- Darbuka Origins and Structure
- What Makes a Good Darbuka
- Where to Buy a Good Darbuka
- A Reader on Clay Darbukas
Darbuka Origins and Structure
The Darbuka is a goblet-shaped drum. Many people consider it to be the leader of percussion instruments in the Middle East and North Africa. It is also played widely across South East Asia, namely in Indonesia and Malaysia. It typically falls in the World Percussion category of musical instruments.
The Darbuka is called a goblet drum because its shape narrows in the middle and widens at the base. This shape is similar to that of a goblet or chalice glass.
Historically Darbukas were made of clay or wood with an animal skin stretched over the head. These materials would create high-quality sounds. However, we typically make contemporary darbukas out of aluminium, copper or synthetic fibres. These materials are ideal as they prevent damage to the Darbuka and don’t break as easily as clay. They are also easier to work with and therefore make large-scale production easier.
Darbukas are commonly adorned with beautiful and fantastic designs, differentiating them from almost any other musical instrument. Many would say that a Darbuka isn’t complete without a colourful design flaunting the incredible design and technical prowess of the Darbuka’s craftsman.
One may also note the different designs that the Darbuka can take dependant on its region of manufacture. Darbukas from Turkey use different designs to those from Egypt, which use different designs to those from Indonesia. The Darbuka may well be the best ornamented instrument in the world that is in mass use. We can use various materials to create these fantastic designs, e,g:
Mother of Pearl gemstones
coloured metals, plastics and stones
Origins Of The Darbuka
The Darbuka has been around for millennia. Some have estimated that its origins date back to as far as the Babylonian period. This estimate is likely because hand drums have been an integral part of many cultures and societies, likely since early human history.
The Darbuka, a goblet-shaped hand drum, has manifested itself in its current form in:
- The Middle East
- North Africa
- South-East Asia
Other instruments such as the African Djembe, Iranian Tombak, and various other West African drums are likely to be different manifestations of the same original Babylonian drums.
In present times the Darbuka is deeply embedded into Middle Eastern and North African heritage. It is used in countries like Algeria and Syria as a core part of any wedding or celebration. Consequently, most children (male and female) grow up with some education on how to play the Darbuka. It’s no surprise then that some of the greatest Darbuka masters alive today hail from such countries.
Names Of The Darbuka
The Darbuka can take many names and varies by the size of the Darbuka in question, or the region in which the name is used. To make matters even more confusing, most people use various names interchangeably, which makes it harder to identify what someone is referring to. For simplicity, we consistently use the term “Darbuka” to refer to the drum in question.
However, the below list should help you understand what other people mean when they use different names.
- Darbuka – If you’re reading this, you know what a Darbuka is. They are fantastic percussion instruments that create amazing sounds.
- Doumbek – Another word for Darbuka. Some would say that Doumbek and Darbuka are different, but in practice, most people use the names interchangeably.
- Sombaty – A (slightly) larger sized Darbuka.
- Doholla – A very large Darbuka.
- Tabla – In India, this instrument is a two-part drum that’s part of the Indian musical heritage. In Egypt, a Tabla means a Darbuka.
- Tarabana/Darabana – Another word for a Darbuka, commonly used across Eastern Europe.
- Bongo – A different instrument that has nothing to do with a Darbuka.
Let’s just analyse the above names in a little more depth. Inside Egypt, we use the words Tabla, Sombaty and Doholla primarily.
Note that Egypt is commonly agreed to be home to the best of Arabic music.
Outside of Egypt, in most Arab and Western countries, we drop the word Tabla, and replace it with Darbuka or Doumbek:
Darbuka, coming from the Arabic word Daraba (to strike) is a widespread name that people use. We suggest that this is the correct name of the Darbuka.
Darbuka vs Doumbek
Some people (incorrectly) call a Darbuka a Doumbek, because of the sounds the instrument makes when played. Doum and Tek combine to form Doumtek, which then becomes Doumbek, which is easier to pronounce. We suggest that this name is not used, and Darbuka is used in it’s place.
Finally, within Eastern Europe (Poland, Romania, etc.), it is unanimously agreed that the name Tarabana/Darabana is used.
Note: You should never refer to the Darbuka as a “Bongo drum” or “the Bongos”. Calling the Darbuka by one of these names is a cardinal sin in the Darbuka world.
Different Types Of Darbuka
There are many types of Darbuka available on the market today. We have different materials, different sizes, and even different shapes. Let’s explore some of these and see what’s what.
Wood Darbukas are a thing of the past
These are rare to come by, and when you do find them, they tend to be quite terrible. I wouldn’t recommend getting a wood Darbuka. They are often on the shelves of street sellers on the streets of Cairo, and these “instruments” are considered souvenirs at best.
Clay Darbukas can be amazing but are challenging to maintain
Some may say that since Darbukas were traditionally made of clay, that these are the best kind of Darbuka. The reality is that Darbukas were also traditionally played in deserts, where it was always hot and dry. Nowadays, the Darbuka is played around the world where there are a multitude of different temperatures and humidities to consider. Herein lies the core problem of the clay Darbuka; the skin is tied to the body using rope, and the skin is usually a natural animal skin. This type of roped skin clay Darbuka may lose its tension should the humidity increase, which is a real problem in most parts of Europe and the US. It’s also very fragile, which means if you hit it against something hard or drop it, it will likely crack and break beyond repair. If you’re a beginner, this choice of Darbuka may be unwise.
