry Wilberforce Clarke, Booteh Press, Tehran, 1998.

[N]: Peyman Nasehpour, Personal Research in Khanghah of Khalifeh Mirza Agha Ghosi (Sanandaj city), 1996.

[R]: James W. Redhouse, A Turkish to English Lexicon, Librairie du Liban (New Impression, 1987), Beirut, 1890.

[S]: Dr. Mahindokht Sadighian and Dr. Abutaleb Mir Abedini, Farhang-e-Vazhe Nama-ye-Hafiz (Concordance et Frequence de la Hafiz), Amir Kabir Publication Corp., Tehran, 1987.

[T]: Emad Tohidy, An Introduction to Daf Playing, Kerman Music Society, Third Publication, 1994.

[Y]: Zakariya Yousefi, Daf with its Different Applications, Magham Musical Monthly, Vol. 3, Page 88, 2003.

Note. Khalifeh Mirza Agha Ghosi's picture is courtesy of his sons. The picture of Khalifeh Karim Safvati was scanned by Hormoz Dilmaghani, the webmaster of Tombak Network. It was taken from the CD Kurdistan Zikr et chants soufis, Radio France, Paris, November 1994. The picture of Ostad Bijan Kamkar is courtesy of his daughter, Hana. The picture of the daf and tas players in Mirza Agha Ghosi's khangah is courtesy of my friend Fariborz.