Can’t Play Sad Music

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: 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

Featured image: Ringo Starr of The Beatles.


20 thoughts on “Can’t Play Sad Music

  1. Wonderful article, in continuation of your pledge to bring out the nuances in HFM. Very interesting to read the multiple visas the tambourine has stamped on its passport. I think the journey of the instrument must be linked to the journey of the gypsies – be it East or West. I think it is a prominent instrument with them.

    The sounds emanating from the instrument are so vibrant and energetic, how could it ever be used for sad songs – perhaps a slow “thap-thap”. It did lend energy to all the songs you have listed.. a very comprehensive list indeed.

    Here’s wishing more power to your pen and continued wanderlust to your mind!

  2. Dear Manek: This Daff or Daffli somehow always attracted me as with Mridangam and Tabla. The first of which got very addicted to was dil ka haal.Your well-researched and well presented article only adds to my fascination for this musical in strument. Loved your article all the way to Azerbaijan.

  3. Thank God this instrument got a recognition thru your wonderful article. No one really thinks about it when the instruments for songs are finalized. But in the temples it is always used for singing bhajans.Thank you . Congratulations !

  4. Fascinating article. Loved every word of it. Full of information and entertainment. You raise the bar so much higher with every article of yours.
    The lively tambourine!! So much like the gypsy. Traveling around the world, giving happiness via music with all gay and abandon ? it certainly has that ‘khanabadosh’ element in it.
    Thoroughly enjoyed. Thank you ?

  5. Manek what cud we expect under your signature.. sheer brilliance and depth.. The art of holding and playing the Tambourine is unique… Just to add Kaviraaj Shailendra taught Rajkapoor to play this for the screen… and Rishi picked it up from Daddy oo….. Ur writings are like the rising sun on the Arctic horizon.. they bring Life

  6. Amazing indeed, the story of the lively tambourine! And the number of ways it can be played, as also the manner of play that can turn it into a drum or rattle. Absolutely marvellous piece, tracing it’s journey and presence in myriad global corners. If it was a being it would no doubt be happy to learn that it’s association with sadness is near-absent. A question…does the Daff exist elsewhere or is it solely an Indian relative?

    Love it’s sound and presence in our songs, noticed the repeated presence of Shamshad Begum in the list!

    Finally Azerbaijan…the connection and expansion is truly marvellous! Adding it to my long list of places-to-visit, hope my “manat” is fulfilled ?

    Dear Manek, your research is exhaustive and the outcome riveting. Thank you for a wonderful read!

    1. Thanks Madhur, you humble me _()_ Azerbaijan, yes, let’s make a group for 2019…a few people seem willing 🙂 And yes, the daff is completely universal. The one without the disks can also be for sad songs, like at Islamic funeral, and in dirge music…

  7. What a hoary and glorious history of the tambourine. Right from its origins in Egypt and it’s tortuous journey through the various countries, it’s a remarkably hardy instrument, notwithstanding that it occupies the bottom of the pile among instruments musical. What is truly wondrous is that the fairly obscure daffli has occupied pride of place and prominence in our own HFM.
    A superbly researched writeup on a humble soundmaker that has survived centuries of cross cultural traditions and travel. The bit about Azerbaijan’s culture is sensational indeed. We actually know so very little of various cultures. Azerbaijan was usually perceived as a peculiar sounding adjunct to a behemoth called the USSR or the Soviet Union.
    My resounding claps for a so very interesting and educative article.

    1. “it’s a remarkably hardy instrument, notwithstanding that it occupies the bottom of the pile among instruments musical.” Well said Sir! I am so grateful you found the essay useful _()_ Thank you 🙂

  8. Manek – you are never short of surprises and you are never satisfied till you go to the root to understand the etymology.You have to go to ancient Egypt to begin the story of the evolution of the Tambourine- and unlike we typical mortals , you will not be satisfied with Dafli or Duff.
    You have to dig and dig deeper till you find water in the desert.

    Then in your typical inimical round about way , you connect Azerbaijan, along with sharing its incredible secularist history to today’s blog.

    Take a bow buddy

    Dilip Apte

    1. Taking a bow Dilip _()_ 🙂 But we are all the same, mere mortals we all are 🙂 Bus I seem to have more time at my disposal to get under the hood 🙂

  9. A brilliant article. Duflli – its beats so engaging. so arousing… thanks for explaining it in a time perspective. Must confess, the first song that comes to my mind in association with duflli is dil ka haal sune…..

    Azerbaijan… your recall is an add-on but a big bonus. It unshackles even if slightly the widely held perception that music is anathema to islam. And your observations almost allude that music turns one less dogmatic, instills secularism in its true sense.

    1. Music is not anathema to Islam, and they are busy debating that Vijay. Azaan, the call to prayer is musical, with its oscillation on notes called melisma. And if music is anathema, then Mohammad Rafi was a Kafir, so was Naushad, Shamshad Begum, Khayyam, Noor Jahan, Mehdi Hasan…oh so many devout Muslims, Nayyar Noor now 🙂

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