Through re-igniting the spirit of Industrial music alongside the emerging experimental Iranian music, Jahan Rezakhanlou innovated homemade Iranian percussion during the COVID lockdowns.
When the world was at its most globalized and interconnected point yet came to a sudden standstill in 2020, the most immediate impact for most was the sudden separation from everyone else in our wider communities. Perhaps for many, the lockdowns allowed us to value certain objects that helped form our identities, from video game consoles to gardening tools. These possessions that help define who we were often in our houses with us during the lockdowns, so our connections with them were perhaps reinforced as they helped provide solace for the lockdown. Yet for some, the separation of lockdowns was extended to these objects that help form our identities.
I was living a partially ‘nomadic’ existence just before the pandemic, moving between Naarm (Melbourne), Hong Kong and Geneva. Many of my possessions were dispersed between the three locations. So when I was stranded in Naarm due to the immediate lockdown, I found myself caught without my Tonbak, one of my most important objects and sonic tools.
The Tonbak is an Iranian goblet-shaped percussion instrument central to Iranian music. Although single-headed, the Tonbak is known for being an incredibly expressive percussive instrument that produces a wide range of sounds, from sharp, staccato notes to deep, resonant tones – its name ‘Tonbak’, literally a combination of the names ‘Ton’ for the standard bass stroke played in the centre of the drum, and ‘Bak’ a higher pitch stroke played on the edge of the drum.
It is often played in conjunction with other Iranian instruments such as the santur, kamancheh, and setar, as an important component of traditional Iranian ensembles. However since the 1950s, exemplified in the work of Tonbak virtuoso Hossein Tehrani, it is now often played alone in concerts as a solo during an ensemble or even completely alone for more experimental music.
Thus, it would be a perfect way of contending with the sudden isolation imposed by lockdown, where one could play the Tonbak alone to release one’s frustrations in isolation and provide a physical, creative and sonic means to escape the current situation. This desire for a percussive mediative therapy in response to the lockdown, encouraged innovation on my part, with trying and creating a Tonbak using only the resources found around my immediate community, specifically the 5km radius that the local government had enforced.
The modern Tonbak is generally made from a single piece of wood, usually from the mulberry tree, and is hollowed out to create a resonant chamber. The top of the drum is covered with a stretched membrane, typically made from goatskin or camelskin. None of these materials were at hand in my immediate community, even if I had the knowledge and specific tools needed to create my own Tonbak.
This drove me to embrace the early D.I.Y. mindset that bands in the late 70s such as Einstürzende Neubauten and Throbbing Gristle had harnessed during the early “industrial” music scene by incorporating found metallic objects into their sets. It offered the opportunity to explore more metallic, grating sounds, yet with the resonance and the expressive range of the Tonbak. Meanwhile, I contended with potential thoughts of sacrilege and imposter syndrome, but thanks to the thriving experimental electronic music scene in Iran and my own research of the Tonbak, these gradually eased.
Delving into the Tonbak’s history reveals that the instrument has gone through its own evolutions to reach the modern standard. I was curious about the potential reaction of purist voices in the Iranian musical community. As it transpired, many old Tonbaks were indeed made of metal rather than wood, so I was unexpectedly forging a link with the instrument’s evolution.
Experimentation with traditional Iranian instruments and electronic music started with the likes of the electro-accoustic compositions of Dariush Dolat-Shahi in the 1980s and continues to thrive today through the work of musicians such as Sote and Mohammad Reza Mortazavi who have produced electro-acoustic pieces combining traditional Iranian instruments with electronic tools, sometimes yielding extremely noisy, industrial soundscapes.
Luckily I didn’t have to look very far around my 5km vicinity to find appropriate objects to restructure. I had always been intrigued by the possibilities of the 20l vegetable or olive oil cans littered behind the restaurants around the famous Naarm city laneways. They are often in lurid colouring, with exaggerated graphics to convey Chinese, Greek and other foreign imagery of food cultures that have flourished in Australia. I found that despite being trash, these cans provided a needed feeling of colour and vibrancy in these back alleys and perhaps provide some commentary about the state of multiculturalism in Australia. And yet, with a few modifications, including an arduous clean out, these colourful oil drums proved to be the perfect foundation to produce a metallic-sounding Tonbak.
