The colours of the tabla: history, workshop and new enthusiasts of Egypt's unique percussive instrument

Dina Darwich, Tuesday 29 Sep 2020

Over the past years there has been an increasing interest in tabla, an instrument with a long history, renowned performers such as Said Al Artist and many young people who learn to play it

Said Al-Artist

His whole universe is a small workshop located in the popular district of Al-Sharabiya. Dozens of darboukas in different colours and materials are piled around the bed in which he rests since he spends day and night in the workshop creating those unique instruments. Bent over a tabla, Essam Gamil (51) holds it as if it was a very precious object. Carefully, he cuts small squares of mother-of-pearl and meticulously glues them to the body of the darbouka, carefully forming oriental patterns.

“I lived during the golden age of cabarets on Al-Haram street where I worked as a tabla player, accompanying famous dancers and popular singers. The tabla was an essential component of those evenings in the 1970s and 1980s. I spent 35 years of my life learning to play this instrument with the help of great masters like Mahmoud Hamouda, ‘Am Hosny and Ismail El-Gaab. But due to the pressures of changing working conditions, I decided to end my career as a drabki and devote myself to making a darbouka, my favorite instrument. Today, a lot of professional players visit my workshop and buy tablas from me.”

A former “drabki”, Essam says he knows all the secrets of tabla making. “Materials and dimensions characterise each kind of darbouka. Since the instrument is typically Egyptian, its body is made of clay extracted from the Nile; its surface is covered with the skin of a Nile perch (called “bayad”), a fish known in Upper Egypt. The barrel of the body must measure 49 cm with a diameter of 23 cm. The skin should be stretched very tightly as this allows the player to create the sound depending on the location of the strike. What sets me apart from other manufacturers who produce tablas is that I pay a lot of attention to the artistic side,” Gamil explains, adding that today, in order to reduce production costs, many darboukas are made from aluminum with plastic skin.

“A darbouka can cost between LE4000 and LE5000, I sell those with mother-of-pearl inlay for USD 700 to foreign customers. Note that the prices of materials have increased over the past ten years. The price of the varnish used for polishing went from LE250 to LE500, fish skin went from LE35 to LE200 especially since the Nile perch is becoming increasingly rare. Most of the manufacturing steps are done by hand which requires a lot of patience, rigour and thoroughness. I can spend fifteen days making a single tabla.”

Essam Gamil
Tabla maker Essam Gamil in his workshop (Photo: Mohamed Abdo)

An Egyptian percussive instrument, the tabla creates a beautiful atmosphere and puts people in a good mood. This instrument accompanies every piece of oriental music: from tabla solos to “baladi” dancing and from traditional to modern songs. The tabla is an integral part of the shows presented by great belly dancers like Samia Gamal, Taheya Kariokka, Fifi Abdou, Nagwa Fouad, Dina, Lucy and recently the famous engineer Amie Soltan. There are also great names who have marked the history of this instrument such as the Manas brothers who accompanied the famous singer and composer Mohamed Fawzy as well as the two brothers Mohamed and Ahmed Hamouda.

Indeed, the instrument is anchored in Arab-Egyptian culture for a long time. Although the instruments of the Arab world date from the 1800s, the tabla was used in Mesopotamia in BC1100. However, the word darbouka undoubtedly comes from “darab aala tabla” which in Arabic translates to “strike on the tabla”.

Basically there are two types of darbouka: the Turkish, with aluminum barrel and animal or synthetic skin, and the Egyptian, made of ceramic, with rounded edges. The Egyptian tabla allows you to strike the edges with the fingers of one hand while using the other for the center with the other hand, creating different sounds and combinations that characterise each musical style. In fact, the darbouka accompanies many musical genres: traditional, folk and modern. Made from purely Egyptian materials, the tabla is part of the Egyptian way of life. A series of “dums” and “taks” can create a truly impressive musical piece.

