Performing Styles of The Tonbak

The performing styles of the tonbak in Persian classical music 

by Peyman Nasehpour

Introduction. Every artist has her/his own unique style in performing an instrument. Therefore, the number of different styles for the tonbak is equal to the number of serious tonbak players! However, if one needs to show the different performing styles of the tonbak players in a short note like the current one, the one has to restrict herself/himself to the investigation of the only major and well-known styles. Performing styles of the tonbak can be divided, in the author's opinion, into four major overlapping styles. One of them is based on the traditional style performed by Ostad Abdollah Davami and the others are developed by the recent masters of the tonbak.

a) Tonbak Players of the Past

Before Ostad Hossein Tehrani, we had a primitive, but still important, style of tonbak performance. Tasnifkhans (Tasnif performers) were playing on the tonbak, and this drum was considered only an accompaniment instrument. An iconic example for this traditional style is Ostad Abdollah Davami. According to our information, the oldest tonbak player that had this style is Agha Jan-e-Avval. Based on the observation made by the author, today's folk style, performed in Lorestan and Kurdistan provinces in Iran, is very similar to the old style of the tonbak players of the past, though this needs more research. Folk styles can be found in the folk music of Kurdistan, Lorestan, and Hormozgan, three provinces of Iran. Unfortunately, so far as the author knows, the folk style is not considered an important style, and so, it has not been investigated carefully. See History of Tonbak for some information on the historical tonbak players of the past. 

b) Ostad Hossein Tehrani

Maestro Tehrani is considered the father of the modern performing style of the tonbak. He devoted his life to the promotion and development of the art of tonbak playing. Before his time, tonbak was not considered an independent instrument. He gathered "motrebi مطربی" and "ruhozi روحوضی" rhythms, added new techniques to the art of tonbak playing, and made many attractive pieces for the tonbak. Also, he established a tonbak ensemble in Tehran and started performing in many places. Furthermore, he trained many students. The major characteristic of his style was to mute the skin of tonbak, to play on the wooden body of the tonbak, and to use two rings worn on the middle fingers of the two hands to play them on the wooden body of the tonbak. His style is the most colorful one. Today, some tonbak players follow his style.

c) Ostad Amir Nasser Eftetah

Ostad Eftetah had his own style. He wrote a great book full of rhythmic pieces that he had composed. From his book, one can notice that he had tried to write longer pieces for the tonbak including the primitive development of rhythmic motifs. He trained his style to many students he had. His student, Ostad Bahman Rajabi, developed his style and was active in promoting it. Ostad Rajabi also completed his master's style in developing rhythmic motifs. He was an active teacher of the tonbak and trained many students. 

d) Ostad Nasser Farhangfar

Ostad Farhangfar, during his youth, spent a great deal of time in zourkhaneh and, because of that, his style is strongly influenced by the heroic and ancient style of zarb-e-zourkhaneh ضرب زورخانه. In this style, there is almost no muting of the skin or using the clay body of the tonbak to be performed on. He added some special techniques such as compound pelang and chakkoshi چکشی. For more information, please refer to Composed Rhythms of Ostad Nasser Farhangfar and The Strokes and Roll Techniques of the Tonbak. Today, many tonbak players follow his style.


The "motrebi مطربی" rhythms (also known as "ruhozi روحوضی" rhythms): Happy and exciting dance rhythms to be played by motrebs. Note that a "motreb مطرب" is a musician who plays at weddings and other festive ceremonies. 

Tasnif: In Persian music, the "tasnif تصنیف" literally means "song". It is a rhythmic piece, composed of Persian vocal music, and usually, two or several instrumentalists accompany the vocalist while performing the tasnif. Most of the traditional tasnifs are composed in 6-beat rhythm cycles, and they are often played in slow tempos. 

Zarb-e zourkhaneh: The "zarb-e zourkhaneh ضرب زورخانه" is a Persian large-sized goblet drum performed in the zourkhaneh for leading and encouraging the athletes. 

Zourkhaneh: The "zourkhaneh زورخانه" (that literally means the house of power) is a place for traditional Persian martial art. In zourkhaneh, the "morshed مرشد" (leader of athletes) plays on the "zarb-e zourkhaneh" (Persian large-sized goblet drum) and sings heroic poets in order to encourage them. Recently, after the great morshed, Pahlavan Akbar Khorasani, the "zang زنگ" (a kind of bell performed in the zourkhaneh) has been used, though in the past it was only an ornament for the special place that the morshed was sitting. Also, we should add that in the past, ney (Persian knotgrass reed) had been played in zourkhaneh, though in recent decades, the author did not observe the presence of the ney in zourkhaneh music.


[K] Hossein Partov Beyzayi Kashani, Tarikh-e Varzesh-e Bastani-ye Iran, Zavvar Publications, Tehran, 2003.

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