On a hot summer night in the courtyard of a Sufi mosque at the foot of Erbil’s historic citadel, the hypnotic rhythms of the drums guide a prayerful dhikr ritual.
The faithful men let down their hair and move to the rhythm of music that brings them closer to a place of spiritual enlightenment.
“It gives a blessing, a type of excitement to the ritual,” says musician Abdulqadir Sheikh Issa Barzinji of the rhythms he plays on his daf – the Kurdish frame drum.
The daf is played in ceremonies from birth to death – its beats echo through all aspects of life. Its rhythms are central to rituals in the Sufi tradition – the mystical side of Islam.
While the modern instrument has its roots in Sufism, historical evidence shows that the daf existed long before the rise of Islam. The drum was played in Zoroastrian rituals, though much of the knowledge of those traditional rhythms and melodies have faded from memory.
“Playing the daf… for me it’s not just an instrument. It’s an instrument that tells a story of a culture… A nation which has had a lot of ups and downs in the history,” said Hussein Zahawy, a professional musician who has played the daf for over twenty years.
“I think the sound of the instrument was probably the first magnet which drew me to this instrument because it was so mystic, it was so powerful, it had so many things to say,” he recalled, sitting in Erbil’s ancient citadel where he had performed for an eager audience the night before.
Though the daf has strong religious roots, it is also a cultural symbol in Kurdistan.
Music is central to Kurdish culture where much of the history is passed down through the generations orally, through epic tales put to music.
“What is interesting is when you go to Kurdish villages throughout the pan-Kurdistan, if a family does not play it, but it’s displayed on their walls. It’s something to have inside your home because it is so connected to the Kurdish people,” explained Zahawy.
Erbil’s central bazaar is a maze of shops selling everything from fresh butchered meat, glittering gold jewelry, and household appliances next to tailors sewing traditional Kurdish clothing and carpenters building chairs and baby cradles.
Meander through the cacophony on an evening and pass through a crowded tea shop, and you’ll hear the gentle tap-tap of Ghazi Muslih Sheikho Dabagh’s hammer echoing in his narrow, dusty workshop as he nails a goat skin over a round wooden frame, making a daf.
Working a trade passed down from their father, Dabagh and his two brothers are the last craftsmen in the Kurdistan Region and Iraq making the daf in the traditional way, he says.
These days, he only makes drums to orders and his main customers are the Sufi mosques.
The daf has a simple design – animal skin stretched over a round frame studded with chains – but the way it is played makes it unique among frame drums.
The Turkish bendir is held between the legs and played. The bodhran from Ireland is held by a cross-frame in the back and beat with a stick. Frame drums in the Gulf are held with one hand and played with the other.
The Kurdish daf is carried, balanced, and played with two hands – all at the same time, making it one of the most physically challenging drums to play.
“Other frame drums are also unique from different parts the world, but the Kurdish frame drum, the Kurdish daf has this soft but also this aggressive, wild side to it,” said Zahawy.
“The sound of the instrument, the timbre of the instrument is so connected to Kurdish. And every time when I’m performing around the world and they say ‘Wow, that sounds great, that sounds awesome.’ And I say well, that’s the sound of this people.”