“Without tabla, there is no rhythm in Arabic music. Also we all know that Egyptians can drum on whatever comes their way: kitchen utensil, canisters, a chair or a table.” Thus Ahmed Salah, professor of music at the American University in Cairo. “It’s a cheerful instrument producing entertaining sounds and it has the power to find its place everywhere without confining itself to one social class,” he explains, adding that the frescoes of the temples bear witness to this. There is a very well-known fresco where a mother is breastfeeding her son to the beat of the drums because the pharaohs believed that this corresponds to the newborn’s heartbeats.

“It is an instrument that brings a lot of joy,” expresses Salwa Sabet, a 36-year-old housewife. She says it’s impossible to hear the sound of a tabla without swaying your hips. “There is something captivating about the sound or the rhythm of the darbouka.” She points to the fact that the tabla is frequently played in Egyptian families during special events: weddings, engagements, births, circumcisions, birthdays. It is to the rhythm of the tabla that young girls hum the songs of Leilet Al-Henna (the night before the wedding).” The zaffa, or bridal procession, cannot take place without tablas. In recent years, the newlyweds have modernised this march by introducing the violin or other Western instruments, but this practice did not last long and the zaffa baladi continues to be led by darbouka.

Essam Gamil
Tabla maker Essam Gamil in his workshop (Photo: Mohamed Abdo)

The tabla baladi is an ideal instrument for playing baladi (popular) music in the open air, especially in villages, where people dance to its rhythms. It is also derbouka that football fans use to support their team. “The tabla and the mizmar are the instruments that animate the stadiums with the latter providing high-pitched resonant sounds while the tabla sets the rhythm. Easy to wear and use, the instrument ignites excitement and we even have special songs that we rehearse to set the stadium on fire,” comments Ahmed Khaled, a 24-year-old engineer.

For his part, sociologist Imam Kayati believes that in all musical styles, shaabi, gnawa or even raï, we find the powerful and clear sounds of darbouka whose mission is to communicate the cultural identity of the Arab peoples. “It is the ideal instrument to animate major popular political events,” Keyati adds. However, the tabla is not only used in happy events. At the beginning of last century the touboul were part of the funeral ceremony.

In Arabic, the word toboul (plural of tabla in Arabic) announces the beginning of a war (daqqat toboul el-harb). On the other hand, an Egyptian proverb also uses the word tabla to express the idea of experience (yamma daket aala al raas touboul), while the neologism tatbil (playing tabla) indicates hypocritical praise. The 1984 film Al-Raqissa wal Tabbal (The Belly Dancer and the Drummer) addressed the archetypal relationship and the ongoing conflict between the two, revealing harsh reality through their story.

The tabla also serves as a cultural vehicle and an ambassador of Oriental music around the world. Said Al-Artist, one of the most famous tabla players in Egypt, confides that he has travelled the world with this instrument accompanying many famous singers. He also presented solo tabla shows at the Royal Opera House Muscat (Oman), in Osaka, Japan, and recently he gave his first own show in Europe at the Hall de la Chanson in Paris (2019). Said Al-Artist says he started playing darbouka at the age of 10, when he bartered old items for a darbouka. “I come from a family of artists. All my brothers play an instrument. I chose the tabla because it is almost the only instrument that is in direct contact with the heart, also by the way in which it is held, on the left side. Since this barter operation the darbouka has never left my side; I have dedicated 50 years of my life to it, to the point where my wife is jealous of it since I spend best moments of my life with my tabla,” Al-Artist explains.

“In many performances, the darbouka used to serve as a background instrument, accompanying singers and dancers. I wanted to change its position and bring it into the limelight,” continues Al-Artist, who modernises his tabla show through everyday scenes such as the bamboutiya dance (to the rhythm of spoons) or the semsemiya (bagpipe) native to the towns located on the Suez Canal, or fast disappearing zar (exorcism) traditions.

