The Many names of the doumbek

Peyman Nasehpour on the Tonbak

The Many Names of the Doumbek

by Peyman Nasehpour

Abstract. Among the percussion instruments used heavily across Asia, North Africa, and Eastern Europe, there are four broad classes of drums, known to musicologists as cylindrical drums, frame drums, goblet drums, and kettledrums. In this note, we discuss goblet drums and their names briefly.

Introduction. Goblet drums are one of the most important classes of drums, applied heavily across Asia, North Africa, and Eastern Europe. These instruments have many similarities, and there are many similar names in use. Most of the names are derived from two names, the Pahlavi (the Middle Persian language used by Persians during the Sasanid period) name dombalak, and the Arabic name darbouka

The American name doumbek (also spelled as dumbek, dumbec, and doumbec) should be derived from the Persian name dombak which is a new form of its Pahlavi name, dombalak, and was brought to the USA by Eastern emigrants. This name is used for all genres of goblet drums, particularly, for those goblet drums that are used in Middle Eastern music and dance (called Arabic music and belly dance). Though goblet drums are similar in shape, they are not played similarly.

The doumbek played in Arab-speaking countries such as Iraq (not to be confused with Iran), Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and so on is called darbuka and is somehow different from the Persian doumbek, i.e., the tonbak.

Note that the doumbek is called tabla (also "tablah طبله") in Arab-speaking countries also. This should not be confused with the Indian tabla which is a pair of small drums. However, doumbek is called dumbelek in Turkey and the edge of the large opening of a Turkish goblet drum is squared not round and this is why the finger-snapping can be performed on Turkish doumbek easily; similar to what we have for the tonbak. Finally, I add that the only goblet drum that I know that is played very similarly to the tonbak is the Afghan goblet drum called zirbaghali, also, in some dialects, zerbaghali.

The main purpose of this note is to discuss the different names of goblet drums. 

Afghanistan. "Zirbaghali زیربغلی" (in some dialects zerbaghali) is the Afghan clay goblet drum played with a technique somewhat between Persian tonbak and Indian tabla (the double membrane instrument of Indian origin), and sometimes with some darbouka techniques thrown in for the seasoning. Indian tabla has influenced the Afghans, particularly the people from Kabul. It is interesting to add that there is a round black patch (siyahi) on the skin of Zirbaghali, which shows the influence of the Indian tabla on Zirbaghali. Zirbaghali can be considered an Indo-Persian musical instrument, and it is believed that it is of Persian origin. Note that the Persian (and of course, the Dari) word "zirbaghal زیربغل" literally means armpit. Note that on festive occasions some tonbak players used to hold the tonbak in their armpit to be able to play the goblet drum while they can stand. I guess this is why the Afghan zirbaghali is called so.

Albania. In Albania, the name of their goblet drum is darabuke. 

Azerbaijan. In the present-day Republic of Azerbaijan, the doumbek is used but the main percussion instruments are naghara (a cylindrical drum with two heads and comparable with the Armenian dhol) and ghaval (a kind of frame drum). 

Bulgaria. In Bulgaria, the names of doumbek are darabuka, darambuka, tarambuke and tarambuka. The tarambuka is of Eastern origin, as they believe. Tarambuka is made from baked clay. It is similar to the Turkish and Arabic darabuka. It is always played together with other folk instruments. However, its sound is soft and low. The tarambuka provides a background rhythm for the songs that it accompanies. 

Bulgarian tarambuka can be found only in the Southwest. It often accompanies the tambura (a stringed instrument very similar to the Turkish Saz). In the past, these two instruments were played mainly by an ethnic minority called Pomachs, but in the 20th century, they are used in performing professional music based on folklore. Most researchers in the field think that these instruments have entered Bulgarian folklore through Turkish music. Professional ensembles also have used it like the ensemble "Pirin" and "Philip Koutev". There are cases in which the tarambuka is played with a tupan (a kind of cylindrical drum). The latter is being used as a base rhythmic party, whereas the tarambuka is for more virtuous rhythms. The most popular rhythm in Bulgarian folk music is the 7-beat rhythm cycle with the accent on the first beat. 

Egypt and other Arab-speaking countries. The "tabl طبل" is the Arabic general term for the drums and is also the most common name for goblet drums in Arab-speaking countries (not to be confused with the Indian tabla, which this name has been brought to India by Persian Muslims). All of them look like Egyptian drums. The body is traditionally made of clay and the large opening is usually covered with fish skin. 

The other names are: 

Egypt: The darabukka, derabucca, and darbouka 

Lebanon and Syria: The derbekki, drbekki, and drbakka 

Morocco and Algeria: The derboka

Note that most names given above have their root in the Arabic-Turkish word 'darab'; a word coming from the sound produced by beating a drum. Compare with Dambel-e-Dimbo in Persian and Rub-a-Dub in English! 

Greece. In Greece, there is a kind of goblet drum that is so similar to the Turkish dumbelek and its name is toubeleki. Both names should be originated from the Pahlavi name dombalak. Toubeleki is played in oriental Greece. 

Hungary. In Hungary, there is a goblet drum called dobouk. 

India. In India, there exists various goblet drums performed in Indian folk music. One of them is played in Kashmir and its name is tumbaknari. Tumbaknari is used for every singing occasion in Kashmir. The word tumbaknari is made up of two parts: Tumbak and nari. The word Nari means earthen pot in Kashmiri. 

The other goblet drums of India are Ghumat (Goa) and Jamuku (South India). 

Japan. Taiko is a general term for drums in Japan. The name of a Japanese goblet drum is Shuhai-Gata-Katamen-Taiko. Note that Shuhai, Gata, and Katamen, respectively, mean goblet, shape, and one-faced. By the way, the other drums of Japan are Oke-do-Taiko, Naga-do-Taiko, and Shime-Taiko.

