One of the world’s most charming musical instruments, the frame drum called tambourine has featured importantly in hundreds of our songs, but yet has unfortunately not been judged in the light it has deserved. This is true not just here, but abroad as well. For centuries it was overlooked in Europe, where it used to be played by itinerant entertainers and folk musicians. It was a couple of composers who finally gave it an orchestral nod, like Mozart did by including it in his Deutsche Tänze (meaning German Dance), in 1787.
Even after that, the passing over continued by important musicians of the 20th Century. Consider what Chiko Vadou writes in The Beatles and the Art of the Tambourine: “To inspect the tambourine’s function in one-third of all Beatles’ music is to understand it both as a key rhythmic embellishment and an easily overlooked embodiment of the band’s creativity…The frequent sight of the instrument in the hands of rock singers tends to obscure its remarkable history, longevity and global reach”.
The tambourine is a circular percussion instrument, typically about 12” in diameter, with several pairs of metal disks fitted into its deep rim, and a skin membrane covering one of the two round sides. Sometimes its size changes, at other times its shape, and sometimes it has no drumhead either, which is when it loses half its performing identity. Most often though, it comes with a skin stretched over one of the two circles. Shaken with one hand, the tambourine offers the rhythmic sounds of jingles. If such shaking also hits the palm of the other hand (or in fact, other body parts like the outer thigh), the beat gets accentuated. Shaking it with one hand while beating it with the fingers of the dominant hand, we hear jingles plus an accentuated beat plus the drum beat pattern our fingers play. As such, the tambourine is both, a drum when it is struck and a rattle when it is shaken. There are so many ways of beating the membrane or the round frame, like with sticks, padded mallets, or the hand. In the last case, players may use their thumb, fingers, palm or heel of the hand. Rubbing the drum with the hand creates a roll. These methods of play vary from culture to culture, but all are centuries old.
The quick story of the tambourine
The tambourine’s story begins in ancient Egypt and its environs, where it used to be associated with ladies using it at funerals, processions and festivities. But while Egypt was where the tambourine was born, it was no way absent in other cultures for long after that. Over the centuries it went to Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome. The Portuguese, the Chinese, and we Indians, all have been familiar with this euphonious instrument for centuries. It began to be associated with gypsy tribes and folk music in several cultures, and yet remained lying on the fringes of validation, something that happened only really in the early part of the 20th century, and then only so much. The Arabs call it Riq, we call it the daffli (or khanjari), and different places have different names for it, even if the actual differences are minor. It is widely popular in Iran, Turkey, Italy, France, Russia, Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan, the last of which we will revisit in a bit.
As noted above, in India it is called the daffli. Now the daffli also has a big brother called Daff, which is typically a similar frame drum, except much bigger, at about 18 to 20 inches in diameter. It usually has no jingles either. Even so, the definitions blur. It is for that reason that when Raj Kapoor sang Mera naam Raju gharaana anaam (Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai, 1960), with the daff in his arms, the Shailendra poem went on to say Daffli uttha awaaz mila. Later, when his son Rishi Kapoor played the daff in Sargam (1979), Jaya Prada sang Anand Bakshi’s words Daffli waale daffli baja. As for Raj Kapoor, it was the same large instrument, seen below, that he had played in Dil ka haal sune dil waala earlier in Shri 420 (1955).
Interestingly, Shri 420 did feature the daffli too, at the start of Ramaiya vasta vaiya, as did his song Nineteen fifty-six, nineteen fifty-seven in Anari (1959).
We take a look at just a few songs from Hindi films that not only had the sound of the tambourine, but where the instrument was seen on the screen. Here we go:
- Aezum aezum aezum ji jitne bhi gham hain ghalat kar daal ke duniya (Asha/Chaandni Chowk, 1954)
- Aji chale aao aji chale aao tumhen aankhon ne dil mein bulaaya (Lata, Asha/Halaku, 1956)
- Bade hain dil ke kaale (Asha, Rafi/Dil Deke Dekho, 1959)
- Dagha dagha wai wai wai (Lata/Kaali Topi Lal Roomal, 1959)
- Dil ke badle dil loongi pyaar ke badle pyaar (Asha, Mukesh/Daaku, 1955)
- Do din ki bahaar pyaare do din ki bahaar (Lata/Dulari, 1949)
- Duniya ka maza le lo duniya tumhaari hai (Shamshad/Bahaar, 1951)
- Hai kali kali ke lab par tere husn ka fasaana (Rafi/Lala Rukh, 1958)
- Has has ke haseenon se nazar chaar kiye ja (Lata/Yasmin, 1955)
- Husn mazedaar wayi husn mazedaar (Shamshad Begum/Sindbad the Sailor, 1952)
- Husn se hai duniya haseen (Asha/Taj Mahal, 1963)
- Jhumka gira re Bareilly ke baazaar mein (Asha/Mera Saaya, 1966)
- Kabhi aar kabhi paar laaga teer-e-nazar (Shamshad Begum/Aar Paar, 1954)
- Kaise karoon prem ki main baat (Lata/Anita, 1967)
- Kehta hai Joker saara zamaana (Mukesh/Mera Naam Joker, 1970)
- Lagi lagi lagi…haaye chot dil par (Asha/Daaku, 1955)
- Ramaiya wasta waiya Ramaiya wasta waiya (Lata, Rafi, Mukesh/Shri 420, 1955)
- Tera jalwa jisne dekha wo tera ho gaya (Lata/Ujala, 1959)
- Yamma yamma yamma tu parwaana main shamma (Rafi, Asha/ China Town, 1962)
- Zulfon se baandh ke rakh loongi tujhe (Sudha/Sheikh Chilli, 1956)
Did you find any sad song in the list above? You may not find one even otherwise, at least easily. It would be like finding Johnny Walker attempting a tragedy role. Like all of us, instruments have identities too, with their own tone, pitch and expression. In a sense, they too, like us, must execute their dharma. A useful study was conducted in America, the methodology and results of which were published in The Empirical Musicology Review, which can be found here: http://emusicology.org/article/view/4085/3620. The musicians participating in the study rated the tambourine to be near the bottom when it came to associations of sadness. Seen in that light, wonder how the Egyptians were playing the instrument at funerals, unless they were celebrating the departures.
That brings us to Azerbaijan, mentioned above. Last year I received a travel brochure to that tiny but culturally high and scenic country which lies at the crossroads of Asia and Europe. This nation is 90% Shia Muslim, and yet the State has no official religion. In fact, all the political parties are secularist. What got me most impressed is how much its people worship music. A case in point: the theme of its 1-manat currency note is Culture, and on its front side it features these musical instruments: tar, a kind of plucked guitar, kamanche, an instrument bowed like the violin, and daf, a large frame drum. Their 5-manat note has Writing and Literature as the theme, featuring as it does a pile of books, men and women of letters, and an excerpt from their National Anthem. The place seems very inviting indeed.
Originally published in DNA Jaipur on 2 September 2018, page 13 http://epaper2.dnaindia.com/index.php?mod=1&pgnum=1&edcode=131002&pagedate=2018-09-02
Featured image: Ringo Starr of The Beatles.