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Abstract: Tanbour, a guitar-like instrument is the most genuine Iranian musical instrument with which half of the world are acquainted. One of the branches of guitar is called Barbados or harper. With the advent and growth of Islam this genuine Iranian musical instrument traveled around the world and is being now used from China up to Italy. Statues unearthed from Shush and dating back to 1500 years ago as well as those excavated in Haft Tappeh are proof of the genuine Iranian origin of this ancient instrument.



Tanbour (a guitar or harp like instrument) is the oldest and most genuine Iranian musical instrument and nowadays nearly half of the people around the world are acquainted with this ancient Iranian instrument and are using it in different parts of the world under different names.


This ancient instrument with is heavenly and ravishing sound is used in many countries specially in China, Iran, Turkey, Iraq, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) such as Azarbaijan and Armenia and other countries. It is specially revered by native Iranians who during their collective or individual prayers use the guitar to commune with God and believe it helps them to approach the Almighty.

From ancient times the guitar was played in Iran and specially in western regions, Khorassan province and Persian Gulf and Lorestan suburbs as well as Kaneqahs (hermitages) for praise of God and prayers.

We shall first of all refer to the historical evolution of Tanbour by Husseinali Mallah, the well known research in his Dictionary of Musical Instruments; Mehdi Setayeshgar in his Glossary of Iranian Music; and Alireza Feizbashipour, a researcher and player of guitar. Then we will zoom on the method of election of the wood for the guitar and its fabrication.

Tanbour, as described in dictionary of musical instruments by Husseinali Mallah
Tanbour, is a branch of Iranian family of musical instruments. After providing a brief history about the guitar Mallah says: "When this sound compartment of the Tanbour gradually became elliptical in shape one end of the oval instrument was lengthened and narrowed little by little and when it was called harper or aggaloch that its handle had grown longer and the resounding bowl of the instrument had grown bigger. This meant the invention of a new family of Tanbour. It has been called by different names in various regions including Tanbour in Iran."


In the opinion of Farmer with the spread of the Islamic religion around the world the impact of this Iranian musical instrument spread in every corner and even in such remote regions where Islam had failed to penetrate i.e., to shores of the Atlantic Ocean in the west, to Siberia in the north and to confines of India and islands located in the eastern wing of India.

Tanbour known as Tanboureh in Iran's neighboring countries gradually arrived in China and changed its name into Tanpoula. In Greece it was called Tampouras. From Greece the guitar traveled to Albania and was renamed Tamoura. In Russia it was christened Dumbra and in Siberia and Mongolia they called it Dumbra or Dumbereh. However during the Byzantine empire they called it Pandora and other European tribes became acquainted with that instrument through Byzantine. The instrument is popular in Turkey and India as well.


In Reyman musical dictionary, reference is made to Tanbour (p. 1319): "Making of tambourine was an Iranian and Arab art and the instrument is from the family of aggaloch." Reyman believes that the instrument was called Tambouri in India which undoubtedly was the same Iranian Tanbour. In Italy it is called Tamburo and in Caucasus it is named Tampour. The Armenians also call it Tambour.


The Graw Musical Dictionary says the term tambourine was changed into different appellation in the difficult dialects of various nations. The Encyclopedia Britannica says Tanbour is a long-necked lute played under various names from the Balkans to Northwest Asia. Closely resembling the ancient Greek pandoura and the long lutes of ancient Egypt and Babylon, it has a deep, pear-shaped body, a fretted neck, and 2 to 10 double courses of metal strings fastened with front and side tuning pegs without a pegbox.


The Tanbour has remained popular since medieval times. Its derivatives include the Greek buzuki, the Romanian tamburitza, and the Indian sitar and tambura.


Tanboura is an instrument invented in the East from the family of the aggaloch with a long handle and two or three strings which is played by the fingers. The most ancient trace of this instrument were the images discovered in Bani Yunos and Keyvan hills, in Mosul. From these images one can deduce that these instruments closely resembled the present guitar. They held a very long and thin handle with a delicate bowl with a proper covering.


Statutes unearthed in Shush belong to 1500 years B.C. and those discovered at Haft Tappeh display the antiquity of the instrument.