That’s not to say that clay Darbukas aren’t a wonder to play. Some of the best Darbukas made in the world today are made of clay, and they can produce a wider and more authentic range of sounds than metal, as we will see below. However, they are difficult to maintain, hard to travel with, and require an adjustable heat source placed inside them to keep the skin tight and playable in all climates (which can mean you need a socket available to play)
Metal Darbukas are convenient and sound fantastic
The invention of the metal Darbuka in the 20th century was indeed a brilliant idea. You now no longer have to worry about a Darbuka going out of tune when it’s needed most, nor do you have to worry about it dropping and breaking. Parts are easy to find and fit without any professional help, and they generally sound quite good too. We recommend a metal Darbuka to all beginners trying their hand at Darbuka for the first time.
A note on Turkish flat-head Darbukas
The Turkish Darbuka is an interesting spin on the classic round-headed design of the Arabic Darbuka. The Turkish Darbuka is characterised by its flat head with sharp edges and exposed tuning lugs. This flat head design makes finger snaps, and very advanced Turkish split-hand rolls more comfortable to play. They’re also easier to make and so can be cheaper too. Unfortunately, they are not ideal for beginners and are optimised more for someone playing using the Turkish split-hand technique. This technique is quite an advanced style of playing that you should build up towards over some years. As such, a typical beginner would be better off with a standard Arabic Darbuka at the start of their journey.
Differentiation From Similar Instruments
The single-headed feature of the Darbuka is what distinguishes it from other similar musical instruments such as the Indian Tabla or the Dhol.
Another point of differentiation is that it is played with the hands, rather than with a stick or beater. This design allows us to use intricate finger patterns in Darbuka rhythms, which is what makes it such a popular instrument.
Figure 6 – An Indian Tabla
It is likely that the most similar instrument to the Darbuka is the Djembe, another similarly shaped drum from Africa. The main difference between the Darbuka and the Djembe lies in the Djembe’s typically wooden body and natural skin, and the Darbuka’s typically metal body and plastic skin. The Darbuka creates a sharper sound of a much higher pitch, whereas the Djembe produces a deeper sound of a relatively lower pitch. As such, a Darbuka will cut through a mix of musicians more easily. I personally very much enjoy a mix that includes both a Darbuka and a Djembe!
Typical Structure Of The Darbuka
The Darbuka body is traditionally made of clay. Ropes are tied over the top of the body to allow a natural skin (such as fish or goat) to cover the large opening. This structure allows for the most powerful and resonant sounds. A plastic skin cannot be used on a clay Darbuka, as the clay Darbuka is quite brittle; drilling holes in it would weaken its structure.
In modern times, Darbuka bodies are usually made of metal. Bolts are screwed into the metal shell to hold down the plastic skin. This structure is more practical as leather skin can vary in tightness depending on the weather and humidity, whereas plastic skin will always remain at the same level of tightness. A metal body is also more resistant to damage and will not break as easily as a clay body might.
What Makes a Good Darbuka
The ideal size of a darbuka
This is a question that needs some careful consideration. There are several sizes available, and they range from around 13.5cm (5.3″) to around 28cm (11″). Note that when we look at sizes, we are referring to the diameter of the skin (the plastic section at the top of the Darbuka).
Here are a few general good rules of thumb:
1. Anything below 20cm is too small.
The logic behind this is that you need space on the Darbuka head for both your hands to fit and move around the drum and you need the Darbuka to be big enough to sit comfortably on your lap. Also, if it’s too small, it won’t create good sounding notes! Do it properly and get yourself a bigger drum than this.
2. 22cm – 23cm is the most popular and ideal range
22cm is by far the most popular size of Darbuka, and it’s a delight to play for everyone from a 10-year-old child to a large adult. The bass and high notes are also good enough that a competent player would be comfortable performing professionally with a decent 22cm model. The 23cm Darbukas are a little bigger and about 2kg heavier. This is, in my opinion, a perfect size for a Darbuka and it gives a significantly better sound. I much prefer a 23cm to a 22cm Darbuka as my go-to instrument. Another point to note here is that a 23cm Darbuka, as previously mentioned, is known as a Sombaty Darbuka.
3. Darbukas bigger than 24cm are called Dohollas.
You need to know what you’re doing before venturing into the Doholla world! A Doholla is a large Darbuka, and they can be loads of fun to play. However, if you pick up a bad one, this big Darbuka will burn a big hole in your pocket! The reality is, Dohollas can be expensive, they can be challenging for beginners to manage, and changing parts can be a nightmare. On the flip side, a well-made Doholla can be a dream to play and produce amazing sounds. However, for a beginner, our recommendation would be to keep to the 22-23cm range!
