The Strokes and Roll Techniques of the Tonbak

The strokes and roll techniques of the tonbak in Ostad Nasser Farhangfar's style

by Peyman Nasehpour

During the years between 1972 and 1984, Ostad Nasser Fahngfar created a new style of performing the tonbak that later was named Farhangfar's style by his followers. The main purpose of this note is to illustrate the finger patterns of the tonbak that I learned from him.


The tonbak has lots of different strokes and rolls, using all the fingers of both hands. Some of them are common among most styles of the tonbak, and some of them belong to Ostad Farhangfar's style uniquely. For example, the way that the bass stroke is played is almost the same in all styles, while the "eshareh اشاره" technique can be different depending on the style that one applies to play the tonbak. I start by explaining how the bass stroke is performed in this glorious style.


The bass stroke that is played in the center of the skin of the tonbak is called "ton تن" or "tom تم"; similar to the Turkish and Arabic "dum" in performing the darbouka. For playing the "tom", the hand is not completely open or closed. As an example, envision one's hand partially cupped as if the one wants to scoop water in order to wash one's face, and then, one should strike the skin with the fingertips of the four fingers, from the pinkie to the index finger. Consider that the "dum" of Turkish and Arabic darbuka, as far as I have seen, is played by the flat of the fingers. This kind of "tom" is used in the "motrebi مطربی" and some folk styles of the tonbak performance. Note that the "motrebi" music is a genre of Persian music that was played on festive occasions, particularly wedding ceremonies, though today this genre is almost forgotten. The "motreb مطرب" (literally means somebody that creates joy and happiness) is a musician who plays happy music to bring joy to the audiences on these festive occasions.


The treble stroke that is played on the rim of the skin is called the "bak بک"; similar to the Turkish and Arabic "tek" or "tak", again performed on the darbouka. The "bak" is played in two different ways. The two-fingered "bak" is played by the flesh of the first joint of the two middle and ring fingers. One-fingered "bak" is played in the same way, but only by the ring finger. It is obvious that the sound produced by the one-fingered "bak" is supposed to be softer than the sound produced by the two-fingered "bak".


Note that some believe the name of tonbak comes from the sound produced by the "ton" (or "tom") and "bak" strokes, i.e. "ton+bak" (or "tom+bak"). There is also another theory for the etymology of the tonbak; The Persian word "tonb تنب" means belly. For example, the name "tonbour تنبور" (an ancient Persian long-necked lute) is a combination of "tonb تنب" and "var ور" in which the resulting word means the owner of the belly. Perhaps the words, "tonbak" and "tonbour" have the same root. Note that "k ک" at the end of most words will cause them to become smaller. For example, the "tonbak" which is a diminutive form of the word "tonb" owns a smaller belly, so to say. For more, see my note on a lexical discussion of the tonbak.


The other essential stroke is the "pelang پلنگ", also called the "beshkan بشکن" which is simply translated into the English word "snap", performed on the tonbak by all fingers. More precisely, the "snap" can be played with each of the pinkie, the ring, or the middle fingers. In addition, the snap technique can be performed by the index finger, but it is not popular in Ostad Farhangfar's style. Our master, Ostad Farhangfar, always advised us to play the index finger similar to one-fingered bak, instead of snapping, while one puts the index finger on the middle finger and forcefully strikes the middle part of the skin with the index finger. Since, in fact, this is not a snap stroke, it has been named "bargardan برگردان" by Ostad Farhangfar. I should add that the skin of the tonbak is divided into three parts: 1. The center 2. The rim and 3. The middle, where is the place between the center and the rim.


Note that all the strokes of the tonbak are played by the two free and non-free hands; Let me add that I have coined these two new words in order to ignore any confusion between the right and the left hands. The hand that rests on the body of the tonbak is the non-free hand. Thus, it is evident that the other hand must be named the free hand. Similar names can be used for the drums daf or the ghaval. For more, see the structure of the tonbak.


