Should I buy this darbuka?
January 25, 2013 7:04 AM   Subscribe

I found a used darbuka on craigslist (yay!) and have been wanting to pick up a hand drum for a while. It's 12" wide and 18" tall according to the ad, and the current owner says he thinks it is made out of aluminum. It has a sticker on it that says "World Beat Percussion" out of Pakistan, and he wants $65 for it, which I can afford. How can I know whether this a good drum at a good price? What am I looking for?

I'm finding aluminum darbukas online for between $30 and $200 which leads me to believe there is a wide variance in the quality of aluminum darbukas. What should I be looking for when I try it out? I'll be looking at it on Monday evening.

I have a pretty good ear for tone when I know what I'm listening for, and virtually no experience playing a hand drum. Any advice you can give would be appreciated.

Thank you!
posted by gauche to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (9 answers total)
I would focus almost entirely on whether you like the sound of the drum. My experience with ethnic hand percussion is that cost is not a reliable indicator of sound quality.

You might check for cracks or dents in the shell, but those issues will more likely effect longevity than tone.

The price sounds reasonable; if the drum feels good to play and you dig the sound, go for it!
posted by dickyvibe at 7:37 AM on January 25, 2013

Well, the price is ok, but it also may be a case of getting what you pay for. If it is of the lightweight alum (or steel) it may be just fine but isn't going to be terrific (copper is better for lightweight models, but is expensive), and after time either will be either 1) a good learning instrument, 2) a toy or 3) frustrating if you come in contact with better drums.
(oh, avoid hide heads and rope tuning. Bolt tuning with a plastic head sound a lot better)

If it is a heavier cast alum model (I don't know "World Beat Percussion" at all so can't speak to them), which it might be as it is a big-ish size, it could sound real nice

The base standard brand for many people is Alexandria, which seem to be pretty strong, long lasting a decent sounding.

But, it is a musical instrument under $100 and even if it is not fantastic, but merely ok it may be worth it to find your interest level without shelling out a gob of money right away.
posted by edgeways at 8:23 AM on January 25, 2013

I used to play darbuka a lot. I would look for the following things:

- Heavy, cast aluminum rather than a thin aluminum shell. For the price they're asking, this should be a heavy drum, with a shell as thick as pottery but made of cast aluminum. If it's a light, thin shell, the price is too high but the drum might still be perfectly fine. If it's cast aluminum, the price sounds pretty good, but it's been awhile since I bought a drum.

- A curved edge around the top. When your fingers hit the edge of the head, which they will a lot if you play Turkish/Arabic/gypsy/etc. style, you'll probably prefer that edge to be rounded, like in the top photo on the Wikipedia page. Cheaper drums are often flat, like the "Turkish darbuka" shown in the smaller images. Of course, plenty of people play the flat-head drums, and I did it for awhile, but I've seen plenty of bandaged fingers as well.

- If it were to be my drum, I would say that the head MUST be tuneable. It must have inset screws (in the case of the rounded edge) or a band with exterior bolts and nuts (like the Turkish flat-head on Wikipedia). Check all the screws to make sure they move, because you want to be able to put an even tension all around the head to avoid out-of-tune notes at the edges. The drums I've had have all needed a small allen wrench for that, so you might bring a set of allen wrenches when you check the drum.

If the head is glued on, you're going to spend way more time than you might enjoy heating the thing with a blow dryer or setting it on a heating pad to tighten it up, and you won't have fine control over the evenness of the tightening.

- Before you test the drum, you might look at one of the YouTube videos on playing Arabic style to see the hand movements required to make sure you're pulling out the best tones that the drum can provide. Then, when you test it, there should be a clear difference in tone between the center of the drum and the edge. If it's all just variations on "boom," carefully tighten the head. Use a criss-cross pattern (eg, tighten the screw at 12 o'clock, then the one at 6:00, then the one at 3:00, then at 9:00, etc.). At some point you should start hearing a difference between the dum of the center and a sharp "tak" at the edge. If it still sounds like mud and the guy selling it also can't get deep dums and sharp taks, the drum might be a dud.

- If the drum is cast aluminum and the body is covered in possibly hideous fake leather, this is actually good, in my opinion. It gives you some traction and helps keep the drum in place.