The Ideal material (and weight) of a Darbuka
Most Darbukas available on the market are made of Aluminium. Aluminium is chosen because it is light and easy to work with. Aluminium is the material of choice for most Darbuka makers, and as such, it is commonly used throughout workshops in the Middle East, North Africa and South-East Asia. There are a few points to note:
1. Some manufacturers use copper to make their Darbukas.
This can come out nicely, and craftsmen in Turkey do use copper a lot in the construction of their instruments. However, copper tends to be more expensive than aluminium, and as such craftsmen might skimp on weight to save money on costs. As we will discuss in the second point, weight is significant!
2. The weight of a Darbuka directly affects its sound.
There is a fine line between being too light and being too heavy. If a Darbuka is too light, the Doum is over-pronounced and overly bassy, while the Tek sounds very muted because the metal is so thin. If a Darbuka is too heavy (relative to its size), the Doum may have some bass issues, but the Tek won’t ring as well as it should. For this reason, best practice is a double-layered aluminium shell, an outer layer and an inner layer. Both layers are finished and smooth (so the sound isn’t affected by imperfections), and the drum weights at least 3.5-4kg for a standard drum.
In my opinion, a 22cm standard Darbuka that weighs less than 3.5-4kg isn’t a proper Darbuka. I’ve seen some Turkish Darbukas that come in around 3kg; it’s simply too light. The Sombaty Darbuka is the perfect weight in my opinion, weighing in at around 6kg.
Mother of pearl usage in a darbuka
Let’s take a step back and look at how pearls are created.
They are formed inside the shells of pearl oysters and freshwater pearl mussels (both sea creatures). Now, a pearl is produced inside the shell of both of these animals, but the inner lining of that shell also shines a beautiful iridescent white. This is known as Mother of Pearl (Nacre).
Take a look at the below picture.
It shows a pearl oyster shell, with a perfectly formed pearl oyster inside it. Now look at the inner lining of the shell itself and see the beautiful white iridescent lining. This is Mother of Pearl.
Figure 32 – A pearl oyster
White Mother of Pearl vs Blue Mother of Pearl
You will also notice when looking at Darbuka designs that there are different types of Mother of Pearl colours. They usually come in shades of white, green, blue and purple. While they are all known as Mother of Pearl, we typically make some distinctions in the Darbuka world depending on where we get the shells from:
Colour Name Technical Name White (like a normal pearl) White Mother of Pearl Nacre Blue/Green/Purple Blue Mother of Pearl Abalone
Blue Mother of Pearl, like White Mother of Pearl, is formed in an animal shell. While White Mother of Pearl is formed in pearl oyster or freshwater pearl mussel shells, Blue Mother of Pearl is formed in abalone shells. An inner abalone shell looks like this:
Figure 33 – An abalone shell
The difference is purely aesthetic, but it’s important to know that White Mother of Pearl is fairly easy to get hold of and is available in large quantities. Blue Mother of Pearl, on the other hand, is relatively quite rare, which is why it’s harder to get Blue Mother of Pearl pieces, and why they are more expensive. Blue Mother of Pearl comes in shades of blue, purple and green, so there are more possibilities of what can be done with it.
How are the fantastic Mother of Pearl Darbuka designs created?
The Mother of Pearl pieces then have to be applied to the aluminium shells of the Darbuka. Here is an excerpt of how Malik Instruments make their stunning Mother of Pearl Darbukas:
– From our studios in London, we liaise with expert craftsmen and designers from Egypt to render stunning designs that we can then overlay over a Darbuka body.
– We then forward these designs on to our crafting workshops in Egypt, where the designs are then reviewed by our master Darbuka craftsmen, who confirm that the designs can indeed be recreated on the Darbuka body.
– Our craftsmen then get to work. Taking a plain aluminium shell, they sketch the design over the aluminium body to provide a guideline to work with.
– They then cut the Mother of Pearl pieces to size, and manually, piece by piece, attach each Mother of Pearl piece to the Darbuka body, creating the design that was initially sketched on to the Darbuka.
– Then they apply any finishing touches, any paint overlays and ensure that the design on the Darbuka matches the expected design.
– Finally, the design is sealed to the Darbuka by applying a gloss layer over the Darbuka body, creating the beautiful finish you find on all good quality Darbukas!
As you can tell, it’s a relatively long process. Typically, a craftsman can make maybe 2-4 Mother of Pearl Darbukas per week. In contrast, multiple low-quality Darbukas can be made per day. So much extra time is given to making sure that the Mother of Pearl Darbukas that are made perfectly, and this reflects in the quality of the finished product. Some of our Sombaty Darbuka craftsmen at Malik Instruments can take almost 2 weeks crafting a single instrument, for example those from our Artisan Designs collection.
Figure 34 – The Pearl Peacock Artisan Sombaty
Where to Buy a Good Darbuka
A disclaimer on price vs quality
I feel that it’s essential to mention something on price when purchasing something more popular in the Eastern world than in the West. The reason is that many people assume that since a product is made in a country like Egypt, it can be purchased cheaper there.
