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Egyptian Percussion Instruments

Percussion Instruments

by Dr. George Dimitri Sawa
posted July 9, 2011

From the medieval era to our own time, Arabic music has been predominantly rhythmic. For this reason, much effort has been spent to write a theory of Arabic rhythms. The first to write his theory was the singer, composer, and lutenist Ishaq al-Maswsili (d. 850). He was followed by the philosopher al-Kindi (d.after 870) who used Ishaq al-Mawsili’s writings and blended them with Greek theories which were translated into Arabic in Baghdad. However, because al-Kindi was not a practicing musician, his writings were imprecise. Al-Farabi (d. 950) was both a philosopher and a practitioner, consequently, his writings were more precise. He used the writings of Ishaq (the practitioner) with those of al-Kindi and added the works of scholars in Arabic humanities, which encompassed the fields of poetics, prosody, grammar, philology, and added many branches of mathematics. Safi al-Din (d. 1294) used the theories of al-Farabi but added a wonderful notation system which he borrowed from the circle system of Arabic poetry.

 I have revived and used this system in my booklet Egyptian Music Appreciation and Practice for Bellydancers to notate 20 rhythms used in Egyptian dance music. Because Arabic music is so predominantly rhythmic, percussion instruments play a crucial role in it. This article high-lights the percussion instruments used in Egyptian dance, namely, Bellydance, folk, therapeutic and ceremonial dances.

There are four main groups of percussion instruments:

  1. Finger Cymbals,
  2. Tambourine,
  3. Darabukka,
  4. and Tabl Baladi (the double-headed drum).

The Cymbals

 Known in Egypt as sagat and in Turkey as zills, they are sets of four metal finger cymbals of various sizes. The smaller sets are used by Bellydancers, while tura and kas (the larger ones) are used in folk music, zar and other religious rituals (and colorful sales people in the street to attract attention to their products).


The Tambourine Family

The Duff is a goat-skin tambourine without jingles, used in  popular and folk music, zar, as well as other religious rituals.
The Tar isa large tambourine with a head made of goat-skin, without jingles, used in  popular and folk music, zar, and other religious rituals.
The Mazhar, also known as Bandir, is a large tambourine with a head made of the skin of goat, cow, or donkey, and it has five sets of four heavy brass jingles. It is used in popular and folk music, zar, and other religious rituals.
The Riqq is a small tambourine with a head made of fish or goat skin;  it has five sets of four brass jingles and is used in classical, popular, folk music and dance.

The Darabukka Family

The Darabukka, known also as tabla, is a clay, single-headed drum with a head of Nile fish-skin or a goat-skin head, used in classical, popular, as well as folk music and zar rituals. The body is conical at the head, while the base is cylindrical.
The Doholla is a larger-size darabukka with a head made of donkey-skin, used in popular and folk music as well as zar rituals.


The Double-Headed Drum

The Tabl Baladi is a wooden Upper Egyptian double-headed drum with goat-skin heads; it is beaten with two sticks, one thin and one thick, and is used in folk music. (The name also applies to an instrumental ensemble used in Upper Egypt consisting of the Tabl Baladi and three Mizmars.)

Today, all percussion instruments use plastic instead of animal skins. They do not need to be heated to tune them like the animal skin instruments, but their plastic-made sound can never come close to the beauty of the animal skin ones.

tabl beledi

George Dimitri Sawa. Egyptian Music Appreciation and Practice for Bellydancers.
George Dimitri Sawa. The Art of the Early Egyptian Qanun, vols. 1 and 2.
George Dimitri Sawa. Music Performance Practice in the Early Abbasid Era 132-320 AH/750-932 AD. Ottawa: The Institute of Mediaeval Music, 2004.
George Dimitri Sawa. Rhythmic Theories and Practices in Arabic Writings to 339AH/950CE. Annotated Translations and Commentaries. Ottawa: The Institute of Mediaeval Music, 2009.
Please also see the Gilded Serpent Musical Instrument Tour

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  1. Elias Abboud

    Nov 29, 2013 - 08:11:59

    Hi I want to ask if you guys are selling tabl. If you are selling can you guys show me pictures the price of the tabl. That would great of you guys.

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