Social Status of Tonbak Players

The Social Status of The Tonbak Players

by Peyman Nasehpour

Abstract. Tonbak (also known as tombak or zarb) is the chief percussion instrument of Persia. This goblet drum is one of the most interesting drums in world music. For playing on it, one uses all ten fingers. After the efforts of the great masters of tonbak such as Ostad Hossein Tehrani and Ostad Nasser Farhangfar, tonbak has advanced very much. In this note, we investigate the social status of tonbak players and have a radical approach to the history and future of the tonbak and its artists.

The Social Status of the Tonbak Players of the Past

Tonbak was not considered a solo instrument in the past. In the Ghajar era, vocalists were of two kinds: "avazkhan" and "tasnifkhan". The avazkhan's role was to sing the non-rhythmic compositions of the Persian radif repertoire, and the tasnikhan's role was to sing the rhythmic compositions of Persian art music. Though there were some vocalists that were the master of both: for this perhaps the most famous example is the late Ostad Abdollah Davami. Also, most of the tasnifkhans were tonbak players (the Persian old expression for tonbak player is "zarbgir ضربگیر" which literally means the musician who keeps the rhythm cycle). This means that the tonbak was an instrument performed by the singers, and it was not considered an independent instrument.

In the past, the tonbak players were to undergo at the hands of their fellow musicians and from their status in society. They had to bear humiliation, insults, and exploitation, this is still in some views true. Tonbak players are labeled as accompanists, considered second-class citizens of the music world, even if they occasionally play solos. This ill-treatment that they receive is partly due to the generally held concept that the tonbak is incapable of expressing different emotions. However, the tonbak has its own unique role in Persian music, and it seems that any other instrument cannot be substituted.

Until the early part of this century, the tonbak was used mainly as an accompanying instrument. The primary role of tonbak players was to play the basic rhythmic structure as an underpinning to vocal and instrumental music. They had to maintain a low profile at all times, even when the soloist made a mistake and yelled at them in public. They had to be silent and could not say anything because they were afraid of losing their job. Furthermore, they were the only ones who knew how much devotion lay behind their skill. The pain of knowing this and yet not being permitted to express it sometimes made them desperate.

Despite all these negative attitudes, tonbak players fortunately never ceased to improve and according to most of the researchers, the revolution related to the status of tonbak players started by the late Ostad Hossein Tehrani. It was necessary for tonbak to be free from the yoke of tasnifkhans and to be given to the hands of players they were interested to work on the tonbak more seriously and independently.

The world went through a series of upheavals. Also, some movements happened in Iran (like Persian constitutional revolution). Due to this turmoil, Iran's social structure began to change. This, in turn, had a strong effect on musicians and music. The former music patrons, i.e. the kings and aristocrats, were replaced by businessmen, Music Colleges, Radio, and then TV. Rather than performing in small salons for groups of relatively cultured aristocrats who apparently were trained to appreciate the classical form, musicians increasingly were expected to perform in larger halls for larger and apparently less well-educated audiences with different tastes.

Therefore, the bad social status of tonbak players and these social changes in Iran caused the tonbak players to start changing and makeing movements.

Outstanding tonbak masters such as Ostad Hossein Tehrani because of their love for the tonbak tried to make some changes. Gradually tonbak and tonbak players made a better place in the music world. Then other prominent tonbak masters such as Ostad Nasser Farhangfar came to the fore and progress the tonbak more and more. The clarity, stamina, extraordinary speed, and overall power of these tonbak players caused the tonbak to reach a very good point of progress and popularity. The tonbak found more roles in instrumental music, though one of the most important characteristics of the art of tonbak playing, i.e. playing cyclic rhythms, was forgotten.

The Social Status of the Tonbak Players of Today

The effort of these devotee tonbak players such as Ostad Tehrani and Ostad Farhangfar caused the tonbak to become more popular among well-educated people and found more roles in instrumental music. Tonbak players of today now really play very well. The clarity, stamina, extraordinary speed and overall power of today tonbak players are really praiseworthy. Now, by taking these signs of progress into consideration, the question arises: what good has it really done to the social status of tonbak players? Maybe tonbak players of today are more successful, apparently, but the overall image of the tonbak player is almost the same as in the past. They are those accompaniments and the secondary musician on the stage. The primary role of the tonbak players is still to make the main artist's music more colorful and enjoyable by becoming an adjunct to him or her. The social status of the tonbak players has not changed, and in fact, only their exposure has altered.

What Should It Be Done?

In my opinion, the way that Ostad Hossein Tehrani had started should be continued and the tonbak players should start again to make more tonbak solo recitals. By this comment, I am not trying to suggest that the accompanying style of tonbak playing is not valuable. Accompaniment is an art form in itself, particularly when it is performed on the tonbak. There are many sensitive and intelligent tonbak players, which show the power and beauty of the techniques of the art of accompaniment, but what will change the status of the tonbak players is to create a real independent role for the tonbak player belonging to any soloist.

Remark. The idea of this article comes from an excellent article by Pt. Aloke Dutta, which appeared in his book titled "Tabla, Lessons and Practice" (2nd Edition).


[KH]: Ruhollah Khaleghi, Sargozasht-e-Musighi-ye-Iran, Tehran, 1974.

[M]: Hassan Mashhoun, Tarikh-e-Musighi-ye-Iran, Tehran, 1994.

[NS]: Peyman Nasehpour and Siamak Sahafi, Vas'iyat-e-Ejtema'i-ye-Tonbak Navazan, Farda-ye-Behtar Magazine, No.16, 2nd year, Oct. 22nd, 1999.

[T]: Hossein Tehrani, Amouzesh-e-Tombak (Tombak Rudiment), Tehran, 1970.

Khatam Tonbak

Khatam Tonbak