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What the Fugue is a Darbouka?

On October 7th, as part of Denver Philharmonic’s 75th Anniversary Season, internationally renowned Lebanese percussionist and composer, Rony Barrak, will join the orchestra to perform his tremendous symphonic poem, “Beirut Sensations”.

The piece, composed in 2009, integrates one of the world’s most unique instruments: the darbouka.

This will be the first appearance of the darbouka in a DPO performance. Despite the instrument being so firmly entrenched in Middle Eastern and African cultures, it took until the mid-1800s for the darbouka to make any waves in the West.

Which all begs the question: what the fugue is a darbouka?

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Don’t be fooled. It’s not a bongo drum, but it is a percussion instrument.

The darbouka, a goblet-shaped drum most widely used in the Middle East and North Africa, has a rich cultural and geological history tracing back to ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. Although it has been a staple in oriental music for centuries, the darbouka has steadily made its way into western music in more recent years.

Rony Barrak with his darbouka

According to The Express Tribune, the first known western classical composition to incorporate the goblet drum was in the opera, Les Troyens. The score, written by Hector Berlioz between 1856 and 1858, calls for the darbouka in the fifth act. Since then, the darbouka has made its way into western orchestral music, heralded by composer Halim El-Dabh and his works in the 1950s.

Fittingly, the origin for the name “darbouka” is embedded in the Arabic word “dümbelek” which means “to strike”.

The darbouka is usually played sitting down, but it is also known for being used in many entertainment settings including weddings and Middle Eastern belly-dancing—in which case, a strap is used to keep the instrument standing upright in front of the player.

The base of the darbouka is traditionally made of clay or wood while the drumhead is composed of sheep, goat, or fish skin stretched taut over top using rope, leather strips, or nails. However, some contemporary versions have since turned to aluminum, copper, iron, and alternative synthetic fibers instead.

Title: “Derbake nacar cuero” (Egyptian Leather Darbouka) | Creator: Derbake | Source: Wikipedia | License: CC BY-SA 4.0

Although the darbouka has many styles and rhythms associated with it, the sound it creates is generally distilled into three classifications: a düm, tek, and sak.

Hitting the middle of the drum will produce a düm whereas hitting the outside will produce a tek. Tek, as opposed to düm, is characteristically an improvisational measure rather than written in form. The sak is played as a sharp mute slap sound in the middle of the skin.

All three sounds change depending on the strength and direction of the blows as well as which part of the palm is used to produce them (i.e., hands or fingers).

Don’t miss your chance to experience this unique and well-traveled instrument! Come see the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra, guest artist Rony Barrak and the darbouka in action at our 75th anniversary opening night concert: Blinded by the Light, October 7th @ 7:30pm.

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For more information and background on the darbouka, check out these sources:

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Cassie LeFevre

Marketing Assistant

Cassie LeFevre is the marketing assistant for the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra. As well as contributing to the DPO’s various campaigns and social/web content, she is an award-winning storyteller/filmmaker/writer operating freelance…

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Rony Barrak


Internationally renowned Lebanese percussionist and composer Rony Barrak held his Darbouka (Middle Eastern Tabla) at the tender age of four and began playing it intuitively. Led by early self-confidence, he…

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