Tonbak, Darbouka and Djembe

Tonbak Persian Goblet Drum

The Differences among the Tonbak, the Darbouka, and the Djembe

by Peyman Nasehpour

Introduction. The structure of all goblet drums, as explained in the note Structure of Tonbak, can be theoretically divided into five parts: skin, large opening, body, throat, and small opening. However, the skin and the material of the body of goblet drums are not the same. Also, different goblet drums have different techniques. These are the things that we will discuss briefly in this note.

The comparison of the structure of the tonbak, the darbouka, and the djembe. The skin of the tonbak is goatskin, sheep skin, cow skin, camel skin, and even sometimes horse skin, though the most popular one is goatskin. However, the traditional darbouka's head is the fish skin, some drummers prefer to use a prefabricated head for the darbouka because of its stability in the time of humidity change. Note that I have never seen any use of a prefabricated head for the tonbak.

The body of the tonbak is wooden, while the body of an Arabic darbouka is traditionally clay. Let me add that my observation shows that the body of a Turkish darbouka is usually metal.

Though I have seen that some produce clay and tin-plated tonbaks, they are not used in Persian classical music, or at least, I have never seen the use of non-wooden tonbaks in Persian classical music. Usually, the body of a large-sized tonbak performed in zourkhaneh is of clay, since its body is very large, and it is difficult to find a suitable tree to manufacture a wooden body for that. Note that has been used in Persian classical music in very rare cases.

The skin of the tonbak is not very tight because most of the tonbak players prefer not sharp-sounded tonbaks. I like sharp-sounded tonbaks though their pitch should not be as high as the pitch of the darbouka.

The skin of the darbouka should be so tight that it can produce a very sharp sound, particularly when the rim of the skin is stroked.

Some tonbak players use head stretching techniques, and if the tonbak is sharp-sounded, i.e., the skin is starched very tightly, then the head stretching techniques will be difficult. One of the tonbak players who were very much interested in head stretching techniques was Ostad Hossein Tehrani, the father of modern tonbak. Also, note that most of the pitch-changing techniques are not produced by the pressure on the skin, but by using the fingertips and the sides of the hands to vary the effective size of the playing surface for producing higher tones. Ostad Nasser Farhangfar applied pitch-changing techniques on the tonbak very rarely, yet, the sound of his tonbak was not sharp. In fact, he used to wet his hand and run it over the drum head, to bring the pitch of the drum down a bit. Note that some believe that it is not a good act to lower the pitch of the drum, since they believe this will damage the skin of tonbak if this is done often. Some advice is that the better method is to put the tonbak on the tiles of your room upside-down, such that the skin can absorb the earth's wetness and bring the pitch down a bit.

Let me add that in the past when the pitch was too low, then traditionally, the skin was heated in front of the fire. I remember Ostad Mohammad Reza Lotfi once explained that this would damage the skin if it is done many times. Recently some use heat-pads and I think it is a better method. Anyway, the best solution is to have two tonbaks, a high-pitched tonbak and the other a low-pitched one to use the better one in the case of need.

Finally, some tonbak makers have tried to make tunable tonbaks that one can tighten or loosen the head, but it seems tonbak players prefer not to use such tonbaks, because they explain that the sound of tunable tonbaks are metallic; something that is not good to the ear of traditional tonbak players comparing to traditional non-tunable tonbaks. Anyway, the reader has noticed that all my efforts have been to emphasize that the lowness of the pitch of the tonbak is more related to the taste of the tonbak players than to the techniques that some tonbak players apply for playing the tonbak.

The shape of the tonbak is more squared, compared to the shape of the darbouka. Also, the edge of the Egyptian darbouka is rounded, while the edge of the tonbak and Turkish darbouka is squared, which lets the tonbak and Turkish darbouka players play the finger-snapping techniques easier.

The djembe has a body carved of hardwood and a drum head made of untreated (not limed) rawhide, most commonly made from goatskin.

The comparison of the techniques applied to the tonbak, the darbouka, and the djembe. For playing the tonbak and darbouka wrists and fingers are used broadly but in different ways. Usually, the darbouka players use their fingers more than their wrists. Using the wrists is definitely better than using the shoulders for the strike (which is the tendency of many beginners) and the djembe players by the nature of the djembe and its tradition.

Tonbak players have a sort of "floppy wrist action" for producing a technique called full-roll that you do not usually see in Arabic-style darbouka. The full roll on the tonbak requires the fingers to be extremely loose, and then the wrists can basically fling the fingers onto the skin of the tonbak softly.

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