Persian Kettledrums

Persian Kettledrums

by Peyman Nasehpour

Introduction. 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 or wood drumsticks. Note that the leather drumstick is called "daval دوال". The kus was usually carried on horseback, camelback, or elephant back. It was played on many occasions such as festivals, wars, decamping, and so on. The tradition of playing the kus has been almost forgotten.

In the past, the kus was an accompaniment to the "karna کرنا" (Persian trumpet or horn). In particular, the Persian epic poets such as Ferdowsi and Nezami have mentioned the expression "kus-o-karnay کوس و کرنای" when describing the battlefields. Many Persian paintings (miniatures) show the presence and importance of the kus and karna on the battlefields. There were applied to encourage the army. The antiquity of the kus and karna reaches the Achaemenid period (533-330 B.C.).

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. There is a Persian folk poem including naghareh:

"دمبل دیمبو نقاره! عروس تنبان نداره!

داماد رفته بیاره ساق سلامت بیاره"

And it can be translated as follows:

"Dambel-e-Dimbo naghareh! The bride has not the "tonban"!

The bridegroom has gone to fetch one May he come back healthy"

Note that "Dambel-e-Dimbo" or "Zimbil-i-Zimbo" is a poetic phrase resembling the sound made by a drum (compare with the phrase "Rub-a-Dub" in English).

This poem is also important from another perspective because the rhythm of the verses calls to mind the rhythm cycle of "chahar-chubeh چهارچوبه" in Mazandarani regional music, which is played on the "desarkutan دِسَرکوتن" (small-sized kettledrums popular in Mazandaran province of Iran). Let me add the point that the "tonban" was an Iranian traditional, long, and loose skirt worn by women!

In Persian folk music, there are different kinds of kettledrums. Today, kettledrums with the general name naghareh are found in different sizes. For example, in the Northern area of Iran, there is a kind of naghareh which is called "naghareh-ye-shomal نقاره شمال" which literally mean the naghareh from the north. Its native name in Mazandaran province of Iran is desarkutan دِسَرکوتن. The desarkutan is, in fact, a pair of small drums, one larger than the other one. The body of the drums is made of clay. The shape of the larger one, which is called "bam", is similar to a bowl, while the shape of the smaller one, which is called "zil", is similar to a vase. Note that the words "bam" and "zil" mean bass and treble, respectively. The diameter of the mouth of the bam is about 22 centimeters and the diameter of the mouth of the zil is about 16 centimeters. The two drums are covered by cow skin, though in the past the skin of boar was also popular. The skin is tightened on the drums by bands made of cow cut. The drums are played with two wooden drumsticks. The length of the drumsticks is from 25 to 27 centimeters. The thicker drumstick is used to play on the larger drum. The diameter of the drumsticks is from 1 to 1.5 centimeters.

The "serna سِرنا" (the Mazandarani oboe) is accompanied by one or two desarkutans. It is clear that the word "serna" in the Mazandarani dialect of the word "sorna". I emphasize that the word sorna is an abbreviation of the word "surnay سورنای" and it is a reed (nay نای) to be performed in festivals (in old Persian, the word "sur سور" stands for the festival). These instruments are played on different occasions such as festive ceremonies and sports competitions. I was surprised to learn that a similar musical tradition exists in India. The name of Indian kettledrums is nagada or nagara which is an accompaniment of the Indian oboe called "shehnai". Note that the name shehnai is a combination of the two Persian words "sheh شه" and "nai نای" and they mean "king" and "reed", respectively. The "shehnai" is an indispensable component of any North Indian wedding. In India, the wedding is called "shadi" and it is quite interesting that the word "shadi شادی" means happiness in Persian. I emphasize that the Indian nagara is a pair of drums. These are the kettledrums of the old "naubat نوبت" (traditional ensemble of nine instruments). Indian nagara similar to its Persian version is played by drumsticks.

The naghareh is also popular in Azerbaijan, called "ghosha-naghara". For more, see Naghara Azerbaijani Cylindrical Drum.

Note that the naghareh is played in Fars province extensively and its size is larger than the previous (ordinary-sized) versions that I explained. For example, "Ghashghaei قشقایی" people who live in Fars province apply "karna, sorna, and naghareh" on their occasions.

In Sanandaj city, Kurdistan province, naghareh is also popular, and it is called "naghghareh-ye-Sanandaj" in Persian. The size of these kettledrums is slightly larger than ordinary-sized ones popular in Mazandaran.

