Persian Drums

Persian Drums

by Peyman Nasehpour

Introduction. The Persian word for drum is "tabl طبل" though, in the past, it was "tabireh تبیره". Persian poets such as Ferdowsi, Asadi Tusi, Fakhraddin Asa'ad Gorgani, Manuchehri Damghani, and many others have included "tabireh" in their works. Manhchehri Damghani has a verse that includes both the "tabl" and "tabireh":

تبیره‌زن بزد طبل نخستین شتربانان همی‌بندند محمل

The main purpose of this note is to have a brief introduction to popular Persian drums. In Iran, there are five popular drums, i.e. the tonbak, the dayereh, the daf, the dohol, and the naghareh.

The tonbak. The "tonbak تنبک" is a Persian goblet-shaped drum, one of the two national drums of Iran (the other national drum is the daf), and the chief percussion music in Iran performed in all genres of Persian music. An etymological investigation shows that the Pahlavi (Persian pre-Islamic language) name of this drum was dombalak (for more, see Lexical Discussion of Different Names of the Tonbak. Though there are many ancient manuscripts attesting to the different names of this drum, the oldest documented pictures that have been found by the author and his friend, Mehdi Moghiseh, are two Persian paintings painted in the 16th century showing some gypsy drummers and dancers, including tonbak players (see History of Tonbak).

A Turkish dialect of the "dombalak", which is "dumbelek", is still in use in Turkey. A similar name, i.e., "toubeleki" is applied in Greece to indicate the Greek version of this goblet-shaped drum. The name doumbek, with different spellings such as dumbek, dumbec, doumbec, doumbeq, and dumbeq, has been taken to the USA by Middle Eastern immigrants. For more, see the many names of doumbek.

Though all goblet drumming styles seem very similar at the first sight, the style that a tonbak is performed is rather different from the style that the other goblet drums are played. However, the Turkish-style goblet drumming is closer compared to the Arabic style because in Turkish style, finger-snapping is popular, and finger-snapping is extensively applied in Persian goblet drumming and in Arabic-style goblet-drumming is quite rare due to the structure of Arabic darbouka which makes it very difficult to snap. Finally, I emphasize that the similarity of the names of different goblet drums should not cause the reader to assume that all goblet drums are played similarly. For more, check Performing Styles of Tonbak and The Differences Among Tonbak, Darbouka, and Djembe.

The dayereh. The "dayereh دایره" is a medium-sized Persian frame drum and one of the most popular frame drums played in the regional music of Iran. Though dayereh has not been performed in Persian art music, it is quite popular in many different regions of Iran. One of the most important styles of frame drumming in Iran is the Azerbaijani style played on the Azerbaijani frame drum called ghaval. Again, the similarity of the names of different frame drums should not cause us to assume that they are all played in the same style.

The Pahlavi (Persian pre-Islamic language) name of dayereh is dareh دارِه. This name is still in use in the "Dezful دزفول" city of Iran. Most probably the word "pandeiro" which is used for frame drums in Spain, Portugal, and Brazil is related to the dayereh. For more on the applications of the dayereh and daf in different regions of Iran, see Daf Dayereh Frame Drums.

The ghaval is the Azerbaijani frame drum and is known by Persians as dayereh-azari دایره آذری, which means the Azerbaijani dayereh. The ghaval was an accompaniment drum in Azerbaijani art and folk music. Perhaps the late Ostad Latif Tahmasebi-zadeh (my ghaval teacher) was among the first ghaval players who performed ghaval solos to promote it as an independent drum. He also added some interesting techniques to the art of ghaval playing.

The daf. The "daf دف" is a Persian large-sized frame drum and is considered the second national drum beside the tonbak which is the chief percussion instrument in Iran. The daf has been a celebrated drum throughout history and now is even more popular in Iran. Many famous poets such as Hafiz and Rumi have mentioned this drum in their poems. For more, see Daf Iranian frame drum.

The Pahlavi name of daf was "dap دپ". One of the frame drums in Arab-speaking countries is called duff, and its definitive form is "al-duff الدف", though it is pronounced as "addof". From this, one can notice that the name of the Portuguese frame drum, i.e., "adufe", originated in the Arabic version of the name "daf". It is quite interesting that the ancient name "dap" is still in use in some parts of Iran as well as other places like the Uyghuristan of China.

The dohol. The "dohol دهل" is a Persian double-headed cylindrical drum popular all over Iran and neighboring countries. Usually, the dohol is an accompaniment for the "sorna سرنا" (Persian oboe), though this drum has been seen as a solo instrument in recent concerts and performances. In the past, the dohol was also an accompaniment to the "karna کرنا" (a large-sized Persian oboe) to encourage the soldiers in the war fields. The dohol and sorna are performed on festive as well as mourning occasions. Since the dohol and sorna are loud musical instruments, they are usually played outdoors.

The heads of the Persian dohol are usually covered by cow skin. The skins are stretched by means of hoop and lacing. The dohol is usually played by two special drumsticks. One is a thick wooden stick with a cane shape (i.e., bowed at its end) called "changal چنگال" or "kajaki کجکی". Note that the word "kaj کج" means crooked in English. Usually, this stick is played in the center of the upper head of the drum to produce a bass sound. The other one is a thin wooden twig called "deyrak دیرک". A dohol player (in Persian, "doholzan دهل‌زن") uses the kajaki stick to play the main beats, while the other stick is used to the ornaments and shorter beats. Also, note that during the performance, the dohol is hung from the body of the dohol player with the help of a leather band. For more, see Dohol Persian cylindrical drum.

The kus and naghareh. Persian large-sized kettledrums are called the "kus کوس". Many Persian poets have mentioned the word kus in their works. It is a pair of drums made of clay, wood, or metal in the form of a hemispherical kettle, with skin stretched over each mouth of the drums. The kus has been played with leather straps or wood drumsticks. Note that the leather strap is called "daval دوال". The kus was usually carried on horseback, camelback, or elephant back, and It was played on many occasions such as festivals, wars, decamping, and so on. The tradition of playing the kus has been almost forgotten.

After Islam, the word "naghareh نقاره" was applied to the small-sized kettledrums. The word naghareh comes from the Arabic verb "naghr نقر", which means to beat and tap. A few poets such as Rumi have mentioned the name "naghareh" in their poems. In Persian folk music, there are different kinds of kettledrums. Today, kettledrums with the general name naghareh are found in different sizes. For more, see Persian Kettledrums.

Keywords. tonbak, tombak, donbak, dombak, zarb, ghaval, dayereh, dayere, daf, Persian, Iranian, drum, drums, hand, stick.

Online Tonbak, Ghaval, and Daf Lessons

Also, check an encyclopedia on Persian percussion instruments.

Persian Drums: Tonbak, Daf, Dayereh, Dohol, Naghareh

Dohol (Persian Cylindrical Drum)


Naghareh (Persian Kettledrums)


Dayereh (Persian Frame Drum)


Tonbak (Persian Goblet Drum)


Daf (Persian Frame Drum)