Percussion instruments of the Middle East and North Africa
By Eric Peterson
There are lots of colorful drums to be found throughout the Middle East and North Africa. So many with different personalities and textures, that to choose to only play one kind is simply limiting. The amount of Doumbeks to be found everywhere in the United States makes me appreciate even more the many other wonderful types of percussion instruments to be found in Moroccan, Egyptian, Iraqi, Turkish, Kurdish, Iranian, Greek and Armenian music, and many other cultures as well. The instruments I'm writing about here are the ones I'm most familiar with playing. There are more obscure percussion instruments that I've only heard on recordings or have seen pictures of.
Frame drums are the oldest known drums in history, predating the Bible actually. I've read that frame drums have evolved from sifting grain using a circular frame of wood with netting across it. This wooden frame then had animal skin stretched across it to make the drum. Some early frame drums were square shaped, as seen in Egyptian hieroglyphics. The most common frame drum is the Def. Depending on the region its name varies, sometimes called Duf in Egypt and called Tar in the Sudan. The tones of the Def can be ornamented with bells or metal rings on the inside frame to add extra tones when rhythm is played. This kind of frame drum with rings attached is popular in Iran, as well as Kurdish music and is called a Daf. The Def is the drum to keep the backbeat for the rhythm. Vocalists and additional instruments play off of the driving groove of multiple Def players in a piece of music. Check out some village music from Egypt, or Arabian Bedouins for perfect examples. Smaller versions of this kind of drum, found in countries like Uzbekistan or Azerbaijan for example, is called a Doira.
Playing styles and rhythms vary from culture to culture. In Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, two strings are stretched across the inside frame of the skin. When the drum is sounded it makes a wild buzzing sound in the rhythm. This drum is called a Bendir and is very commonly used in Berber music as well as Gnawa music. The Turkish also play a different kind of Bendir which is a little more refined. I've heard it often in the Art music or Sufi music. The soft buzz-tone creates a relaxing, more meditative feel than the big, celebration styles and sounds of the way the Berbers play it.
Then there's also the Riq, a small Arabic tambourine, its meaning translates as "delicate" in Arabic. The Riq is the driving force of Arabic classical music and can also used in Cabaret or nightclub music. It is traditionally a classical instrument, though. The Turkish name for this a Tef, and the Greeks call it Tefi. In some countries it is also called a Def. Glen Velez and Layne Redmond are two percussionists who've taken the art-form of frame drums to unbelievable levels of performance.
The Tabla, Derbeki, and Darabuka are just a few names for the most popular Arabic and North African goblet shaped drum. Its most common name in America is Doumbek, probably derived from the Armenian Dumbeg or Greek Doumbeleki. The Turkish call it Darbuka. The Tabla was mostly used for village music, and then for cabaret/nightclubs. The excitement created by the rhythms, volume and techniques by the drummer can whip an audience into a frenzy. Again, many styles and techniques of playing vary by culture, as well as the inventiveness of the musician. Recordings of Tabla players to check out are Hossam Ramzy, Souhail Kaspar, Burhan Ocal, Ali Hafid, Misirli Ahmet, Reda Darwish, Setrak Sarkissian, as well as the Turkish percussion group Harem. Traditionally, the Tabla was made of fired clay with the drumhead being made of goat or fish skin, tightened with glue and lacing. The fish skin was for a higher quality drum, usually owned by a professional musician. A drumhead of fish skin is of a refined quality, as it produces clarity and the finest of tones. A good clay Tabla will ring crisp and clear like a bell.
Another goblet shaped drum is called the Doholla. In Arabic music this also keeps the backbeat for the music, the Doholla looks like a large Tabla.
Armenians are known to play the Dumbeg of Turkish origin, but the native Armenian drum is the Dhol, also to be found in Uzbek music. The Dhol is played under one arm with a shoulder strap. Its appearance looks slightly like an old military marching band drum with ropes. The technique of rolls and finger snaps for playing, are similar to the goblet shaped Tombak or Zarb from Iran. Speaking of military drums, the military had a huge influence on drumming in the Middle East. Many rhythms have a rudimentary feel or marching quality because they were used for such.