Jule Rouyaneh writes: Farabi, a writer of the tenth century A.D., has carefully described the musical instruments of his time such as aggaloch, guitar, Khorassani Tanbour and Shirazi tanbour and has given a precise account of the method of employment of fingers on the strings by numbering the fingers. Among tambourine those used in Baghdad and Damascus had different divisions of notes.


In Zax, which is a complete dictionary of musical instrument, it is said: The Persian, Kurdish and Hebrew guitar resembles the egg with a long handle and in fact the guitar fabrication was the first step by mankind to develop and refine such instruments. As a whole one can study the changes in the outside appearance of the tanbour from the Assyrian age to present time. Nowadays guitar belongs to a large mass of human community.

Etymological root of Tanbour was pandora
Tanbour is called by different nominations in various parts of Iran such as Khorassani Tanbour, Mizani Tanbour or Baghdadi, Turkish or Shervanian Tanbour. But records says the tanbour had the following classification in ancient times:

  1. It is a string instrument

  2. It was played by finger nails of three right hand fingers

  3. At the beginning it possessed only a single string

  4. It was divided into two types; one type was covered by a curtain and the other was without any covering

  5. In appearance it resembled double string (Chagour)

  6. It had surely a receiver and a bridge

In his Glossary of Musical Terms, volume 1, Mehdi Setayeshgar thus describes the tanbour: Tanbour is a string instrument set to a long handle and a bowl and is played by beating of fingers.


Tanbour has existed in different periods of history and was the most popular string plectrum instrument. Formerly a pear-like tanbour prevailed in Iran and Syria; then it traveled to Turkey and Greece and from there to the West.


Nowadays one can sea different models of native tanbour with longer handles or bigger bowls or much more curved than the Setar (three string guitar) which possesses two, three or four strings with octave spaces divided into scales.


Tanbour is played by hand which points to the close relation between the tanbour and double string guitar like Iranian instrument. Tanbour is used in the assembly of tanbour players, athletes and dervishes by reciting religious verses.


Ibne Khordad has referred to singing by tanbour in Rey, Tabrestan and Deylam, says Setayeshgar. He says Farabi has described Mizani or Baghdadi tanbours and their method of tuning. These possess two strings and were famous as Turkish tanbours. He has also described the Shervanian tanbour and the images in Nineva. He has described the Baghdadi, Turkish, Khorassani, double string, Shervanian, Tambourak, Tamouraki, Moroccan, Mongolian and Tanbireh or guitars and their methods of use.


In his expertise research of music Alireza Feizbashipour is speaking about tanbour and the people west of Iran.


"Based on beliefs and documents as well as examination of various musicians and the different types of tanbours used by the Kurdish tribe and people west of Iran, one can conclude that this tanbour was the same ancient Iranian tanbour or guitar which has been referred in ancient books and images as well as in literary texts.  He refers to each of the following tanbours and their method of use:


1. Baghdadi, Turkish, Khorassani, double string, Shervanian, Tambourak, Tanbouraki, Moroccan, Mongolian, Tanbireh.


In his masterly and expertise research about Iranian music, Alireza Feizbashipour says based on the beliefs and existing records and examination of music and the different ranks among the Kurdish tribe and the folk living west of Iran, one can conclude that tanbour was a derivation of the same ancient tanbour which has been spoken in ancient books, images or literary texts.


He mentions Barieh, Tarze Rostam, Majnooni and Jongara ranks as the ancient ranks which were transferred from ancient times to the present times from generation to generation. He seems to have mistaken Barieh rank with Barbod rank.


The difference between the ranks (Dastans) in that tanbour nearly resembles the interval between 12 notes Dastans known as Fors (introduced by Farabi). He says two models of tanbours were popular in Kermanshah in the Gouran and Safeh regions, and it was popularly played in the Safeh region among Alavians and the mountain skirts of Zagros and the elders and leaders of these regions were completely familiar with the instrument.


