Different Names of Tonbak in Asia, North Africa and East Europe

Dr. Peyman Nasehpour


Among the percussion instruments used heavily across Asia, North Africa and Eastern Europe are four broad classes of drums, known to musicologists as frame drums and goblet drums, cylindrical drums and kettledrums. This article deals with the goblet drums.


Goblet drums are one of the most important broad classes of drums, to be played heavily across Asia, North Africa and Eastern Europe.

These instruments have many similarities, and there are many similar names in use. Most of the names are derived from two names, the Pahlavi (the Middle Persian language used by Persians during the Sasanid period) name dombalak and the Arabic name darbouka.

The American name doumbek should be derived from the Persian name dombak that is the new form of its Pahlavi name, dombalak and brought to USA by Eastern emigrants.

In this article I will discuss on the names of goblet drums.


Zirbaghali (also spelled Zerbaghali) is the Afghani clay goblet drum and played with a technique somewhat between Persian tonbak and Indian tabla (the double membrane instrument of Indian origin) with some darbouka techniques thrown in for seasoning. Indian tabla has influenced the Afghans, particularly Kabulis. It is interesting to say that there is a round black patch (siyahi) on the skin of Zirbaghali, which shows the influence of Indian tabla on Zirbaghali. Zirbaghali can be considered as an Indo-Persian musical instrument and it is believed that it is of Persian origin.


In Albania, the name is Darabuke.


In present-day Republic of Azerbaijan, the doumbek is used. However, the main percussion instruments are naghara (a cylindrical drum with two heads and same as Armenian dhol) and ghaval (a kind of frame drum).


In Bulgaria, the names of doumbek are darabuka, darambuka, tarambuke and tarambuka. The tarambuka is of Eastern origin. Tarambuka is made from baked clay. It is similar to the Turkish-Arabic darabuka. It is always played together with other folk instruments. Its sound is soft and low. The tarambuka provides a background rhythm for songs.

Bulgarian tarambuka can be found only in the Southwest. It most often accompanies the tambura (a string instrument very similar to the Turkish saz). In the past these two instruments were played mainly by an ethnic minority called Pomachs, but in the 20th Century they are used in playing professional music based on folklore. Most researchers in the field think that these instruments have entered Bulgarian folklore through the Turkish music. The professional ensembles also use it nowadays (Ensemble "Pirin" and "Philip Koutev"). There are cases in which the tarambuka is played with a tupan (a kind of cylindrical drum). The latter is being used as a base rhythmic party, whereas the tarambuka for more virtuous rhythms. The most popular rhythm in Bulgarian folk music is 7/8 with the accent on the first beat.

Egypt and Arab Countries

Tabl is the Arabic general name for drums and is also the most common name for goblet drums in the Arabic language countries (not to be confused with the Indian tabla, which this name has been brought to India by Persian Muslims). All of them look like the Egyptian drums. The body is traditionally made of clay and the large opening is covered with fish skin.

The other names are:

Egypt -Darabukka, Derabucca, and Darbouka
Lebanon and Syria - Derbekki, Drbekki, and Drbakka
Morocco and Algeria - Derboka
Tarija (Morocco): This is a small goblet drum used in Melhoun genre of Moroccan art music.

It's interesting to note that most of the above names have their root in the Arabic-Turkish word 'darab' that the meaning of the word is the sound made by beating a drum. (Compare with Dambel-e-Dimbo in Persian and Rub-a-Dub in English.)


In Greece there is a kind of goblet drum that is so similar to dumbelek of Turkey and its name is toubeleki. The both names should be originated in the Pahlavi name dombalak. Toubeleki is played in oriental Greece.


In India there are various goblet drums. One of them is played in Kashmir and its name is tumbaknari. Tumbaknari is used for every singing occasion in Kashmir. The word Tumbaknari is of two parts: Tumbak and Nari. Nari in Kashmiri means earthen pot.

The other goblet drums of India are Ghumat (Goa) and Jamuku (South India).


There is a kind of goblet drum in Japan. Taiko is the general name for drums in Japan. The name of this instrument is Shuhai-Gata-Katamen-Taiko. It should be mentioned here that Shuhai, Gata and Katamen respectively mean goblet, shape and one-faced. The other drums of Japan are Oke-do-Taiko, Naga-do-Taiko and Shime-Taiko.


