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Middle Eastern Percussion Instruments

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Middle Eastern Percussion Instruments

The DAFF: A Mystical Instrument
by Mimi Spencer, from the Near Eastern Music Calendar, Vol II, #3, April/May 1992
Doumbec / Tambourine / Tar / Finger Cymbals
Photos, Descriptions & Historical Information

(also known as darbuka, derbeki, or tabla)

Note: The word doumbec is Armenian and is used most often in the United States among non-Middle Eastern people.  Darbuka, derbeki and tabla are used in Arab countries.

  • The doumbec is the most popular drum in the Middle East. It is goblet shaped with a head stretched over the bowl and can produce an amazing variety of bass (doum) and treble (tekk) sounds by being struck by the hands and fingers. It is usually played while being held horizontally on the lap or may be held by a shoulder strap.
  • Ceramic doumbecs usually produce a warm and earthy sound and traditionally have heads made of fish or goat skin but synthetic heads also are used.
  • Egyptian cast-aluminum doumbecs are modeled after the shape of the ceramic ones, have mylar heads, and are tune-able. They have a very loud, crisp tekk sound that is easily heard over amplified instruments. Other benefits are that they don't break easily and the mylar heads don't change tone with changes in temperature and humidity.
  • Turkish doumbecs are made of thinner metal and have tune-able heads. The edges of the doumbec are sharper and they produce a more ringing, metallic tone. The shape also is conducive to snapping with the fingers. Some Turkish doumbecs have cymbals on the inside which produce a ringing accompaniment to the traditional drum strokes.
  • There is some belief that the doumbec was invented by women potters many centuries ago. "To store the accumulation of grain from farming, women developed the art of ceramics…creating cooking and storage vessels of fired clay." (Redmond, 1997 p.44) It was only a matter of time before someone placed a skin over a storage vessel and created the ceramic drum.


(also known as daff or riqq)

Note: The word tambourine is used in the United States most often among non-Middle Eastern people.  Daff is used in most Arab countries and riqq only in Egypt. 

  • The tambourine is considered a serious percussion instrument in the Middle East. It is held upright in one hand and produces three distinct sounds: that of the skin when struck in the center, that of the wood when struck close to the wooden rim, and that of the metal when played more delicately with the fingers striking individual cymbals and more raucously by shaking the entire tambourine.
  • Most Egyptian tambourines are wooden, traditionally have a fish or goat skin head, and have five sets of cymbals. The most common size of tambourine is 8 1/2 inches in diameter.
  • Metal Egyptian tambourines have tune-able mylar heads and five sets of cymbals. Their sound is much louder than wooden tambourines enabling them to be heard better when played with heavily amplified instruments. Other advantages of metal tambourines with mylar heads is that they don't sag and lose their tone in humid weather and they don't break easily. Some disadvantages are that the metal tambourines can be harsh in sound and also are much heavier than wooden tambourines.
  • For classical style tambourine playing, the tambourine is held in both hands and the head is struck with the fingers of both hands without involving the cymbals.
  • Tambourines were used for Dionysian rites as early as 300 AD.
  • The shape of the tambourine is symbolic. "A traditional Middle Eastern tambourine, with five sets of moon-shaped jingles representing the five phases of the moon: birth, growth, fruition, dissolution, and death." (Redmond 1997 p. 34)
  • In Egypt, tambourines were used by women in religious ritual. "During the thousands of years the tambourine is represented in Egyptian history, it is always in the hands of acclaiming and rejoicing women participating in sacred dances and processions or playing in front of goddesses - Layne Redmond." (Hart 1991 p.32)
  • The metallic sound of the cymbals on the tambourine has protective ability. "The ringing of the metal drove away harmful spirits, enemies, or the effects of the evil eye. From the most ancient times to the present day, the shaking of jingles…the clash of cymbals…have retained this shamanistic function." (Redmond 1997 p. 99)


(also known as frame drum or duff)

Note: The word tar is used in the Sudan.  Duff is used in Arab countries. 

  • A tar is a  round wooden frame drum whose diameter is much bigger than its depth. Goat skin traditionally is stretched over the frame to create the head although synthetic versions are now used. Some tars have a thumbhole or indentation in the frame to facilitate holding.
  • Tars range from 10-22 inches in diameter but the most commonly used size is 16 inches.
  • The tar is held upright in one hand and is struck with the fingers of that hand and the full hand and fingers of the other hand. The tar is known for its deep, haunting tones.
  • The bendir is a Moroccan frame drum that has 2-3 gut sinew snares across the back of the goat skin head. This produces a buzzing vibration when the head is struck.
  • The doira is a Persian frame drum with a goat skin head and ring-shaped jingles attached to the back of the frame. It jingles when the head is struck.
  • The tar, being played by a woman, first appeared on a shrine room wall in ancient Anatolia (modern day Turkey) from 6000 BC.
  • The round frame tar first appeared in Egypt c.1417-1379 BC.
  • Tars historically have had a very important religious significance. "Female performance ensembles of musician, singers, and dancers appear in some of the earliest representations of religious rituals. The frame drum was at the musical and psychic center of these rituals." (Redmond, 1997 p.10)
  • The tar was used in religious rituals of the Mother Goddess. It is thought to correspond to the pulse of life, similar in sound to the heartbeat we hear in our mothers' wombs. The tar also is representative of the moon and fertility.
  • It is believed that the tar was developed by women who used grain sieves to clean the grain. Their shapes are the same. "Since ancient times, the grain sieve and the frame drum have been thought to share a common origin. One of the oldest names for the frame drum in the ancient Sumerian language also means grain sieve." (Redmond, 1997 p.47)


Finger Cymbals
(also known as sagat or zills)

Note: The word zills is used in Turkey.  Sagat is used in Arab countries. 

  • Finger cymbals are round and slightly bell shaped. They are made of brass and come in a variety of shapes and sizes, each with a different tone. Finger cymbals are played by both musicians and dancers.
  • Finger cymbals are worn in pairs on each hand, one attached to the thumb at the first knuckle and one attached to the middle finger. The cymbals are attached by elastic drawn through holes or slots in the cymbals.
  • Sounds are produced by striking the cymbals together, either straight together or one straight and one on the edge. There are three major tones: ringing, clicking, and clacking.
  • Dancers with finger cymbals can be found in ancient Egyptian tomb paintings (1320-1200 BC) and were also used in India, Turkey, and Greece.


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