The DAFF: A Mystical Instrument

by Mimi Spencer 

The daff is the Middle Eastern tambourine.   It is quite different from its Western counterpart, which may not even have a skin, being merely a frame with nickel-plated cymbals inset all around, except for a space left to hold it.  Its cymbals are not played and the Western tambourine is used only for shaking or striking against some surface, such as a hand or thigh.  Some musicians even play it with their feet!

In contrast, the Arabic daff is a work of art, often decorated with intricate mother-of-pearl mosaic.  The rim, across which the skin is stretched, is carefully shaped with a tapered edge, in order to produce very crisp "tak" (treble) sounds.  Five sets of four heavy brass cymbals are set equidistantly around the frame.  The number five has a mystical and religious significance in the Middle East: the Islamic religion has five articles of fair, or “pillars,” that are important for every Muslim.  The figure five is written in Arabic as a circle, like our letter O or zero; and this is the shape of the frame of the daff.  To bang it on one’s hip or play it with one’s feet would seem almost sacrilegious!

This type of instrument, which is known generically as a “frame drum,” may be one of the most ancient, for the skin stretched over a frame is found in practically every known music culture.  In different countries of the Near East, the word daff refers to several different instruments.  Sometimes it means a larger tambourine with no cymbals, but most often it refers to a small (8 to 10 inches in diameter) frame with cymbals of brass set at equal intervals around the edge.  In Greece this instrument is called defi, and in Egypt it is known as the riqq, literally meaning “skin.”

The classical Arabic technique of playing the daff is one of the most difficult of all to master.  As the instrument is rather heavy for its size, merely holding it in playing position can be difficult after a very short time.  The skin is played like a drum, producing open, lower pitched “doum” sounds when it is struck an inch or two inward from the rim.  Striking directly on the rim, one gets high-pitched sounds that may be modulated by pressing with the index fingers while striking with the ring finger.

In classical technique the cymbals are not always struck, though they resound when the head is struck.  By tilting the instrument more or less, this “sympathetic” cymbal sound may be increased or decreased.  To get a proper crisp tone, the skin must be very tight; thus, it is often necessary to heat the skin before playing.  For this reason, you may see heating pads on stage at performances.  There are now some daff-s available with plastic heads that do not need to be heated – but, as with the Arabic tabla, the sound of a plastic head is far inferior to that of a fish (or even a goat) skin.  (it is most regrettable that animals still die to produce music.  Science has not yet found an aesthetically acceptable substitute for these skins, as it has in the case of the nylon string.)

The daff was once the only percussion instrument used in the Arabic takht or orchestra; at that time the darbukka was played mainly by women performing in female ensembles (mostly to entertain other women).  In modern times, with amplification, larger audiences and louder “urban” music, the darbukka is also played by men.  The daff is played differently in modern orchestras, also; the delicate sounds produced in classical technique have been abandoned in favor of playing directly on the cymbals and much shaking.  (Following the example of Vince Delgado, I call this the “shooka shooka” style. – Editor)  It’s also a somewhat easier technique of playing, though still quite difficult.

When this editor worked in Arabic nightclubs in the late 70’s and early 80’s, there was a practice of occasionally having the belly dancers play tambourine when they weren’t performing. They were simply drafted willy nilly and usually had little or no knowledge of how to play it; and in truth, at that time there were few good Arabic tambourine players in the area.  Now, however, there are a number of very good players, both Arab and American, who play Middle Eastern style daff.   Next time you see someone playing the daff, observe the technique.  Is it similar to one of the styles described here?  You should be able to tell whether or not s/he has any training in the Near Eastern style.

From the Near Eastern Music Calendar, Vol II, #3, April/May 1992


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