They typically have a standard diameter of 28cm, not far from a typical Tonbak’s dimensions of 26cm diameter. They had a generally drum-like feeling and acoustic response, the hollowness of the drum can provide a rich, crisp resonance. And the malleability of the metal material, compared to the solid mulberry wood ensured the drum could be morphed from a fully cylindrical object into a more goblet shape like the Tonbak.
After numerous attempts, this was the full creation process:
- Cut off the top of the tin oil can. They are often slightly cut or hit with holes by the kitchen staff which can help with inserting an electric jigsaw saw. Make sure to keep the rims, as they provide a smooth surface, instead of a jagged metal edge that could injure the player.
- Clean and prepare the can. This is the hardest and most time-consuming step. The can should be thoroughly washed and dried to remove any residual oil or debris, which can sometimes be several centimetres thick. I used sugar soap with boiling water. Make sure to wear rubber gloves, and clothes you wouldn’t be afraid to get dirty.
- Alter the shape of the body of the drum. This is the fun part! The essential part is hammering down the centre to try and loosely replicate the goblet–like shape of a Tonbak, so it can rest on the player’s legs. This is also the part where you can alter the instrument in unique ways. I recommend testing the instrument at various stages of its transformation.
- From here the instrument is fully functional as a Tonbak, yet can be further customised through other modifications, such as indenting the rims, or further altering the shape of the body. This truly highlights one of the strengths of the D.I.Y Tonbak where it can be altered whilst acting as an instrument and altered according to the player’s preference. It’s a strength that the ‘normal’ Tonbak does not have.
Playing this instrument was an obviously different experience, yet for me was somewhat transcendental, taking me to new musical territory. “Industrial” and “harsh” sounds for bands such as Throbbing Gristle were intended to convey the human suffering and bleak outlook of workers in the Northern cities of England. For me, by contrast, the harsh metallic sounds of the oil can Tonbak conveyed the alienness of forced resourcefulness, often unusual in a prosperous country wherein people could often have access to a wide array of material objects.
Although I considered this new instrument a Tonbak, it did require me to make a number of technical changes in my drumming technique. Whilst the Tonbak offers a single drumming surface, the sonic expression from the instrument comes through the many different hitting techniques: striking the drum in different areas, with varying strength and number of fingers, whilst even snapping the edge of the drum, just to mention a few.
Due to the protruding rims on the tin can, hitting the drum with a Pelang (finger snap) was painful, thus could only be done sparingly. The Pelang is very much a “signature” of the Tonbak, with its sharp and loud tone that takes advantage of the resonating body of the Tonbak. With its decreased usage, I could properly value the stroke and use it when necessary.
The most obvious difference was clearly the range of acoustics I could produce and the fact that they were customisable in ways that a regular Tonbak can’t accommodate. Although the shape is altered in the “production”, this shape can be very easily adapted further. Aside from the sharper, metallic sound, the initial harmonic of hitting the tin drum isn’t too different to hitting the Tonbak, but the resonance offered by the tin was shorter, higher pitched and grittier.
The experience of reinventing oil drums as a form of traditional instrument was, for me, a reaction to enforced separation from Iran. Yet it would be absurd to suggest that such innovations are themselves alien from the contemporary cultural life of Iran, even though the country is itself in a state of enforced isolation, for reasons more deeply rooted and profound than the COVID lockdowns. I felt, in a way, a kind of kinship in that respect, as a DIY aesthetic can serve as a response to shortages and deprivation. Thus innovations in turning found objects into an imperfect imitation of an object that one cannot access are common in the “Global South”, whether it is making home-made instruments or the famous example of young Afghan boy Murtaza Ahmadi turning a plastic bag into a Messi Argentina jersey.
Beyond forging a personal object and exploring a new avenue in musicality, I regard this “innovation” as merely a tribute to the incredible experimental scene in Iran, and the extremely creative people in the country and the diaspora.
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