Being an integral part of the everyday life of many Egyptians, the darbouka is not just an instrument producing “tom-tom,” it is also the heir to a thousand-year-old civilisation which manages to unite the Arab world around its rhythms.

Said Al-Artist
Internationally renowned Egyptian tabla player Said Al Artist during one of his concerts

Tabla Enthusiasts

Dom, tak, dom: the beats of tabla announce a party. In fact it is the weekly darbouka class at Cultograph. At 7pm sharp and in a festive atmosphere, young men and women meet to learn the different techniques of striking a tabla. About 10 students, each holding their instrument under the left arm and resting it on the left knee, begin to create “doms” and “taks”, which are determined by the place where their hands strike the instrument. The more experienced players can make sound combinations like their teacher, while others rely on his help.

“There is no melody without rhythm. Though it may seem that the tabla is an instrument whose possibilities are limited, a talented tabla player can achieve a wide variety of high or low tones and create sounds that bewitch the audience,” Al-Artist, who leads the class, summarises his views on the instrument. Sitting on a chair surrounded by his students, he is the maestro of this musical troupe consisting of darbouka players only. During the course, he is seated or walks around the room to ensure that each student hits his tabla correctly and produces the sounds of the required exercise.

“The word tabbal often has a negative connotation as many people consider tabla a cheap baladi instrument closely associated with belly dancers. It is in fact the symbol of oriental music. I decided to take up the challenge and change this humiliating and degrading image that we have of drabkis,” Al-Artist explains, as he continues to give tabla lessons conveying his message to the students of the numerous centres at which he teaches in Dokki, in the Fifth Settlment, at the Arabic Music Institute in Cairo, and at the Alexandria Opera House. It is through those courses and performances that he stands up to stereotypes while building a new image of the tabla player or drabki.

One of the students, 19-year-old Ashraqat Zein, is in her second year at the Faculty of Humanities, sociology department. She says playing tabla triggers positive emotions, generating a feeling of indescribable pleasure and happiness. Playing darbouka since childhood, she says she has been attending classes with Said Al-Artist in different location for four years. “The tabla is always with me when I meet my friends, or I play it at home. I want to give this instrument the prestige it deserves. Why do people respect musicians who play the violin and do not give the same recognition to tabla players? The lessons I’m taking help me to master the instrument and gain self-confidence when I give performances,” Ashraqat explains.

Said Al-Artist
Said Al Artist during the course with tabla students (Photo: Yasser Al Ghoul)

To stress the values of tabla, Ashraqat is very selective regarding the events in which she takes part. “I accompanied singer Assala in her last concert, I performed in concerts at the Cairo and Alexandria opera houses, at the Arab Institute. But when I’m asked to play tabla at the opening of a café, I refuse even if the pay is attractive. The reason is that I cannot predict what the people present at the café opening will think about the instrument, they might not respect it,” she clarifies, adding that she hopes to establish herself as a tabla player.

As for Aleya Mustafa, another 19-year-old girl attending the course, she feels that the moment she starts hitting the skin of her darbouka she is taken to another world. “This is the instrument that stimulates my emotions. I am a fan of classical oriental music. During my performances, my parents notice the joy on my face. I love the bamby rhythm that the ladies used to play at the palaces where tabla was present. It is time for this instrument to find its place again, especially since it was actually born in high-class circles,” Mustafa explains, believing that the media have contributed to emphasising the negative image of the instrument. She notices also that the videos posted by many players on the internet and social media compensate for this image by providing a positive image of tabla. For instance, one tabla player, Sara Elbotaty’s Facebook page has reached 138,000 followers. The latter dreams of founding a tabla school outside Egypt.

Indeed, the appearance of young girls and women playing tabla can help to change the negative image associated with the instrument. As Al-Artist explains, in recent months, out of 50 students who attended his workshops, 40 were women. There are also foreigners who, fascinated by the tabla, want to learn some basic techniques. “Most of my students are from the upper middle class and have a good education,” says Al-Artist, and Aleya agrees. Her passion for ballet goes hand in hand with her studying tabla.