The gedombak is a goblet shaped double-headed drum found in Malay folk music. The frame is made from one type of hard wood, usually jackfruit tree wood or angsana. The wider end is covered by goatskin, which functions as a sound producer tensioned using woven rattan strings. The other end is left open.

In the performance context, the gedombak is played in pairs, called Gendang Ibu (Mother) and Gendang Anak (Child). Gedombak Ibu is able to produce a lower pitch than the Gedombak Anak, but both have the same frame size. The drumheads are struck with one hand, while the other is used to stabilize the mnemonic sounds like "doh", "phat", and "ting". Two players, accompanying traditional theatre such as Wayang Kulit and Menora, usually play them.


There is a kind of goblet drum in Macedonia that its name is tarabuka. The body is made of pottery decorated with ethnic designs. The tarabuka is used mostly for playing as part of folk ensembles, usually at weddings and other festive occasions.


There are three kinds of goblet drums to be played in Persia (Iran). One is the tonbak, to be used in Persian art and folk music. The other is the zarb-e-zourkhaneh (the large sized clay tonbak to be played in zourkhaneh, the Persian ancient gymnasium) and the last one is the tempo similar to the Arabic-Turkish darbouka.

Here is a description of the structure of the tonbak:
Skin: Skin of tonbak is glued on the head of tonbak. Goatskin is the most popular.
Body: Body of tonbak is wooden. This is in fact the sound box of tonbak. Sometimes many furrows are carved on its wood.
Throat: Throat is almost cylindrical and it is connected from top to the body and from the bottom to the small opening.
Small Opening: Tonbak is in the form of goblet, which is open from the top and bottom. Small opening is in the bottom and is similar to the mouth of trumpet. The throat and the small opening together are in the form of a trumpet.
Large Opening: Large opening is in the top and the skin is covered on it.

Other names for this drum are donbak, tombak, dombak, tompak and zarb. The word zarb is Arabic and probably derived from the word darab that means the sound made by beating a drum. In Indian music zarab that literally means to strike is the arrangement of the segments that their combination make a tala (Indian rhythm).

There are two views for the origin of the name tonbak:

Some believe that the name tonbak is originated in the sound to be produced by the two main strokes played on the tonbak known as 'ton' and 'bak', respectively for the bass tone played in the center of the skin and the treble tone played on the rim and combination of them give us the word tonbak. According to this view tonbak is an onomatopoeic name, while the other believe that the word tonbak is diminutive of the word tonb, witch literally means belly. This view is not so strange because the body of tonbak is convex (belly-shaped).

Tempo is noted as an Arabic instrument and sometimes it is used for accompanying Persian banal songs.


Tajikistani goblet drum is called Tablak that is diminutive of the word tabl. Like the other goblet drums it is open on both sides. Across one of the mouths is stretched a piece of skin which is beaten with the fingers. The opposite end is manipulated with the other hand to give various tonal effects.


The Thai goblet drum is called thon (the other names are thab and thap) that is often played simultaneously with Thai frame drum called ramana. The instruments are known together as thon-ramana. The Thon lies on the player's lap and is played with the right hand, while the ramana is held in the left hand. The shape of thon is so similar to gedombak (Malaysian goblet drum).


The most common name of the Turkish goblet drum is dumbelek. Other names are darbouka and deblek (same as Tajikistani Tablak). The word dumbelek should be originated in the Pahlavi name dombalak. The Turkish goblet drums are mainly made of metals.


The Yugoslavian goblet drum is called darbuk.


Some of this information comes from different people by e-mail. My thanks to them: David Brown, Dr. Iveta Pirgova, Dr. Pongsilva Arunrat, Matt Hannafin, Dr. David Courtney, Sachi Sakanashi.

Further References

B. Chaintanya Deva, Indian Music, New Delhi, 1974.
Hossein Khadiv Jam, Avaz-e-Khorasani va Sav-e-Afghani (Shabi dar Khanghah-e-Kabol), Tehran, 1987.
Mehran Poormandan, The Encyclopedia of Iranian Old Music, Tehran, 2000.
Cemsid Salehpur, Türkçe Farsça Genel Sözlügü, Tehran, 1996.
Mehdi Setayeshgar, Vazhe-Name-ye-Musighi-ye-Iran Zamin, Tehran, Vol. I (1995) & Vol. II (1996).
Musical Voices of Asia, Report of [Asian Traditional Performing Arts 1978], The Japan Foundation, 1980.