Let’s say someone is selling a Darbuka in a street market in Egypt for $25 and someone is selling a Darbuka online for $250. Is the online seller priced extortionately? The answer, in my opinion, lies solely in one word: Quality
Yes, you may well be able to get a Darbuka cheaper in Egypt, and yes it may also be Mother of Pearl. However, it may well also be of a significantly lower quality to what you can purchase online in a Western country! Many manufacturers only send the absolute best of their production models to Western countries and sell the lower quality models locally in their own country.
For example, my first Mother of Pearl Darbuka was a Gawharet El Fan 22cm Darbuka I purchased from a street vendor in Fez, Morocco. I thought it was decent. Years later, launched Malik Instruments and started sourcing Darbukas directly from Gawharet El Fan, ensuring that they were of the highest possible quality.
I realised that the Darbuka I bought from the street vendor in Morocco wasn’t half as good as the Darbukas that we were getting directly from Gawharet El Fan. This is true even though the Darbuka from Morocco was also made by Gawharet El Fan and was also Mother of Pearl.
The conclusion is simple. Focus on getting the best quality Darbuka for the money you can spend, regardless of where you are buying it from.
Online is a popular way nowadays to purchase a Darbuka. I think the following online platforms are appropriate places to find a decent Darbuka:
1. A retail website (like Malik Instruments)
2. An online marketplace (like Amazon or eBay)
3. A classified advertisements website (like Gumtree, Facebook Marketplace or Craigslist)
Each has its pros and cons.
A retail website may well provide the best quality instruments, with excellent service and genuine care for the instruments they are sending out; however, it may be challenging to choose a reliable website.
An online marketplace will usually provide a decent quality instrument for a reasonable cost and will typically have reviews for products which enable easier decision making. The customer service is generally reliable, and the transaction is safe. The downside is that big brands with lots of backing tend to do better on online marketplaces, and smaller brands which may be much better get pushed to the bottom of the search results.
For example, global percussionist Meinl sells strongly on most online marketplaces; however, their Darbuka models are… not of the best quality. Yet, since they do the job at a low cost, they have high rankings!
A classified advertisements website will usually provide the cheapest way to purchase online and may involve collecting locally or getting a seller to post to you. This can be a fantastic way to find a good deal, however typically there are no review systems in place, and no guarantee of quality. You may end up with a very low-quality instrument, and you wouldn’t even know. I recommend steering clear of these places until you are confident in your ability to tell a good Darbuka from a bad one.
In-Store I know that online is a popular way for people to purchase instruments nowadays, but a retail store isn’t to be messed with. I know from experience that many store owners take great pride and care in the products that they stock and sell. If you can find a store like this, you should give them a visit! Some things to look for when choosing a store:
Typically, big warehouses that stock generic products don’t have good quality Darbukas, from my experience. This because they usually hold high stock numbers of generic mass-produced products, not more unique instruments like the Darbuka.
A general music store may well have a decent Darbuka model around. They’re usually worth a look to see if they have anything interesting available. You might want to call ahead to if they have Darbuka models in stock. If they only have generic models available, play a few and have a go at what they’re like, however, try and find something a little better!
A percussion store will usually have at least a couple of different Darbukas in stock. I know that percussion stores in London do stock decent Darbuka ranges, and I would always check out these stores if I had access to them. If you were to visit a percussion store in Istanbul or Cairo, you would find some fantastic Darbuka models. If you visit a percussion store and find a decent selection, and an owner or employees who seem to genuinely care, make sure you say hi and keep a good relationship. Support local businesses! It’s what makes innovation and development possible in the music community.
At a souq
Well, this section just wouldn’t be complete without a mention of buying from souqs, or markets, in Arab countries. It’s straightforward to find a Darbuka at a souq; however, be warned; they are usually of very low quality. Very, very low quality. I would recommend only buying with the utmost caution and care, and once you have an understanding of what it is you are looking for. It’s easy to get ripped off if you don’t know how to haggle, and even if you can haggle well, it’s difficult to judge the quality of what it is you’re buying. Proceed with caution!
A note on Darbuka sizes
A small point worth mentioning here is on Darbuka sizes. Typically, standard-sized Darbukas are much easier to find in a store, whereas a Sombaty or Doholla would be much more difficult to find. For one of these models, I would recommend online shopping as the ideal way to get one at the best convenience. The only exception would be if you could get one directly from Cairo, Istanbul or the like.
When to Tune a Darbuka
Caring for and maintaining your instrument is an essential part of being a musician. When your instrument is in tune, it will sound significantly better and allow you to create a more beautiful sound. For example, have you ever heard a piano out of tune? It sounds terrible! So much so that even someone who is not a musician will quickly understand that something is wrong. A Darbuka, being a percussive instrument, allows for a little more leeway. However, it is still essential to keep your Darbuka in tune and sounding perfect.
There are several reasons you might need to tune or change a Darbuka skin.
The Darbuka sounds out of tune
Often if a Darbuka goes out of tune, it’s because of the Darbuka skin. Now if it is a plastic Darbuka skin, you may not need to change it, you may well be able to retune the Darbuka by tightening (or loosening) the bolts at the top of the Darbuka with an Allen Key. It is recommended to always try this before going out and purchasing a new skin.