The tanbour is equipped with two basic tuning instruments which if used in a scientific manner in one of the turning knobs the base wire is symmetrical with the fifth interval known as Chiereh and in the other the base wire harmonious with the fourth interval known as Dang. Both these tuning knobs bear their own specific names and the names attributed to two specific ranks in the tanbour. The first interval or the base wire tuning knot forms the Sheir Amiri interval with the fourth interval. The second tuning knob which links the base wire to the fifth Vakhan is known as Kook Tarz and they are always called with these appellations. In different regions other names are given such as Borz and Tarz and Haft Dassan (Haft Dastan) and Panj Dassan (panj dastan).


Borz is the same Sheikh Amir tuning and Haft Dastan and Tarz is the tarz tuning knob called Panj Dastan. One must note that these ancient ranks for tanbour were mostly used by Tarz tuning knobs and is far ancient. Commenting on the musical notes played by tanbour Feizbashipour says, the tanbour music is specific and exceptionally melodious compared to other music in Kermanshah. The specific features of that music such as the interval, weight and the cadence of the lay is such which leads us to believe that the tanbour music is a genuine ancient Iranian music to the extent that a careful examination of such music can shed light on certain features of old Iranian music.


It must be noted that beside conducting music in ranks the tanbour is played in two other forms as well. One of them is used for elegies extemporaneous plays on the basis of the tanbour ranks and the other is to play pieces composed by outstanding masters of music. After group music became popular such type of tanbour playing has increased but regretfully many such pieces are unrelated to tanbour music and are void of cultural or artistic value for the tanbour or guitar.


Playing Tanbour and popular plectrums
The player of tanbour sits on his two knees of squats on the ground and places the bows on his leg so that the facing stands vertical. On the other he places the handle in little forward and high and the right hand embraces nearly the back and face of the bow and plays the instrument by beating the strings by his hand.

The plectrums
The most important and beautiful plectrum in tanbour is called Shor or Shaneh which is sometimes changed to Tarz by some tribes. Shor means serial and consecutive. In the Shor plectrum four fingers stand tangent on against the face and he repeats his beating from bottom to top on the strings. Of course some players resort to their thumb and play with five fingers. In this plectrum the edge of the fingers is used obliquely from the base and it produces beautiful sounds like the fall of rain or waterfall. The speed of the plectrum can be controlled by the players. Pas Shoryar is another plectrum for the tanbour which is played by four fingers unlike Shor. To play one must stretch his four fingers on the strings from top to bottom. Separated Tak Variz and two Taks, etc. are other types of plectrums for tanbour. Here we will refer to two ranks in tanbour as suggested by Alireza Feizbashipour.

Flower and earth
Flower and earth are two valuable and ancient ranks specially used by tanbour which is a singing musical instrument and echoes the pain and suffering from the bottom of the heart or the loss of a dear relative. Flower and earth in Uramani Kurdish language means flower in the earth, flower fallen on the earth and dead flower buried in the earth.


This rank was played and is still played as elegy to mourn the departure of a beloved one. During mourning ceremonies or burial of their dead this tribe use a tanbour accompanied by a solo singer or group singers. Flower and earth is one of the branches of elegy played by tanbour or the Iranian guitar, but being a theoretical rank it is not used in the above mentioned ceremonies. In mourning ceremonies two dialectic ranks of the tanbour known as Fani Fani is used. Flower and earth is mostly sung by natives of Hozeh Gouran or Karand. Its rhythm is produced by seven plectrums which is called Sepa (three steps or tripod) in Kurdish language.


Seyed Vali Husseini Gahvareyi and Seyed Ghaem Afzali Shah Ebrahimi are well known players of the flower and earth ranks.

Tarze Rostam
Tarze Rostam (like Rostam) is another ancient tanbour rank. It is a beautiful and meaningful epic song and echoes human thoughts which appeals to Farvehar (the holy spirit of the dead) or the angels of salvation to remove oppression. Here Rostam is a benevolent knight who is believed to be a player of tanbour himself and a pioneer among all lovers. In this melody they call on Rostam to chain and jail the evil Div (Satan) and to rescue and protect Iran from degradation.

This rank is specifically used in Gouran and played by Kouk Borz. Of important players of such pieces one might refer to Seyed Mahmood Alavi and Seyed Vali Husseini and Taher Yarveissi, his able student. In the past a man called Birkhan Zardehi used to play this rank in an excellent manner.




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