Reza Torshizi, the writer of the One Thousand Years of Rhythm in Persian Music writes: “In the poetry book, the Yadegar-e Zaryaran, which narrates heroic fictions of the Parthian period the word “tombak”is mentioned". Francis Galpin in his book, The Music of Mesopotamia, writes that in the Mesopotamia and Central Asia a kind of drum was common which was called the lilis. The smaller version of the lilis was called the lilissu which is very similar to the darbuka, the Arabic drum. The lilissu was made of clay and wood. A sample of the lilissu is now preserved in the British Museum. Also, in one Babylonian tablet, the lilissu is shown in detail.
Another instrument which is very similar to the present tombak is the cup- shape drum. Almost around 400 of these kinds of drum belonging to the Bronze Age and New Stone Age were found in central Europe. They are made of clay. Also, another cup- shaped drum from 500 B.C. was found in the Altai area of Russia. Another cup-shaped drum from 2800 B.C .was found in Check Republic.
Today, we can see a different version of the cup-shaped drum which is made of wood. These drums are played in Africa, the Indian subcontinent, and southeastern Asia.
Although the cup-shaped drums and other Iranian percussions like the daf and dohol are very old and their history dates back to several thousand years ago, the tombak which is now used in the Persian art music is relatively a new instrument. We even do not see an image of the tombak in the paintings of the Chehelsotun Building from the Safavid era. The first traces of the tombak date back to the Qajar period. The apparent shape and its abilities to generate different sound effects indicate that the tombak is more developed than other percussion instruments such as the daf, dohol, and dayreh.
The tombak also pronounced "tonbak". The word "tombak" comes from two separate words: "tom" and "bak". The "tom" is the strong struck put on the middle of the skin and "bak" is a weaker struck put on the side of the skin. The tombak is also played in some regional music of Iran, such as the music of Lorestan. Moreover, the tombak plays an important role in the light music or “motrebi” music. This instrument seems to be purely Iranian because of its shape and the way it is played. Perhaps, the most similar instrument to the tombak is the Afghani zirbaghali which is made of wood or cooked clay. Although the timpo which is played in southern Iran and some Arabic countries is located on the feet of the player like the tombak, their playing styles are very different from each other.
Figure 1: A Babylonian tablet shows the lilissu in detail
Figure 2: The cup-shaped drum made of clay
Figure 3: The cup-shaped drum made of bronze
Figure 4: The African cup-shaped drum which is made of wood
Figure 5: The African musicians playing the cup-shaped drum
Figure 6: The style of holding and playing the tombak in Persian music
Figure 7: The timpo which looks like the tombak is played in the countries surrounding
The tombak is a single-headed goblet-shaped drum with a wood shell and a sheepskin or cow skin top (drumhead). It is carved from a single block of (sometimes highly-figured, knotted or marbled) mulberry wood for an attractive visual as well as aural impression.
The tombak is made in different sizes and the diameter of its large opening varies in different sizes from 20 to 28 cm.
The tombak is one of a few Iranian instruments which are decorated and much time and money are spent for decorating it. Some of these decorated tombaks are sold just as art works, however, some of these decorated tombaks are played by famous musicians as well. Some of the well-known tombaks makers in Iran are Helmi, Hemati, Shirani, and Jozani.
Figure 1: The piece of wood ready for making the tombak
Figure 2: The carved wood
Figure 3: The sizes of a regular tombak
Figure 4: The different sizes of the tombak
Figure 5: An image of a regular tombak
Figure 6: The inlaid tombak
Figure 7: The painted tombak
Figure 8: The carved wood tombak
Aqa Jan-e Aval was the first ranking tombak player during Naser al-Din Shah Qajar’s reign. He was an expert in playing the tombak and singing the rhythmic pieces and songs. Also, Soma Hozur who is known as a famous santur player was an expert in playing the tombak and singing the rhythmic songs. His two sons, Habib and mahboob, were also very good in playing the tombak. Another virtuous tombak player was Aqa Jan-e Dovom who was a student of Soma Hozur. Aqa Jan-e Dovom trained many students among them Abol Hassan Saba and Hussein Tehrani. Some other tombak players of the Qajar period are: Haji Ahmad Kashi and Isa Aqa Bashi.
Beside the mentioned tombak players during the Qajar era, we can refer to the Jewish and women tombak players of that era. Among the Jewish tombak players we can mention the names of Mardkhay-e Ozrya, and the grand father of Solayman Ruhafza and his son, Ebrahim (initially a master of the tar), Bala khan (Morteza Khan Neydavood’s father), and Yusef Khan known as Huni. Among the women tombak players, we can name Tal’at Khanom from the Qajar period. This point should be made here that the female musicians were usually the court’s musicians and those who were not affiliated with the court were the musicians of light music.
Abdollah Khan Davami was another virtuous tombak player. He was a bridge between the older generations and the new ones. He was a tombak player of the late Qajar period and learned this instrument from such masters as Haji Khan Ayn al-Doleh. Davami also learned the singing styles and the vocal radif from Ali Khan Nayeb al-Saltaneh. Davami knew many old songs and he performed them with great masters of the Qajar period, such as Mirza Hussein Qoli, Darvish Khan, and Hussein Khan Esmail Zadeh.