The most essential and, at the same time, the most difficult techniques of the tonbak are the "roll" techniques that are called "riz ریز" in Persian; meaning small. The "riz" is a combination of some strokes played very rapidly and periodically. We have many kinds of roll techniques and five of them come from the tradition of tonbak playing. Perhaps the most popular one is called "riz-e-por ریز پر" which literally means the full roll. The full roll (in Persian "riz-e-por") is produced by combining two strokes of the free and non-free hands. When playing these two strokes, one should not think of playing with one's fingers individually. For the free hand, when one plays the stroke, one ought to drop the thumb, pinkie, ring, middle, and index fingers on the skin in the same order one after another. For the non-free hand, one ought to play in the same way, from the pinkie to the index finger; in this case, the thumb should not touch the body of the tonbak. Since the non-free hand almost always rests on the body of the tonbak, it is not usually easy to strike the thumb finger on the skin. At last, since the "riz-e-por" is produced by the nine fingers of the two hands, it is sometimes called the nine-fingered roll (in Persian "riz-e-noh-angoshti ریز نه انگشتی").


In the above, I explained that the combination of these two strokes configures the most popular roll of the tonbak, i.e., riz-e-por. In order of reference, I again have to coin a new word, "takriz تکریز" for those strokes. Therefore, the takriz of the free (non-free) hand is played with five (four) fingers of the free hand (non-free hand) in the way that I explained before for the "full roll", respectively.


Another distinctive technique of the tonbak is the "eshareh اشاره" (literally means allusion) or "zinat زینت" (literally means ornament). The "eshareh" is a combination of some strokes and is a flourish prior to (usually an accented) stroke. The duration of the "eshareh" should often be as short as possible unless one has enough time. This point is explained by saying that "the eshareh is solved in the rhythm". Note that the "eshareh" adds some beauty to the main stroke, and its role is like "seasoning for food". This is one of the trickiest strokes of the tonbak, so to say.


The most popular eshareh of Farhangfar's style - that is quite different from the eshareh of the style promoted by Ostad Hossein Tehrani (the father of modern tonbak) - is produced by playing the "takriz" of both free and non-free hand together but with a short time gap between them. It is clear that the main stroke should be played after the eshareh, again with a short time gap between them. For example, we act like this: takriz (free hand), takriz (non-free hand), and then, "tom"! This recalls a similar stroke for the Indian tabla, i.e., the Kre which is a tricky "bol" produced by playing "Ka" and "Te" together but with a short time gap between them. Note that "Ka" comes first and then "Te". For more, see Pandit Aloke Dutta's book on the tabla.


Now, we proceed to explain a couple of other kinds of roll techniques of the tonbak in the following:


The "riz-e-shallaghi ریز شلاقی" is a combination of the both two-fingered "bak" of the free and the non-free hands. This kind of roll is played by the "morshed مرشد", i.e., a guide of the athletes who is a singer, and a tonbak player of the zourkhaneh (literally means house of power) which is a Persian traditional gymnasium. The size of the tonbak played in zourkhaneh is larger than ordinary tonbaks and is called tonbak-e-zourkhaneh تنبک زورخانه or tonbak-e-ta'lim تنبک تعلیم ("ta'lim" literally means training). Note that in the Persian language "e" has the same role as the preposition "of" in English. Therefore, for instance, "tonbak-e-hindi تنبک هندی" (used in poems of Amir Khosro Dehlavi) means the tonbak of India or simply the Indian tonbak.


A similar "riz" to the "riz-e-shallaghi" is a combination of both one-fingered "bak" of the free and the non-free hands though the sound produced by this kind of riz is obviously softer than the sound produced by the riz-e-shallaghi. This kind of riz is sometimes called "riz-e-timpani ریز تیمپانی" since the sound produced by this roll resembles the roll produced by the drumsticks on a timpani.


Let me add that similar techniques to one-fingered "bak" can be played in the middle and the center parts of the skin of the tonbak and therefore similar rolls can be produced while one gets more bass sounds.


Another kind of roll technique, which is produced by combining the one-fingered "bak" of the free hand and ring finger-snapping of the non-free hand is called "riz-pelang ریز پلنگ" though some believe that this name is an error allowed by usage.


Finally, from all I explained, one may deduce that the most applied finger in performing the tonbak is the ring finger of both hands.


Date of Publication: Feb. 5th, 2003.


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Peyman Nasehpour on the tonbak
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Percussion Workshop with Peyman Nasehpour at Mogenland Festival © Philippe Frese