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Baby, you can drive my Cajón

The wonderful world of drums, gongs and tambourines


Published: 21 Jul 2017

Time taken : ~10mins

The wonderful world of drums, gongs and tambourines

Percussion is one of the world’s most primitive musical instruments, dating as far back as 6,000 BC and evolving concurrently in disparate cultures.

Listening to the beats, whether a solo instrument or as part of an ensemble, reminds one of the rhythm of life. It can also instil a sense of order and urge one to keep pace to the beat. Drumming is also part of a universal language evident in all cultures, and has been used in rituals, entertainment, and communication.

Here's a look at 10 types of percussion instruments featured.


The cajón (pronounced kah-hon) is an Afro-Peruvian box drum that is struck on one side. The struck surface is constructed out of a thin sheet of plywood, and is played by the musician who sits on top of the instrument and plays the sides by hand. A hole is cut opposite the striking surface.

Some say that this drum was initially made from salvaged wooden crates or drawers by Peruvian workers and slaves. Others think the drum was made to appear like chairs or pieces of furniture by African slaves, who were trying to conceal the true nature of the instrument because the Spanish colonialists had banned music.


The tar is also a frame drum, but of Turkish origin. It is sometimes called a daf, and is also used in Oriental music. Unlike the bodhrán, it is played with the hands instead of a beater, and found in music common throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East.


The riqq is a small tambourine traditionally covered with a goat or fish skin head, stretched over a wooden frame inlaid with mother of pearl. The riqq has five sets of two pairs of brass cymbals spaced evenly around the frame, and called sagaat in Arabic. The cymbals produce a jingling sound which differentiate it from the other frame drums.

In a traditional Arabic ensemble, the riqq player’s role is that of rhythm master (also called dabet al iqaa in Arabic), and he single-handedly controls the speed and dynamics of the entire ensemble, which may be as large as an orchestra.


The term "kulintang" refers not only to the ensemble, but also to the main melodic instrument. The kulintang consists eight brass or bronze knobbed gongs suspended on a strung cord and resting on a wooden stand. The gongs are played with two unpadded soft wood beaters.

Traditionally, the kulintang was played by women because the graceful, slow, and relaxed movements accentuate the femininity and elegance of the musician. Other than community or public performances, kulintang music is also used to accompany ancient healing ceremonies or religious rituals, especially in Mindanao.


Every kulintang ensemble has one or two agung, big knobbed gongs that are suspended on a stand. These are played by one or two players—depending on the number of agung—using a rubber-padded beater called balu, which is struck both on the knob and the face of the gong. The agung produce a deep, loud sound that forms the bass of the kulintang music. Outside of the ensemble, the gong has been also used as a warning signal for impending danger, or to announce important occasions.

The sounds and vibrations of the agung are also believed to possess supernatural powers, such as the ability to lessen or halt the effects of an earthquake if struck in a certain rhythm.


Bongos are two single-sided drums joined by a bridge. The drum surface is usually made out of animal hide, and its tension (and pitch) can be adjusted by turning the metal rods on its sides to tighten the rims on the top and bottom of the shell. The influence of African drums bantu or congos can be seen in the open-bottom design of the bongos. Of the two drums, the slightly-larger one is called the ‘hembra’ (meaning female), and the smaller drum, the ‘macho’.

Bongos were the only drum originally used in the Cuban rural musical style called son, the ancestor to salsa music. Off-beat accents and cross rhythms from bongos energise the music.


The darbuka is a single-headed drum with a goblet-shaped body, and is often used as a main instrument in Oriental music. It is best known for its accompaniment to belly-dancing. Goblet drums traditionally hail from throughout the Middle East, North Africa, Turkey, Greece and the Balkans, and vary in manufacture according to region.

The instrument was made popular by Egyptian Masters with its intricate finger movements and fast drum rolls with fingers. In Turkey, a new style was developed called the Turkish split-finger technique which brought darbuka-playing to a whole new level. Its popularity in Western music increased when French composer Hector Berlioz featured it for the first time within a Western opera, Les Troyens.

Kokiriki / Binzasara

The kokiriki or binzasara is a traditional Japanese percussion instrument used in the kabuki theatre and mostly in rural dances and folk song. Many pieces of wooden plates are strung together with a cotton cord, bookended with handles. These wooden plates clap against each other when the player holds the handles a shoulder’s width apart, and then brings them together.

The most well-known use of the kokiriki is in an ancient folk-tune Kokiriko Bushi.


Also known as "atarigane", the chanchiki is a small, saucer-shaped, hand-held gong suspended from a string, played by striking with a stick called a shumoku that traditionally has a piece of deer antler on the end. Its role is to keep the bass beat or underlying rhythm of the song. It derives its name from the words chan, chi and ki, that denote the different ways of hitting the gong.

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