That's about all I can think of right now. Have fun!
posted by ceiba at 8:29 AM on January 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

2nding ceiba. I would not buy the drum unless the head is tuneable/replaceable by obvious mechanisms.
posted by gnutron at 9:00 AM on January 25, 2013

Response by poster: Thank you all for your advice so far. To address some of the consistent points being raised: it's this darbuka here so it is tuneable and has what appears to me to be a beveled edge. It also doesn't especially look, to me, like it is made out of aluminum due to what appears to be discoloration (tarnishing?) on the neck in the right-hand picture. He thinks it is, though. I'll bring allen wrenches and a multi-tool to try tuning it while I'm up there.
posted by gauche at 9:06 AM on January 25, 2013

Best answer: Thanks for the link. That looks like a steel or other thin-metal drum, not cast aluminum. The edge is not what I would call curved. There's a slight bevel to the head but your fingers are going to whap against the metal rim, at least while you're learning. It could also be painful to do certain "grab" techniques at the edge of the drum.

The drum shown on this page has what I consider a curved edge. Imagine lightly cupping your hand around that edge so that the tips of your fingers hit the edge of the drum head -- it's all smooth, no pain. If you're going to play Arabic/Balkan style, you're going to do a lot at the edge.

That's not to say that the style that your guy is selling is bad. However, the flat top and metal rim will limit your desire to do some cool things at the edge of the drum, and learning might be more painful than it otherwise could be. Also, that drum has a lightweight shell, which could give it a "thinner" sound, but it also makes it easier to carry around and play while standing up.

Depending on where you live, I think $65 is a little much for that drum.
posted by ceiba at 10:02 AM on January 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Having sniffed at $65, I can now say it appears to be an okay price. Here's the page from Mid-East Manufacturing, a big importer of drums, that shows the prices of similar drums when new.
posted by ceiba at 10:05 AM on January 25, 2013

Do not buy that drum. Well, I wouldn't. I personally can't stand the doumbeks that have a raised edge around the head. Kills my hands! Then again, I have sort of a non-standard style (I hold it between my legs or place it on a stand), so maybe if you play in the traditional style, it works out better. But really, I'm just not a fan of that model. They tend to be light and feel kinda low-quality. I'd get one of the classic Alexandria ones, with the heavy aluminum body. Those drums are basically indestructible. I've played them in the rain, taken them to Burning Man, Rainbow Gatherings, etc. Even if you buy one used, it should still last you for years. Don't be afraid to replace the head, they're plenty cheap and easy to change.
posted by Afroblanco at 10:53 AM on January 25, 2013

One of the best doumbeks I've ever heard was made in that style, but it was a custom-made in turkmeni copper doumbek that was heavy and dense; it's bass sound was meatier than the heavy alexandria doumbeks like the one in the wikipedia page picture you linked to. This is not the drum you have posted pictures of unless my sense of scale is askew.

We live in the internet era. That means you can get the right drum in mind using the web, then get the right phone number for the right shop and make a phone call to buy a reasonably priced metal doumbek of you choosing for less than $120 including shipping from a person who knows what they are selling or a reliable website. Even shipping a huge djembe is often less than $50 within the US, so shipping shouldn't be too much of a consideration when buying a drum.

If you want a fancy-sounding doumbek though, you will need a fancy doumbek. They are real instruments and cost $200-$700. Since they are made of clay and have a fish-skin they will break if you are not careful, but a violin or a guitar is also fragile and requires care to keep in tip-top shape. Like these; the same basic type is being played by Misirli Ahmet and Levent Yildirim here.

I have an idea that a cheap clay doumbek might be what you should be looking for...try ebay for a used one, google around for a prefabbed new one, or make one! Clay is cheap and really easy to buy and to work with; you can usually have something fired for a relatively low price compared to buying a drum. Then buy a fish skin and google: 'mounting my fish skin on my doumbek' or the like.

If you like the clay sound but don't want to worry about reheading your drum, you can get a synthetic skin clay doumbek from one of the two most common production lines, each of which runs about $100. But in my opinion after trying many alternatives is that animal skins are the best, hands down.
posted by tabla137 at 2:33 AM on February 11, 2013

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