Note: You can retune the Darbuka by going in a clockwise direction and tightening each bolt with an Allen Key by a quarter turn. Keep tightening by a quarter turn on each bolt until the Darbuka reaches a sound profile you are comfortable with.
If re-tuning a plastic skin on a metal Darbuka does not put the Darbuka back in tune, you will need to buy a new plastic skin. If it is a clay Darbuka (with a natural leather skin) that goes out of tune, you can usually get the roping redone to resolve the problem. However, unless there is an actual problem with the leather skin on the clay Darbuka, you will not need to purchase a new skin.
The Darbuka skin has warped
As an extension to the Darbuka skin going out of tune, it might warp due to inadequate storage conditions. Note that this only typically applies to plastic skins. The most common cause of this we see is leaving the Darbuka exposed to direct sunlight, which causes the plastic in the middle of the Darbuka skin to loosen, while the plastic that is around the sides remains tight. There is no coming back from this, and the skin will need to be changed.
Another thing that people can overlook is leaving their Darbuka in the boot of their car when it’s hot. The boot of an average car can typically get quite warm, and sometimes if its 35+o Celsius, you can have some melting of the plastic Darbuka skin which again, will require it to be changed.
There is apparent damage to the Darbuka skin
If you stick a knife through your Darbuka skin, you will need to change it. 100%. If you stick any sharp object through your Darbuka skin, you will need to change it. There is no coming back from a tear or a hole in the Darbuka’s skin. We advise keeping your Darbuka safe so that you are not in a position where the skin needs to be changed. It’s best to transport the Darbuka using a case at all times, and ensure that when you play, you are not wearing any rings etc.
It has been a long time since you last changed it
A Darbuka skin should easily last for several years. However, if it’s been over, say five years, it might need to be changed. You can assess it by seeing if the Darbuka sounds out of tune or not. If it does, and it’s been a long time, change the skin. As an aside, if your metal Darbuka has been sitting out of tune for a long time, it will be harder for you to retune it as the molecules in the plastic skin will have set in an uneven position – it will probably just need to be changed.
How to Tune a Darbuka
This section refers to tuning a metal Darbuka, not a ceramic Darbuka. A ceramic or clay Darbuka is tuned with glue and an intricate roping system which usually requires an expert to do. A metal Darbuka, on the other hand, can easily be tuned by anyone.
To tune a standard Egyptian Darbuka (like a Malik Instruments Darbuka), you will need a 5mm diameter Allen Key.
Before you start tuning
Before you start tuning, you will need an idea of what exactly needs doing. There are typically three problems that someone might have that would require them to tune their Darbuka:
1. The Darbuka sounds too high pitched or sharp Problem: The Darbuka sounds sharp or high pitched. The Tek strokes have lost their ring because they are being “choked” by tight tuning on the Darbuka. The Doum strokes are sounding flat because the skin is so tight that it can’t vibrate properly.
Solution: To fix this problem, we have to tune the Darbuka to a lower pitch, by loosening the tuning bolts.
2. The Darbuka sounds too low pitched or boomy Problem: The Tek is not ringing correctly because the skin is too loose. The Tek’s pitch will resemble more of a church bell and may even sound bassy (note that the Tek should never be producing bass sounds!). The Doum shares similar problems; it sounds very boomy and bassy, overly so. The skin is so loose that it vibrates way too much when a Doum is played.
Solution: To fix this problem, we have to tune the Darbuka to a higher pitch, by tightening the tuning bolts.
3. The Darbuka sounds unstable Problem: Instability occurs very regularly with cheap drums from Arab markets and the like. It can also happen when someone who doesn’t know what they are doing has tried to tune a Darbuka. In this scenario, the Darbuka sound is unstable. The Tek is not ringing properly because the head is uneven. The Tek is also changing pitches as it rings (it should typically ring in one clear tone). The Doum may have a little bit of an unhealthy bounce to it, as the head is uneven (but this may not always be the case). It is usually much easier to spot any instability from the Tek (or Ka).
Solution: To fix this problem, you will first need to identify the cause of the problem:
1. Your Darbuka’s head might be fitted unevenly. You can assess this yourself by looking at the distance between the head and the Body of the Darbuka.
2. If the gap is uneven, for example, it is larger on one side of the Darbuka than the other side. Your head has been fitted unevenly, and your first point of action is to stabilise the Darbuka skin by tightening or loosening the tuning bolts until this gap is entirely even around the entire circumference of the Darbuka.
3. If this gap is even, and your Darbuka still sounds unstable, you will have to replace the Darbuka skin. This is because the plastic molecules in the skin have set unevenly, such as because of excessive heat exposure. You can purchase a replacement skin from Amazon, a local drum store, or the Malik Instruments website.
The tuning process
Once you have identified what needs to be done, you have three tuning actions you can take. You either need to tighten, loosen, or stabilise the Darbuka skin.
