By Matt Stonehouse
The Darbuka (doumbek, dumbelek etc.) is a wonderful drum to introduce you to the amazing and seemingly infinite world of Arabic music, art, culture and rhythm. It is a ‘goblet’ or ‘necked bottle’ shaped and produces as many sounds as the creative player can imagine. The name darbuka is generally given to city made drums with aluminium or copper shells for their goblet forms. Other names for this drum vary depending on the country and then region. For the sake of this book I will refer to it as the darbuka. If the rhythms of these countries entice you, then you may wish to discover drums similar to the darbuka but which produce very different tones, such as Persia’s Tombak (Zarb).
For me this is the mother of all shapes goblet and is generally made with walnut or mulberry timber and goat skin, preferably with the skin coming from Pakistan for its dryness. The Tombak is, to my ears, the bridging drum between India and Turkey and the player must master techniques employing all fingers.
The tone of the tombak is softer than that of a darbuka and has more sustain, like the Indian Tabla. It is also an incredibly powerful drum that doesn’t need mass volume to get the message across.
Before goblet shaped drums, we find the frame drum the main percussive instrument of countries stretching across from Asia to the Maghreb. Frame drums are shaped like a sieve (its origin). Modifications to these amazing drums may include chains or Zills (small cymbals). The Persian Daf (Def) has as many as one hundred chains hanging from the inside rim which can produce a poly-rhythm that runs along side the main pattern being played with the hands. These act as an inbuilt shaker and can ornament the rhythm or intensify it. The daf can be used to accompany a solo instrument such as the Setar or the Santur from Iran, or used in a huge ensemble to create a thunderous and rather scary sound. Personally, I like to play daf in the Middle Eastern surf band, ‘The Reefers.’ These drums were traditionally made with animal skin (membranephones) ranging from snake skin to goat skin. Today it is widely accepted and more practical due to weather changes, to have the Daf made with a synthetic skin.
Unfortunately when there’s a bit of moisture in the air a natural skin will loosen, thus lowering the pitch sometimes too low to play. So that’s why we use plastic. The tone isn’t as good as natural skin but at least it’s reliable and stays the same pitch. A smaller version of this frame drum and modified with Zills is the Riq (Req) or Middle Eastern tambourine. Forget what negative associations you may have with the tambourine and Sunday school, in the right hands the Req is a pocket drum kit!
The Riq is not popular in Iran but widely used in countries such as Turkey, Iraq and Egypt, each country with a unique style of playing. The Turkish classical style of playing is light and very ornamental. It’s a beautiful style to listen to and can replace the darbuka as the main accompanying drum. The badest, meanest and most powerful Riq players I’ve heard are the Iraqi’s. Their techniques are so strong that a single riq player can keep the dance floor alive and jumpin’!
In Moroccan music you will hear the trance sounds of the Bendir, fixed with snares on the inside of the drum. These drums are often performed in large ensembles of ten to thirty musicians and produce an incredible trance like state through repetition and cleverly constructed cross rhythms. Morocco is an interesting country to listen to. It’s the bridging country from the Arabic world to Africa. The sounds that come out of this place are so fresh and alive with vibrant 6/8 rhythms and Arabic vocals.
Moving down the frequency spectrum we find the bass drum called Davul or Tabl. The davul is a cylindrical drum with skins at either end and is generally but not always played with beaters. This drum can produce a myriad of sounds covering all dynamic ranges. In Turkey the davul is very popular along the Black Sea and the rhythms here are usually in an odd time signature.
If you’re lucky enough to be invited to a Lebanese wedding with professional Tabl players that can also dance whilst performing then prepare to be blown away! In Armenia the ‘Dohl’ (cylindrical barrel drum) is played on the knee with the fingers to produce a very rich tone not unlike a large, hollow sounding darbuka. So, like I said, the darbuka is an incredible drum and one could spend a lifetime enjoying and mastering it, but it is also merely a key that offers us an insight into an exotic world of rhythms, music, people, lifestyles and personal journeys.
Enjoy the ride, practice with passion, keep your mind open and welcome to the world of Arabic percussion!
This e-book can be downloaded at the Fingers of Fury online school for Darbuka Doumbek and Framedrums.