A small, goblet-shaped drum, the tonbak is rarely seen or heard outside Iran, but it drives the fast and frenetic rhythmic intensity of Persian classical music.
The tonbak is usually made of walnut, ash or pear wood and topped with a thin piece of camel or goatskin. Musicians play with their hands, sitting down with the drum resting sideways across their legs.
Earlier this year, I traveled to Iran in search of the tonbak and to make The Hidden Drummers of Iran -- a crowdfunded documentary film
about my quest.
In Esfahan, a historic city in central Iran, I met renowned tonbak player Jafar Ghazi Asgar, who runs a music academy with his wife, Melika Davoodi. According to Davoodi, young tonbak players are drumming life into this ancient art form -- thanks in part to Instagram. Google, Facebook and Twitter are banned in Iran, but Instagram is permitted and provides a haven for young players to share their music.
Beyond formal drumming techniques, tonbak players have -- over the instrument's long history -- devised a seemingly limitless range of deviations using different parts of the hands, fingers and nails to create entrancing solos and accompaniments. The modern generation's top players have taken innovation a step further, incorporating elements of melody by applying pressure to the drum's skin with the right hand and producing melodic phrases with the left. I was astounded by the tonbak's versatility -- it can produce enough different sounds for an entire solo concert, from chilled out grooves to high-speed, virtuoso finger work.