Process A: To tighten or loosen the Darbuka skin
1. Place your Allen Key on the first tuning bolt
2. Loosen (anti-clockwise) or tighten (clockwise) by 1/4 of a turn on the first bolt
3. Go around the Darbuka and loosen or tighten each bolt by 1/4 of a turn
4. Keep going around the drum and repeating steps 1 to 3 until you reach a sound profile you are comfortable with (read on in this article if you need help choosing a sound profile)
Process B: To stabilise the Darbuka skin
1. Identify which bolts you need to loosen, and which bolts you need to tighten to ensure an even gap between the head and the body around the entire circumference of the Darbuka (if there is a large gap, you need to tighten, if there is a small gap, you need to loosen)
2. Tighten the necessary bolts and loosen the necessary bolts by as much as is necessary to make the gap even
3. Now re-assess the tuning to see which of the three scenarios above that you are in. If it’s too loose or too tight, follow the steps in Process A to adjust the tuning. If it is still unstable, you will need a new Darbuka skin
And there you have it, by following these steps, your Darbuka should be nicely in tune!
Top Tip: Tuning to the Ka
Here’s a top tip when it comes to tuning a Darbuka. In my opinion, the Ka is by far the best stroke to tune to when tuning the Darbuka. The reasons for this are below:
1. The Ka is played with the non-dominant hand, which means you can tune with the dominant hand while repeatedly playing Ka strokes to see how the sound changes with the tuning
2. If the Ka is in tune, the Tek will be in tune. And the Doum will almost always be in tune if the Ka is in tune. The Doum usually falls into tune the easiest.
When tuning to the Ka, you hold the drum on your non-dominant leg, as if you were about to play. You then hit the Ka repeatedly to see what it sounds like. If it sounds too low, you start tightening the screws by a quarter turn around the drum until you fall into tune. If it sounds too high, you loosen. You use your dominant hand for the tuning.
Top Tip: Finding your perfect sound
It is crucial to find a sound profile you like, and you are comfortable with. It is also important to remember there is more than one way to tune a Darbuka, and that each Darbuka will have a slightly different sound profile based on its size, it’s quality, it’s build material, it’s skin type, etc.
For example, a Sombaty Darbuka is bigger than a Standard Darbuka, so it will have more powerful Doum’s, and also more powerful Teks depending on its tuning.
If you try to get a standard Darbuka’s Doum to sound as powerful as a Sombaty Darbuka, you will have to tune the Doum quite low, which will jeopardise the Tek and Ka. This is an excellent example of a reason it’s essential to tune to the Ka, as mentioned above.
Typically, people have different sound profiles that they like. Some people prefer a slightly lower sound with a bit more of a bell to the Tek. Some people prefer a tighter tuning with more of a crispness to the Tek. If you tune slightly lower, your Tek will have a slight bell to the sound, but your Doum will be very powerful. If you tune slightly higher, your Tek will sound crisp and strong, but your Doum may suffer a little. You should ask yourself whether you prefer a slightly higher or lower tuning, then tune your Ka to that pitch.
Listening to someone else’s Darbuka, which is in tune, will help with this. The best of both worlds is possible when the perfect size Darbuka is created using high-quality materials by an expert craftsman. We take pride in saying that all of our Sombaty Darbuka models meet this standard as some of the best Darbukas available on the market. The Standard models, while also fantastic drums, are just slightly too small to maintain a strong Tek as well as Doum. Our Sombaty Darbuka models, on the other hand, are perfect. Check out our Sombaty collection on the Malik Instruments website.
Top Tip: Avoiding extremes in tuning
It is particularly important when tuning a Darbuka to avoid extremes, such as tuning too low or tuning too high. It will very clearly sound out of tune and may damage your Darbuka skin. For example, if you tune a Darbuka too high (the skin is too tight), you will not be able to lower the pitch very easily, as the molecules in the plastic skin have been stretched too far and have “set” in that position. When you do end up loosening the bolts, it will jump to an overly low tuning. As such, we wouldn’t recommend tuning too tightly.
Which plastic Darbuka skin sounds the best?
There are many kinds of Darbuka skin out there; however, the best kind for you will typically depend on your circumstances. Nevertheless, there are some rough guidelines you can follow.
The Darbuka can create fantastically deep Doum sounds, and properly high Tek sounds. A plastic skin will produce higher Teks than most natural leather skins. However, not all skins are created equal, and it becomes essential to choose one that will bring out the best in your Darbuka.
This is a big one, so much so that it can be split into two parts:
1. Plastic quality – If the quality of the plastic used is low, for example, it has lots of scratches on it, it won’t sound as good. Think about this; sound comes from sound waves, which are effectively vibrations. You want your Darbuka skin to vibrate as evenly and clearly as possible to create the most resonant and best quality sound.
2. Metal crimped hoop – The crimped metal hoop of the Darbuka skin is the metal piece around the plastic skin that allows the skin to be fitted to the Darbuka. The metal hoop fits snugly inside the internal tuning mechanism which allows the skin to be stretched across the Darbuka head. Consequently, this also needs to be of good quality. If the metal hoop is of low quality, it will not fit evenly inside the internal tuning mechanism. Say, for example, one part of the metal hoop was thicker than another part. It would result in the sound being imbalanced, which might create a problem when playing. Let’s take a look at the different Darbuka skins there are available on the open market:
• Alexandria Darbuka skins – Absolutely terrible! Poorly made with lots of scratches and sound miserable!
