Firstly, how do we pronounce the name of these tbilat drums? As we can see, the word “tbilat” is very similar to “tabla” and is often pronounced as such or very close to it. In Meknès, Morocco I usually heard it pronounced as “ta-bé-lat”.
These drums are made of two, sometimes three clay pots, with goats skin heads and sinew wrappings. If you’ve travelled through Morocco, you will have seen these drums hung up in shops in the souks. Often they are highly coloured but these are the tourist versions and no self-respecting Moroccan percussionist would be seen at a gig with them. As a result, there are various sizes of these drums but the professional tbilat are at the large end of the range and are not coloured or glazed.
How are they played?
Tbilat are played with short, thick wooden sticks. The drummer (usually the master or maalem of the group) can play them sitting down with the drums on the floor in front of the drummer of standing up with the tbilat in custom made stands. It’s possible to play the drums with your hands but the sound is not the same.
Contrary to bongos, the small high-pitched drum is on the right side (for a right handed drummer) and the large pot is on the left. The most of the majority of Moroccan beats are played on the large drum with the high pitched drum playing accents and fills.
What sound do they make?
Firstly, to get the true tbilat sound, the drum skins have to be heated up, either under the hot Moroccan sun, in front of a charcoal burner (the traditional method) or some sort of heater or lamp. When we hold Aissawa evenings in our riad in Meknès, we set the musicians up with heaters for their various drums!
When correctly set-up and fully heated, the tbilat have a unique sound, with the high pitched pot having an edgy, rasping, cutting high pitched sound and the large pot having a much lower, round and full sound.
Here is an example of the sound, played by the fantastic Maalma Hassania. The tbilat are the first percussion instrument to come in after the vocal start.
What’s their role in Moroccan music?
Click here to go Anouar Dekkaki’s FB page. Anouar is a maalem or master musician from Meknès and is a highly respected member of the Aissawa and Hamadcha communities. He is an amazing tbilat player and has clips of him playing them in their traditional context.
These drums are the engine of the Moroccan polyrhythmic beats and drive not only the whole band but also the audience whether it be in the traditional Sufi trance sessions or secular musical settings.
When used properly, they also sound great in fusion contexts. Click here and go to the bottom of the page to listen to Simon’s “North African Funk” track (also free to download).
There great drums are well worth a listen and maybe next time you see them when walking through a souk you will look at them differently…….