Up to 1960, the tombak was just an accompanying instrument and the status of tombak players was lower than other musicians.
Hussein Tehrani revolutionized the art of playing the tombak. He was a student of Aqa Jan-e Dovom and was influenced by master Saba. Tehrani introduced many different techniques for the tombak, and as Jean During says; “ Tehrani reinvented this instrument”. Comparing the playing styles of the Qajar tombak players and that of Tehrani clearly shows the difference between them.
Tehrani sometimes accompanied his playing by his own voice. This was actually an old tradition.
Tehrani sometimes imitated the different sounds existing in his environment by his tombak. For example, he would produce the sound of a train and sewing machine. But, he never did that while accompanying other instruments.
Hussein Hamedaniyan and Jahangir Malek were some other tombak players who were Tehrani’s contemporary. They were not the direct students of Tehrani, but they were highly influenced by him.
As mentioned, Hussein Tehrani revolutionized both the techniques of the playing the tombak and the social status of the tombak players. As a result, many people became interested in learning this instrument. Since then many Iranians and non-Iranians became interested in learning the tombak. Tehrani himself taught many interested students in Iran among whom we can name three famous masters of this instrument: Mohammad Esmaili, Naser Eftetah, and Bahman Rajabi.
Amir Naser Eftetah played an important role in promoting Tehrani’s school of playing. Eftetah taught many students including Bahman Rajabi who was first a student of Tehrani and then became his student after Tehrani’s death. Other students of Eftetah are Morteza Ayan, Mahmud Farahmand Bafi, Alborzi, Amir Babak Rokni, Mehr Ali, and Atar brothers. Mohammad Esmaili has also been very active in teaching many students and publicizing Tehrani’s school. One of Esmaili’s best students is Siyamak Bana'i.
After Tehrani and his direct students, the tombak players did not restrict themselves to the past generation’s experiences. The styles and techniques of the tombak progressed very fast in the last three decades and as many musicians and music critics believe no other instrument made such a progress. Some of the innovative tombak players of the new generation are: Naser Farhangfar, Dariush Zargari, Arjang Kamkar, Majid Khalaj, Pejman Hadadi, Kambiz Ganjei, Navid Afqah, and Pedram Khavar Zamini.
Figure 1: Isa Aqa Bashi
Figure 2: The tombak player of the Qajar period
Figure 3: Abdollah Khan Davami
Figure 4: Mirza Abdollah
Figure 6: Hussein Tehrani
Figure 12: Amir Naser Eftetah
Figure 14: Mohammad Esmaili
Figure 18: Hussein Hamedaniyan
Figure 20: Jahangir Malek
Figure 22: Mahmud Farahmand Bafi
Figure 24: Morteza Ayan
Figure 26: Naser Farhangfar
Figure 28: Mohammad Akhavan
Figure 30: Dariush Zargari
Figure 32: Arjang Kamkar
Figure 34: Majid Khalaj
Figure 36: Pejman Hadadi
Figure 38: Kambiz Ganjei
Figure 41: Navid Afqah
Another instrument which is very similar to the tombak is the zarb of Zurkhane. This instrument is played in a Zurkhane, a place for performing the Iranian ancient sport. The body of the zarb-e Zurkhane is made of the cooked clay.
Zarb-e Zurkhane has been played in Iran for a long time. In recent years, Mohammad Shir-e Khoda was the famous zarb-e Zurkhane player whose performances were broadcasted in the National Iranian Radio for more than three decades. Other two famous zarb-e Zurkhane players are Farmarz Tehrani and Moradi who were actually active before Mohammad Shir-e Khoda.
In the Iranian culture, the zarb-e Zurkhane player who has a good voice and accompanies his playing with his singing is called morshed. The morshed sings some mystical and ethical poetry while playing the zarb for those who are doing the ancient sport so that they not only work on their bodies but also on their souls.
Today, the zarb-e zorkhane is used in ensembles and orchestras as well.
Figure 1: Zarb-e Zurkhane
Figure 2: Abbas Shir Khoda
Figure 4: Morshed Mehregan Haqiqi Grami
Figure 6: Arjang Kamkar
As mentioned, the tombak was revolutionized by Hussein Teharani. As a result many new techniques were invented and many experiences were done not only by the tombak players but also by other musicians as well. For instance, Hussein Dehlavi, a composer who was contemporary to Hussein Tehrani, wrote a fantasy for the tombak and orchestra. This fantasy was performed when Tehrani was alive. Later this fantasy was performed by Tehrani’s student, Mohammad Esmaili, and was recorded.
Another experience in the field of playing the tombak was the establishment of the tombak ensembles. This was initially done by Hussein Tehrani and was followed and developed by the later generation. Today, there are many different tombak ensembles. Some of these ensembles incorporate one or two melodic instruments as well.
Another new experience was the invention of the tunable tombak. Since the traditional tombak has a fixed skin; therefore, it was not possible to be tuned. The invention of the tunable tombak was a movement to make the tombak able to not only accompany the other instruments in rhythm but also in melody.
Figure 1: Hussein Dehlavi, composer
Figure 3: The tombak players of the Zarbang Ensemble from left to right: Behnam Samani, Pejman Hadadi, and Reza Samani