• Gawharet El Fan Darbuka skins – These aren’t that great; they are also badly made and have lots of scratches.
• Stagg Darbuka skins – Decent, but definitely on the lower side of the quality scale. They are cheap, though.
• Meinl Darbuka skins – These can sound reasonably good – however they only come in Meinl’s 8.5″ Darbuka size, which makes them unusable on most Darbukas.
• PowerBeat Darbuka skins – These are excellent quality; they sound great and are made well. Plus, they come in black or white.
• Malik Instruments skins – These are optimal all-round skins. They are upgraded versions of standard Egyptian Darbuka skins, which means they’re affordable and sound great.
• REMO Darbuka skins – These are the best skins we have come across. They sound incredible, they look fantastic and are available in every size you could need. Be warned; they are expensive!
Are plastic Darbuka skins reusable?
The short answer is, no – we would not recommend re-using a plastic Darbuka skin. It is possible, but not recommended. Firstly, let’s clarify what we mean by reusability.
If you fit a Darbuka skin to a Darbuka, and then you remove the skin from the Darbuka after it has been tuned, you will struggle to re-use that same skin. The reason for this is simple – a plastic skin stretches when it is fitted to a Darbuka and then tuned. Usually, the skin has to be stretched quite tightly to get it tight enough to play properly. When it is stretched to this degree, it will not return to its original looseness when it is unscrewed; it will still be quite tight. As such, to tighten it onto a new Darbuka will be quite tricky.
Think of it this way:
• Imagine a Darbuka skin is at 0% tightness when you buy it
• You then tighten it to 100% tightness when you fit it to a Darbuka
• When you remove it from the Darbuka, it will reduce to about 50% tightness, not the 0% tightness that it was initially
• When you fit this skin with 50% tightness to a second Darbuka, you will have to tighten it to 150% tightness to get good sound (which is impossible)
• Since this is impossible, you will only be able to tighten from 50% tightness to 100% tightness, which is not enough to get a good sound. As such, the Darbuka skin will be too loose and hence will sound terrible!
My Darbuka skin tore when I fitted it to my Darbuka
This is a common occurrence with poorly made Darbukas (although it can occasionally happen on a good quality Darbuka too). Let’s take a step back and look at the reason this happens.
When a plastic skin is fitted to a Darbuka, it should perfectly fit on the opening at the top of the Darbuka (if it doesn’t, the skin is the wrong size). The head should then be placed on the skin and screwed into the Darbuka body. As it’s screwed in, the skin will become tighter and tighter. While the skin is tightening, it is in direct contact with the internal tuning mechanism at the top of the Darbuka. If the skin gets trapped inside the mechanism, for example, it catches on a protruding bit of metal, it will tear.
This is the most likely reason for the skin to tear, with the only other common reason being the skin itself is faulty.
Now, provided you have a good quality Darbuka and a good quality Darbuka skin, you should be able to fit your skin to your Darbuka without any significant issues. For example, all of our Malik Instruments Darbukas should not have any problem when being re-fitted with a new skin.
The major issue that causes this problem is a badly finished internal tuning mechanism, and this comes back to the quality of the Darbuka that you purchased. The reality is that the internal tuning mechanism is not outwardly visible. So some lesser Darbuka manufacturers would not ensure a high level of quality on the inside of this mechanism. As such, we often find that the internal mechanism is in awful condition if the Darbuka has not been made well. If this is the case with your Darbuka, be extra careful when attempting to fit a Darbuka skin to the Darbuka and ensure that you tune it very slowly to avoid it catching on something and ripping.
To make it easier, there are a few techniques that you can use to soften the plastic on the Darbuka skin so that it doesn’t tear as easily if you are worried!
The hairdryer method Disclaimer – Malik Instruments do not take any responsibility for any damage to your Darbuka or Darbuka skin caused by use of the “hairdryer method”. It can be dangerous, and you should only use this if you know exactly what you’re doing. This method should not be used on Malik Instruments Darbukas – our Darbukas are of high enough quality that a normal Darbuka head should fit without any difficulty.
It is possible to loosen the plastic molecules of the Darbuka skin using the heat from a hairdryer.
All you have to do is put the hairdryer on the lowest heat setting (but make sure it is heating and not cooling) and heat the Darbuka skin for between 5 and 10 seconds when you feel that the skin is becoming challenging to tighten.
The heat from the hairdryer will loosen the molecules and allow them to be tightened more easily. It is essential not to overheat the skin, or you will cause irreparable damage to the plastic head.
When I first started teaching Darbuka, I bought 8 Darbukas to use with my students. They were badly made and very sharp around the head. Getting the skin on the Darbuka without tearing it was looking challenging, so I heated the skin with an iron. I managed to get the Darbuka skins on without tearing them, but a few days later I realised that all 8 of the Darbukas were sounding terrible. I realised I’d overheated the skins and ruined them! Make sure you’re very careful when using this technique!
Can you fit a natural leather skin to a metal Darbuka?