Take the Davul from Turkey, Davuli in Greece, the Tabl or Tabla Baladi from Arabia… same drum, same playing style. This large double-sided bass drum is worn over the shoulder with a strap, a mallet is held in one hand striking one side, while a long stick or switch strikes the other side. Key note is that each head has a different thickness for tone. The side for the stick is very useful for getting snare rattles and effects on the surface of the drum. It's commonly used in weddings or music for loud, boisterous celebrating. I've seen similar drums used by Moroccan and Algerian musicians as well.
Then there's the double (bongo style) drum from Morocco called Naqqara. Many modern Middle Eastern drums are now crafted in spun aluminum, with tunable plastic heads. This version is what many professional drummers use today. When the modern Tabla was crafted, the purpose was to have a Tabla that wouldn't break when it was dropped (as the clay would) and would stay in tune (having a plastic head). Animal skin absorbs moisture in the air, causing the drumhead to loosen, thus lowering the tone. Arid climates are perfect for these drums, as dry air tightens the head, giving a high, clear tone. The tunable Tabla head was a Godsend to drummers for its consistency in tone.
The Turkish were the first to use metal for drums, crafting hand-hammered brass to make the Darbuka, and also using tunable goat skin heads, and then the modern way with plastic. A musician will always adapt no matter what. Some drummers even use the plastic x-ray paper for tunable drums. The body of the drum can be decorated in many ways, Arabs like the inlay mosaic designs, North Africans may paint theirs, while the Turkish will use colored enamels or engraved designs.
Variations on the castanets are very common in the village or folk music in many countries. A pair of wooden spoons called Kashik are held in each hand to make wonderful, clicking rhythmic accompaniment for acoustic music in Turkey as well as Greece.
Then there's the Qaraqeba, the iron castanets used in Moroccan and Algerian trance music. Its most common to fashion these instruments from the bumpers of broken down auto-mobiles. The Zils, or Sagat as they're known in Egypt, are the hand-hammered brass cymbals worn on the thumb and forefingers of each hand to accompany dancers or drummers. With a simple, repetitive pattern the Zils add a beautiful sparkle to the rhythm. They are often over-used by dancers, but when tastefully played, they're a perfect accompaniment. I've also heard recordings of Bedouin musicians using a coffee-grinder to add rhythm and song to the art of making coffee.
Musical influence is everywhere and constantly evolving. Much Middle Eastern music today features full drum kits, drum machines, dj. Loops and samples. Recording artists are absorbing the influence of other countries… no surprise that instruments and rhythms from Brazil, Argentina, Spain, and even Hip-hop from the U.S. can be found in Middle Eastern music. Personally, I love hearing a mix of musical cultures in any genre, it's great. One of my favorite bands is Radio Tarifa, a group of musicians from Argentina who combine elements of South American music with the percussion and rhythms of North Africa. Check them out they're awesome!! Peter Gabriel has been the forerunner of incorporating Middle Eastern music into his groundbreaking "Passion" album. Hossam Ramzy has always been on the front-line of musical fusion with his musically enriched Arabic /Jazz / Flamenco pieces. There's also Loreena McKennitt's Celtic/Arabic fusion. Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, as well as Sting, and certainly Shakira have kept Middle Eastern rhythms and music fresh and up-front in popular music.
The info I've written here comes from my own personal experiences with this music and these instruments, and from a place of enthusiasm and love I have for Middle Eastern cultures and music. I don't make claims to be a scholar. I'm writing from the point of view as an enthusiast.
For bibliographies and educational info:
Dr. Ali Jihad Racy, a professor of Ethnomusicology at UCLA, has many articles published on Arabic music. A noted scholar and master musician, he is a highly regarded expert on Arabic music.
The Music of the Arabs
Music and Musical Instruments in the World of Islam
When the Drummers were Women
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