A student at the Faculty of Applied Arts at the German University, having obtained her French baccalaureate last year, she confides, “I am proud to present myself as a tabla player, it is something that flatters me as much as practising ballet does. I have always dreamed of meeting the famous tabla player, Said Al-Artist, whose shows I’ve been watching on YouTube. I tried to study in many centres with many instructors but I was not very happy. Finally, with Al-Artist, I found what I had been searching for. Here, we come from various educational and cultural backgrounds, but we get along thanks to our great passion for tabla.”

This friendly and studious atmosphere that reigns at the different centres where Al-Artist teaches have additionally encouraged many families to open up to the instrument and direct their children to it. “For instance, in one class we have two seven-year-old children; they are very good,” Ashraqat reveals. She adds that she once posted a video of herself during rehearsal on her Facebook page, and she hasn’t stopped receiving messages of appreciation with viewers encouraging her to create a YouTube channel dedicated to her playing.

Said Al-Artist
Said Al Artist supervises one of the students during the course in Cairo (Photo: Yasser Al Ghoul)

Some students go even further. Fadi Adel, a final year student at the faculty of engineering at Modern Academy, is thinking about giving up his engineering career and switching to tabla, despite the fact that he made enormous sacrifices during his university studies. “I am fascinated by all the arts. I have always listened to music and the sound of this instrument has always captivated me. My first tabla was not a professional one and I didn’t like the sound it created. I tried to understand why the other tablas made different sounds. When I changed the rakma [skin], I discovered the secrets of this instrument, and since then, I’ve been trying to deepen my knowledge”, Adel explains, adding that he took part in two music videos from Ahmed Al-Haggar’s concert. “I cannot imagine my life or my future without hearing the sound of a darbouka. It lifts the mood, eases disorders such as depression and cures drug addiction with the joy and optimism it brings.”

The pupils’ fingers continue to strike the skins of their tablas with delicacy and harmony. From time to time, the voice of Said Al-Artist rises in the room to explain the steps to follow in order to obtain specific sounds. All eyes are on trained on him, catching the movements of his fingers, while the ears follow the rhythm carefully.

Thirty-nine-year-old Ahmed Mohamed, owner and manager of Vibe for Developing Arts, takes a break from  the course and sits on a chair just outside the hall. Known in the field as Siko, the owner of the renowned music rehearsal studio listens attentively to Al-Artist’s explanations, just like all other students. “I have been working in the music industry for 20 years. During all those years, I haven’t had time to learn to play the tabla. But, after attending these classes, a lot has changed for me. I lead my lifestyle at a different pace. All sounds have become rhythmic to me, even conversations between relatives and friends. This gives me a lot of joy,” Siko comments, stressing that he aims to learn to play this instrument properly. “My dream is to compose music that would be performed on tabla only. I would also love to further introduce this instrument to new musical compositions, especially since there have already been many attempts to do so with jazz and other genres. Chick Corea, the famous American jazz pianist, included tabla tracks in his repertoire, while Egyptian percussionist and composer Hossam Ramzy toured the world with his composition.”

Another participant of the course is 31-year-old Soha Mohamed, a student at the Arab Music Institute. She takes the tabla lessons at the centre to improve her performance and become a professional tabla player. “This instrument is part of our history. Just look at the drawings in ancient temples where there are many representations of toboul from pharaonic times. In order for the tabla to regain its prestige, this heritage must not be forgotten. I am studying percussion instruments academically while taking these practical lessons. I want to play tabla anywhere and anytime,” she concludes in a tone that reveals her passion for the instrument.

Said Al-Artist
During the course in Cairo, Said Al Artist teaches new students as well as works on the further development of tabla performers (Photo: Yasser Al Ghoul)

This article is a compilation of two articles originally published in French in the 23 September 2020 issue of Al-Ahram Hebdo.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 October, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.


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