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Social Status of Tonbak Players

Social Status of Tonbak Players

Peyman Nasehpour © 2002

Social Status of the Tonbak Players of the Past Tonbak was not considered as a solo instrument in the past. I should explain that in Ghajar period vocalists were of two kinds: avazkhan and tasnifkhan. The avazkhan's job was to sing the non-rhythmic compositions of Persian radif repertoire and the tasnikhan's job was to sing the rhythmic compositions of Persian art music. Though there were some vocalists that were the master of the both kinds: for this maybe the most famous example is the late Ostad Abdollah Davami. Also most of the tasnifkhan-s were tonbak player (zarbgir). So tonbak was the instrument to be played by the singers and it was not considered as an independent instrument. In the past, tonbak players were to undergo at the hands of their fellow musicians and from their status in society. They had to bear humiliation, insults and exploitation This is still in some views true. Tonbak players are labeled as accompanists, considered second-class citizens of the music world, even if they occasionally play solos. This ill treatment that they receive is partly due to the generally held concept that tonbak is incapable of expressing different emotions. Tonbak has its own unique role in Persian Music and it seems that any other instrument cannot be substituted.
Until the early part of the 20th century, tonbak was used mainly as an accompanying instrument. The primary job of tonbak players was to play the basic rhythmic structure as an underpinning to vocal and instrumental music. They had to maintain a low profile at all times, even when the soloist made a mistake and yelled at them in public. They had to be silent and could not say anything because they were afraid of losing their job. They were the only ones who knew how much devotion lay behind their skill. The pain of knowing this and yet not being permitted to express it sometimes made them desperate.
Despite all these negative attitudes, tonbak players fortunately never ceased to improve and according to the most of the researchers this revolution started by the late Ostad Hosain Tehrani. It was necessary for tonbak to be free from the yoke of tasnifkhan-s and to be given at the hands of players that they were interested to work on tonbak more seriously and independently.

The world went through a series of upheavals. Also some movements happened in Iran. Due to this turmoil, the Iran's social structure began to change. This, in turn, had a strong effect on musicians and music. The former music patrons, i.e. the kings and aristocrats, were replaced by businessmen Music Colleges and Radio and then TV. Rather than performing in small salons for groups of relatively cultured aristocrats who apparently were trained to appreciate the classical form, musicians increasingly were expected to perform in larger halls for larger and apparently less well-educated audiences with different tastes.

This bad social status of tonbak players and these changes in Iran caused that tonbak players started to change and make movements.
Outstanding tonbak masters such as Ostad Hosain Tehrani because of their love of tonbak tried to make some changes. Gradually tonbak and tonbak player made a better place in the music world. Then other prominent tonbak masters such as Ostad Nasser Farhangfar came to fore and progressed the tonbak more. The clarity, stamina, extraordinary speed and overall power of these tonbak players caused the tonbak to reach to the very good point of progress and popularity. Tonbak found more roles in instrumental music, though one of the most important characteristics of the art of tonbak playing, i.e. to play cyclic rhythms, was forgotten.


The Social Status of the Tonbak Players of Today


The effort of these dear and devotee tonbak players such as Ostad Hosain Tehrani and Ostad Nasser Farhangfar caused that tonbak became more popular among well-educated people and found more roles in instrumental music. Tonbak players of today now really play very good. The clarity, stamina, extraordinary speed and overall power of today tonbak players are really praiseworthy. But by taking these progresses into consideration, the question rises: what good has it really done to the social status of tonbak players? Maybe tonbak players of today are more successful apparently. But the overall image of the tonbak player is almost the same as the past. They are those accompaniments and the secondary musician on the stage. The primary job of the tonbak player is still to make the main artist's music more colorful and enjoyable by becoming an adjunct to him or her. The social status of tonbak players has not changed and in fact only their exposure has altered.


What Should It Be Done?


In my opinion the way that Ostad Hosain Tehrani had started should be continued and tonbak players should start again to make more tonbak solo recitals. By this comment I am not trying to say that the accompanying style of tonbak playing is not incredible. Accompaniment is an art in itself, particularly when it is performed on tonbak. There are many sensitive and intelligent tonbak players, which show the power and beauty of the techniques of the art of accompaniment.


Remark . The idea of this article comes from an article of the excellent work of Pt. Aloke Dutta, Tabla, Lessons and Practice, 2nd Edition.


[KH]: Ruhollah Khaleghi, Sargozasht-e-Musighi-ye-Iran, Tehran, 1974.
[M]: Hassan Mashhoun, Tarikh-e-Musighi-ye-Iran, Tehran, 1994.
[NS]: Peyman Nasehpour and Siamak Sahafi, Vas'iyat-e-Ejtema'i-ye-Tonbak Navazan, Farda-ye-Behtar Magazine, No.16, 2nd year, Oct. 22nd, 1999.
[T]: Hosain Tehrani, Amouzesh-e-Tombak (Tombak Rudiment), Tehran, 1970.

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