History & Culture

Middle Eastern Drums & Percussion: The Ultimate Guide

Middle Eastern culture has traditionally placed a high value on music, and percussion instruments have played a significant role in that music for many years.

Middle Eastern percussion has a long and intriguing history that reflects the region’s cultural richness and creative heritage, ranging from prehistoric hand drumming and clapping to the sophisticated rhythms of the darbuka and riq.

Today, I’d like to take you on a quick tour of the development of Middle Eastern percussion, from its earliest beginnings to its modern manifestations in different music genres, the many different types of drums, and examine its cultural significance as a form of artistic expression and social commentary.

Ancient Origins of Middle Eastern Percussion

Middle Eastern percussion has its roots in ancient civilizations where dance and music were integral parts of social and religious rites.

Clapping and hand drumming were some of the first types of percussion in the area, used to accompany songs, chants, and dances.

A frame drum known as a riq, which originated in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, is one of the Middle East’s oldest percussion instruments. The tambourine, which was used in both secular and religious settings, and the clay pot drum, which was utilized in Sumerian and Babylonian music, were further early percussion instruments.

These primitive Middle Eastern percussion styles developed into increasingly intricate instruments and rhythmic patterns, which are now an integral part of the music and culture of the region.

Popular Middle Eastern Percussion Instruments

The Middle East is renowned for its wide variety of percussion instruments, each of which has a distinctive sound and method of playing. Let’s first examine some of the most well-known Middle Eastern drums.


One percussion instrument that has a particularly strong connection to the Middle East is the darbuka, commonly referred to as the doumbek. This goblet-shaped drum, which can be made of clay or metal, has a broad base and a small neck that produces a tight, clear sound.

Original uploader and author was Room237 at en.wikipedia, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Although researchers estimate the geographical origin to be somewhere between ancient Turkey, Egypt, and Armenia, the drum was most frequently employed in traditional Egyptian music.

The darbuka’s drumhead is typically composed of goat or fish skin, however many contemporary producers employ synthetic materials. The darbuka is hence frequently performed both solo and in ensemble situations.


A mazhar is a percussion instrument frequently used in Sufi music and traditional Egyptian music. Depending on the region you’re in, it may also be referred to as a Bendir or a Daff.

It has a distinctly large frame drum with a wooden frame and, prior to the invention of synthetic materials, fish or goat skin heads.

Derbake, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Mazhar players will strike various parts of the drumhead with their fingers, palms, or fingertips to create a variety of sounds. You may be familiar with its rich, resonant sound from Middle Eastern music, which is hypnotic when combined with other instruments.

The mazhar, which is frequently employed to accompany chanting and singing in Sufi music in particular, is said to have significant spiritual value.


A sagat, otherwise known as zills or “sajat” outside Egypt, are commonly used finger cymbals in Middle Eastern music, particularly in belly dance music. 

Leo Ferreira editor, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The sagat is made up of two tiny brass or copper cymbals joined together by an elastic or string loop. The player makes a harsh, metallic sound by striking one cymbal with each hand while holding them together.

The sagat is frequently heard being played in a variety of rhythmic patterns, which gives the rest of the rhythm section an exotic, fun feel. Other genres of music, such as Turkish folk music and Indian classical music, also employ it as a rhythmic accent.


The davul is a large, double-headed drum that is frequently heard in Balkan and Middle Eastern music. It has a cylindrical shape, a wooden or metal frame, and a traditional animal-skin drumhead made of goat or sheepskin.

Drummers in the street playing davul
Michal Maňas, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Players of the davul use a stick or a mallet and frequently perform in groups with other percussion instruments, such as the wind instrument zurna. The davul’s distinctive sound is instantly recognizable and produces a strong rhythmic basis for melodic music to be played on top of.


A frame drum called a riq, sometimes called a Dâyere and Riq or daf, is frequently used in Middle Eastern music.

This little, hand-held percussion instrument has a circular wooden or metal frame with tiny jingles or cymbals attached on it. The riq is played with one hand while the other hand may be used to attenuate or modify the tone. The instrument’s head is typically constructed of goat or fish skin, while more contemporary renditions employ synthetic materials.

Riq drummers playing
Fars Media Corporation, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Many Middle Eastern musical genres, including Arabic, Turkish, and Persian music, use the riq, which is renowned for its clear, jingling sound. It can be used to emphasize the rhythm and give the song texture. It is frequently played in ensemble settings alongside other percussion instruments, such as the darbuka.

The riq is one of the oldest percussion instruments in the Middle East, according to several historians, and it has a long, illustrious history.

Middle Eastern Regional Rhythmic Styles

Each region of the Middle East has its own distinct rhythmic style, which is characterized by its own collection of instruments, melodies, and rhythms. Because of this, it can be difficult to separate and analyze various rhythms without hearing them, but it’s still important to talk about them to acquire a broad perspective.

One of the most well-liked rhythmic systems in the area is the Mizan rhythm system.

Arabic music frequently employs the rhythmic system known as mizan, which translates to “the rhythm of tradition.” It consists of a number of cycles that are divided into beats, each of which has its own rhythm and accent pattern.

The beauty of the mizan system is its adaptability, which enables it to support a variety of tempos and musical genres. It is one of the most adaptable systems utilized in Middle Eastern music as a result.

Malfuf, wahda, and maqsum rhythms are also present; these are equally well-liked throughout North Africa and the Middle East.

In contrast, Turkish music has a distinctive rhythmic style that is distinguished by the use of asymmetrical time signatures and the use of vintage instruments like the ney and kanun.

The last type of music is Persian, which is well-liked in Iran and Central Asia. The chaharmezrab, a 6/8 beat, and the rumba, a 7/8 rhythm, are both found here.

Similar to western music, Middle Eastern percussionists frequently employ these local rhythmic patterns to create particular feelings and tenors, resulting in a lively and dynamic depiction of the culture and traditions of the area.

Famous Middle Eastern Percussionists

Over the years, Middle Eastern music has given rise to numerous accomplished percussionists. Let’s examine a couple of the most well-liked:

Said El Artist is a Moroccan drummer and composer who is also known as Said El Araby. He is regarded as one of the most important and well-known percussionists in the Arab world. Over his career, he has shared stages with numerous well-known Western and Middle Eastern musicians. His publication of Dazzling Rhythms on Hollywood Records is what made him most famous.

World-famous percussionist Amir Sofi is famed for his mastery of the darbuka, riq, and frame drums. He is well known for his virtuoso playing and his ability to slickly combine traditional Middle Eastern rhythms with modern musical genres.

Hossam Ramzy: Known for his proficiency on a variety of percussion instruments, including as the tabla, duff, and riq, Hossam Ramzy was one of the most well-known and significant percussionists in the world of Arabic and Middle Eastern music.

Maybe his most well-known contribution is the soundtrack for the film “The Prince of Egypt,” which brought him critical praise and made Arabic and Middle Eastern music more widely known.

Evolving with Modern Music

As you can see, Middle Eastern percussion has a lengthy and varied history and is still evolving now.

In addition to producing some of the most well-known and influential percussionists in the world, the region gave home to a vast variety of percussion instruments, each with its own distinctive sound and style.

Modern pop, jazz, and rock music, as well as traditional Arabic and Turkish music, have all been affected by the rhythms and beats of Middle Eastern percussion. One only needs to look at the history of Middle Eastern percussion to see the region’s rich cultural legacy and continuous contributions to music.

Tyler Connaghan

Tyler is a music producer and multi-instrumentalist from Los Angeles, CA. When not producing music for TV and film or playing in various projects, he enjoys writing about the gear he loves most.

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