A question we are often asked is can you fit a natural leather skin to a metal Darbuka. The answer is yes, it is possible to fit a natural leather skin to a metal Darbuka body. You can do so by removing any current skin fitted to the metal Darbuka, and then using a rope to tie down the natural leather skin to the metal body.
You should get an expert to help you with this, as if the knots are not tied correctly, it could lead to the head being imbalanced and creating an uneven sound!
It is also important to note that while a natural leather skin can be fitted to a metal Darbuka, a plastic skin cannot be fitted to a clay Darbuka – for obvious reasons (you can’t screw bolts into clay, or it will crack)!
How do you measure a Darbuka head?
To measure a Darbuka head, you must measure the diameter between the insides of the Darbuka head. Like this:
What if the skin I’m using is too big or too small?
If your Darbuka skin is a different size to your Darbuka head, you may have a problem.
In a clay Darbuka, it’s not too bad, and as long as they are roughly the same, you will still be able to fit the Darbuka skin to the head with an appropriate knot pattern.
However, if you try to fit an incorrect sized plastic Darbuka skin to a metal Darbuka, you will not be able to screw the head back onto the body, because the crimped metal hoop will get in the way of the bolts that will screw through the Darbuka.
If the head is too small for the Darbuka, it will simply not fit onto the internal tuning mechanism. It is therefore essential that you get the correct size plastic Darbuka skin. The good news is, as long as you measure your head correctly, you should easily be able to purchase the right size Darbuka skin!
A Reader on Clay Darbukas
In a clay Darbuka, a leather skin (often goat or fish) is placed on top of the body and tied (with rope) around the top section of the Darbuka body with an intricate series of knots.
The below points are common questions I get asked specifically about clay Darbukas.
Best natural leather skins
The best natural leather skin to use is fish skin, as a good general rule of thumb. Fish skin is very thin, which means it creates the most powerful and clearest sound. Fish skin is also relatively more difficult to come by, which makes it more expensive. While fish skin itself isn’t that hard to find, you would need an unblemished and even piece of skin wide enough to fit over the Darbuka head, which reduces the choice you have. However, most Darbuka makers will have a supplier where they can acquire a nice piece of fish skin suitable for use on a Darbuka. Fish skin is widely regarded as the best skin to use on a Darbuka.
Another fantastic option to use on a Darbuka is goatskin. Goatskin is strong but supple, allowing for a good resonant sound to be created. It’s also not too thick that its thickness interferes with getting a good amount of vibrations going through the Darbuka. Goatskin is also much easier to find in a size large enough to fit a Darbuka, and hence it makes it much cheaper than fish skin. On the whole, goatskin is a great all-round choice for skin to use on your Darbuka.
Choosing between goat and fish skin
Choosing between the two can sometimes be quite tricky. Should you go for goat, or should you go for fish? Well, there are a few good rules of thumb that we can follow here too, depending on the size Darbuka you are playing:
Solo Darbuka (20cm – 22cm head diameter) If your Darbuka is intended as a solo Darbuka, i.e. it’s a smaller size Darbuka with strong, high pitched Teks, fish skin is by far the better option. It will allow you to create a great sound and will work very nicely with your Darbuka to create that solo sound you are aiming for. Goatskin will also work, but it will just be average, not amazing.
Bass Doholla (25cm+ head diameter) If your Darbuka is intended as a background bass instrument, for example, a Bass Doholla, acquiring a fish skin might be quite tricky. A skin that big will cost a lot and will likely be a challenge to get hold of. Goatskin, on the other hand, would be relatively easy to acquire and not cost too much. Goatskin might also arguably create a better sound! The reason being that the increased thickness of the goatskin will create a deeper and more bassy sound. Fish skin might be a bit overkill!
Medium size Darbuka (22cm-25cm head diameter) A standard medium size Darbuka or Sombaty Darbuka could work well with either fish or goatskin. It will again really come back to what kind of sound you want to create. If you want to create a sharper and more striking sound, you would be better placed with fish skin. However, if you want to create a more bassy and deeper sound (the difference will be noticeable but only slightly), go for a goatskin. In these situations, we would recommend just going with what you can acquire without spending too much time or money. Both skins would work well, and you probably won’t regret the fish skin if you go for goatskin.
How do I stop a natural leather skin from going out of tune?
This is an issue which is more common in countries with cooler climates. When playing a natural skin Darbuka, the skin may not be tight enough to produce an appropriately good sound if the humidity is too high. This is because when a natural leather Darbuka skin is exposed to a humid environment, the leather increases in water content, sags and becomes loose.
You can stop a natural leather Darbuka skin from going out of tune by using a Darbuka lighting tool. This is a light that is fitted to the inside of the Darbuka body that creates heat, thereby drying up the natural leather skin and making it tight. This will assist in getting the best sound from your Darbuka with natural leather skin.
If you don’t have a lighting tool to hand, your best bet is to heat it over a gas cooker (or fireplace if you have one of those handy).
Note: it’s not advisable to use a lighter to heat a Darbuka skin.
Are natural Darbuka skins reusable?
In most cases, yes, a natural leather darbuka skin would be reusable. Unless there is damage to it, they should be fine to be removed and refitted to another Darbuka.