Other names for kettledrums in Iran consist of "gavorga گورگه", "kaseh کاسه", and "khom خم".

The kettledrums in other countries. The kettledrums are played in other countries. The "naqqarat نقارات" is the name of the kettledrums performed in Egypt and some other Arab-speaking countries. The naqqarat, hemispherical with the skin stretched over the top, comes in pairs. The larger ones are carried on camels and played during the pilgrimages. Another type is used to accompany one of the Mawlawi ceremonies. Under the late Abbasids and Fatimids in Egypt, kettledrums were beaten before the five daily prayers, and small ones form part of the present-day orchestral ensembles.

In Turkey, naghareh, also spelled as naqqareh, is called nakkare, which is obviously a Turkish dialect of the Arabic word "naqqareh نقاره". As in the other places, these are the small kettledrums beaten by two sticks. The Turkish "kös" are giant kettledrums, played on horseback. The word "kös" is a dialect of the Persian name "kus". These drums and davul (Turkish cylindrical drum) were used in Ottoman Mehter Music. Note that "Mehter مهتر" is Persian, and it means greater, senior, elder, and groom. For more on davul, refer to Dohol Persian cylindrical drum.

In Uzbekistan, the general name for kettledrums is "naghara". The "dul-naghara" is a large-sized kettledrum giving a low-pitched sound, known as "tum". The rez-naghara is a small-sized kettledrum giving a high-pitched sound, known as "tak". I guess the word "rez" in "rez-naghara" is a dialect of the Persian word "riz" which means small. The "kosh-naghara" is a pair of small-sized kettledrums with clay bodies and goatskin tops. This must be an equivalent version of Azerbaijani ghosha-naghara.

Specialists in the history of music believe that through the Islamic culture, the kettledrums spread in many regions of Asia, Africa, and Europe. The kettledrums were adopted in Europe during the Crusades (13th century). The Arabic term naghghareh became the French term "nacaires", the Italian term "naccheroni", and the English term "nakers". The nakers have been described as follows:

The nakers were more or less hemispherical, 15-25 cm in diameter, frequently with snares, and usually played in pairs, suspended in front of the player. They were usually played with drumsticks, mainly for martial purposes, but also in chamber, dance, and processional music and probably for accompanying the songs.

Today, the kettledrums in Europe are called tympani or timpani. They entered the symphony orchestra as purely musical instruments in the mid-17th century; they were played in pairs, tuned to the tonic, and dominant pitches. Beethoven was the first composer to vary the tuning of kettledrums from the conventional tonic-dominant. Berlioz was possibly the first to require a change of tuning during a single movement. Bartok made use of the glissando, which is a rapid slurring effect created by the mechanical tuning of the kettledrum.

The excellent study of tabla by Rebecca Stewart (The Tabla in Perspective. Unpublished thesis, UCLA, 1974) has suggested that the Indian tabla was most likely a hybrid resulting from experiments with existing drums such as pakhawaj, dholak, and naqqara. The origins of tabla repertoire and technique may be found in all three and in physical structure there are also elements of all three: for example, the smaller pakhawaj head for the dayan, the naqqara kettledrum for the bayan, and the flexible use of the bass of the dholak.

Remark. The word "khaneh خانه" literally means house, home, room, place, etc. In Iran, there were different kinds of places where the kettledrums were supposed to be performed on special occasions. These places were called "naghghareh-khaneh" as the name also suggests. These places were for announcing important news by playing on the kettledrums such as the rising and setting of the sun, the victory, the start of a mourning ceremony, and the birth of a male baby. The naghghareh-khaneh was also called kus-khaneh or naubat-khaneh.


[C]: David R. Courtney, Fundamentals of Tabla, Vol. I, Sur Sangeet Services, Houston, 1998.

[Le]: The World of Islam, Written by Thirteen Authors (Edited by Bernard Lewis), London, 1976.

[Ly]: Debby Lyttle, A Brief History of the Timpani, 1998.

[G]: Jamshid Gholi-Nejad, Musighi-ye-Bumi-ye-Mazandaran, Sari City, 2000.

[K]: James Kippen, A Brief Discussion of the Delhi Tabla Gharana.

[Sa]: Cemsid Salehpur, Türkçe Farsça Genel Sözlügü, Tehran, 1996.

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

Peyman Nasehpour on the tabla. The picture includes desarkutan (kettledrums)