The History of the Tonbak

"When I started playing on the zarb, the instrument had fallen into disrepute. The zarb player was considered a low-level musician, a joke; no one dared to want to play the zarb. To do so was to give up all prestige, and all respect as a musician. Nonetheless, I began to play it. Love for the instrument outweighed the derision and scorn. At this time, I decided that I should change this negative view in any way possible. To this end, I practiced the zarb incessantly." - Ostad Hossein Tehrani (from his book, "Amouzesh-e-Tombak'')

A Brief History of the Tonbak

by Peyman Nasehpour

Abstract. In this note, we discuss the history of the tonbak (Persian goblet drum). The important role of Ostad Hossein Tehrani (father of the modern tonbak) is also elaborated.

Introduction. Knowing and appreciating the history of the tonbak may not be essential to being a great tonbak player. For some, it may not even be of interest. Despite all these, I believe that understanding and being familiar with the history of music and its musicians gives one a broader perspective and a more comprehensive view of what it means to be a musician. The main purpose of this short note is to give a brief history of the tonbak.

To begin with, note that today the Persian goblet drum with the name "tonbak تنبک" (also called "tombak تمبک" or "zarb ضرب") and the Persian frame drum with the name "daf دف" are the only national drums of Iran (formerly known as Persia). Also, the presence of goblet-shaped drums in Asia, North Africa, and East Europe shows the importance of this class of drums (refer to Many names of doumbek), but unfortunately, the origin of the tonbak is still in dispute. However, etymologists have proved that the Pahlavi (Persian pre-Islamic language) name of the tonbak is "dombalag دمبلگ". For a lexical discussion, see Lexical Discussion of Different Names of the Tonbak. Therefore, we know that it is ancient, pre-dating the Islamic period. On the one hand, various names for the tonbak, used in the works of Persian poems throughout history, trace the application of this instrument in different areas of ancient Persia. On the other hand, to my best knowledge, there is no mention of the application of this instrument in Persian or Arabic manuscripts on Persian art music. For instance, there is an old manuscript with the title "Kanz-al-Tohaf کَنز التُحَف" on the theoretical old Persian music (most probably written by "Hassan Kashani حسن کاشانی"), in which, at the end of the book, the author describes the methods of making the various musical instruments of his time, but unfortunately, the author has not included the drums (particularly the tonbak) in his descriptions.

Painted by Soltan Mohammad in 1519

Painted in 1590; Painter unknown to us

The tonbak in two Persian paintings:

Mehdi Moghiceh (painter) and the author found the two above paintings painted in 1519 and 1590 and they show the gypsy tonbak players. So far as the author knows, these are the oldest visual documents that show the tonbak vividly.

Important role of maestro Hossein Tehrani

The tonbak before Ostad Hossein Tehrani was considered an accompaniment instrument that was played by tasnifkhans (tasnif performers). It is good to explain that in the Ghajar period 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.

To my best knowledge, there is no information about the application of tonbak in Persian art music though the paintings that Moghiceh and I found show that at least the goblet drums have been popular among folk musicians or gypsies. However, the good news is that our information about the tonbak and tonbak players of the Ghajar period is sufficient, thanks to two important books on the history of Persian art music by Khaleghi and Mashhoun; see the Appendix. Note that in pre-Ghajar times, as paintings and other documents show, in Persian art music, the frame drums were used extensively, so one may deduce that the frame drums were gradually replaced by the tonbak in the Ghajar period. 

The first person who tried to give an independent role to the tonbak was Hossein Tehrani. He devoted his life to promoting the tonbak in Iran and Europe. Along with the help of some other musicians, he also wrote the first instructional book for the tonbak called  "Amouzesh-e-Tombak'' (Tombak Rudiment).

The skin of the tonbak is quite sensitive to changing humidity. This was a problem for every tonbak player. Tehrani asked Ostad Ebrahim Ghanbarimehr (manufacturer and designer of musical instruments) to find a solution to this problem. In fact, Ostad Ebrahim Ghanbarimehr was introduced to Hossein Tehrani by Abolhasan Saba (multi-instrumentalist). This resulted in Ebrahim Ghanbarimehr designing the tonbak-e-kouki (tunable tonbak). Alas, this kind of tonbak had not good luck. It seems that tonbak players prefer not to use tonbak-e-kouki. Tonbak players today still tune mostly by the old method, garm-kardan-ru-ye-atash (i.e. heating in front of a fire) or recently, heating the skin by putting the tonbak on electric heat pads. 

Step by step, the tonbak gained respectability as a serious instrument. Tehrani's activities stirred interest in the tonbak, throughout Iran and many other countries. The efforts of Tehrani and the other tonbak players (particularly Nasser Farhangfar) assured that the tonbak has a secure place in instrumental music. Before these artists, the tonbak was little more than a metronome! Fortunately, the author is able to say that today the public image of tonbak is really very good, though more is needed to be done. Today, many young players perform and promote it. Some tonbak players have even started integrating tonbak into fusion music ensembles. Perhaps this type of music is not of interest to those who only like pure Persian art music, but still, the drum's use in fusion music can only mean one thing: more worldwide popularity for the tonbak. 

And judging by the number of tonbaks sold by the manufacturers, the number of books being written on the tonbak, and the number of young people who enjoy it, it seems that the tonbak has a very bright future indeed. However, the tonbak in particular as a solo instrument needs to be developed to have the best possible position.


Tonbak players of the past. In the following, I list some tonbak players of the past:

Some parts of this note were published on different websites, such as the late Eric Stuer's rhythmweb website.

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