Malaysia. The gedombak is a goblet-shaped double-headed drum found in Malay folk music. The frame is made from one type of hardwood, usually the wood of the jackfruit tree or angsana. The wider end is covered by goatskin, which functions as a sound producer, tensioned using woven rattan strings. The other end is left open.

In the performance context, the gedombak is played in pairs, called Gendang Ibu (Mother) and Gendang Anak (Child). The gedombak Ibu is able to produce a lower pitch than the Gedombak Anak, but both have the same frame size. The drumheads are struck with one hand, while the other is used to stabilize the mnemonic sounds like "doh", "phat", and "ting". Two players, accompanying the traditional theater such as Wayang Kulit and Menora, usually play the drums. 

Macedonia. There is a kind of goblet drum in Macedonia and its name is tarabuka. The body is made of pottery decorated with ethnic designs. The tarabuka is used mostly for playing as part of folk ensembles, usually at weddings and other festive occasions. 

Persia (Iran). There are four kinds of goblet drums to be played in Persia (Iran). One is the tonbak, to be used in Persian art and folk music extensively. The other is the zarb-e-zourkhaneh (the large-sized clay tonbak to be played in zourkhaneh, the Persian ancient gymnasium), "tempo تمپو" which is similar to the Arabic-Turkish darbouka, and finally, "kasureh کاسوره" which is a small-sized goblet drum played in the folk music of Khuzestan province

The other names for the tonbak are donbak, tombak, dombak, "tompak تمپک", and zarb (see lexical discussion of the tonbak). The word zarb is Arabic and probably derived from the word "darab" and it means the sound made by beating a drum. In Indian music, zarab which literally means to strike is the arrangement of the segments and their combinations make a tala (Indian rhythm). 

As I have discussed in the other notes on the tonbak, there are two different views on the origin of the name tonbak: Some believe that the name tonbak originated in the sound to be produced by the two main strokes played on the tonbak known as "ton" and "bak". Note that "ton" is for the bass tone played in the center of the skin and "bak" is the treble tone played on the rim part of the skin, and the combination of them gives us the word tonbak. According to this view, the tonbak is an onomatopoeic name, while others believe that the word tonbak is a diminutive of the word tonb which literally means belly. This view is not so strange because the body of tonbak is convex (belly) shaped. For more, see Lexical Discussion of Different Names of the Tonbak.

The "tempo تمپو" (not to be confused with the English word tempo which means the speed of a rhythmic piece) is considered an Arabic instrument, and sometimes it is used for accompanying Persian banal songs.

Finally, kasureh is a small-sized goblet drum mainly played by Arabs in the Khuzestan province of Iran. Sometimes, a drummer uses two or three kasurehs having different pitches.

Note that there is a kind of cylindrical drum popular in the Baluchestan province of Iran. Though its name is the "tombak" it is not a goblet-shaped drum similar to the Persian tonbak, and it can be compared with the Indian khol. The khol, also called mridang, is a folk drum of northeast India.

Tajikistan. The Tajikistani goblet drum is called tablak طبلک which is a diminutive of the word tabl. Like the other goblet drums, it is open on both sides. Across one of the mouths is stretched a piece of skin which is beaten with the fingers. The opposite end is sometimes manipulated with the other hand to give various tonal effects. 

Thailand. The Thai goblet drum is called thon (the other names are thab and thap) that is often played simultaneously with the Thai frame drum called ramana. The instruments are known together as thon-ramana. The thon lies on the player's lap and is played with the right hand, while the ramana is held in the left hand. The shape of thon is very similar to the gedombak (Malaysian goblet drum). 

Turkey. The most common name for a Turkish goblet drum is dumbelek. Other names are darbouka and deblek (similar to the Tajikistani tablak). The word dumbelek should be originated from the Pahlavi name dombalak. The Turkish goblet drums are mainly made of metals. 

Yugoslavia. The Yugoslavian goblet drum is called darbuk.

Appendix. There are a couple of other goblet drums, namely:

Dabakan. The dabakan is a single-headed drum performed in the music of the Philippines. It is primarily used as a supportive instrument in the kulintang ensemble. Among the five main kulintang instruments, it is the only non-gong element of the Maguindanao ensemble.

Djembe. The djembe is a very famous goblet-shaped drum from West African countries like Mali, and one can find a good amount of information about this drum on the web because it is a well-promoted instrument.

Klong-Yaw. Klong-Yaw is a large-sized goblet drum performed in Thai music. However, the soundbox of the Klong-Yaw is more slender than the djembe.

Tarija. The "tarija طعریجه" is a small-sized goblet-shaped drum used in the "Melhoun ملحون" genre of Moroccan art music.

Acknowledgments. My thanks go to David Brown, Dr. Iveta Pirgova, Dr. Pongsilva Arunrat, Matt Hannafin, Dr. David Courtney, and Sachi Sakanashi who helped me to improve my information on goblet drums. 


B. Chaintanya Deva, Indian Music, New Delhi, 1974. 

Hossein Khadiv Jam, Avaz-e-Khorasani va Sav-e-Afghani (Shabi dar Khanghah-e-Kabol), Tehran, 1987. 

Mehran Poormandan, The Encyclopedia of Iranian Old Music, Tehran, 2000. 

Cemsid Salehpur, Türkçe Farsça Genel Sözlügü, Tehran, 1996. 

Mehdi Setayeshgar, Vazhe-Name-ye-Musighi-ye-Iran Zamin, Tehran, Vol. I (1995) & Vol. II (1996).

Musical Voices of Asia, Report of [Asian Traditional Performing Arts 1978], The Japan Foundation, 1980.

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