Persian Musical Instruments

Nava Ensemble musicians and guests play a number of original Persian and non-Persian musical instruments.


Derived from the Persian words kaman, 'bow' or 'arc', and cheh, 'little' is an ancient spiked fiddle which is ancestor to most modern European and Asian bowed instruments. The Iranian classical kamancheh has a spherical shape, its bridge resting on the surface of a soundbox covered by a membrane of animal skin. The kamancheh's four metal strings are generally tuned in fourths or fifths. The instrument is held vertically and the bow, made of horsehair, moves horizontally, with the performer rotating the instrument when he or she moves from one string to another.


The Santur is a trapezoid-shaped hammered zither, which is struck with light wooden hammers. Originating in the ancient Middle East, it traveled the world from North Africa to Spain, throughout Eastern Europe, and to China, Korea and Japan. The santur has seventy-two strings which are arranged on adjustable tuning pegs in eighteen sets of four. The strings are made of bronze (9x4 in the low register) and steel (9x4 in the middle register). Each set of four strings creates one single tone. There are a total of 27 tones available covering approximately three octaves. The Persian santur is played with two very fine wooden hammers, sometimes covered with felt, and held with 3-4 fingers.


The Tombak is a goblet-shaped drum carved from solid mulberry wood and covered at the wide end with lamb or goat skin. It is held horizontally and played with both hands. The finger technique is extremely elaborate and consists of rolling and snapping the fingers in various ways which allow for a great variety of sounds.


One of the oldest percussion instruments in Iran, Daf consists of a wooden frame drum with a row of small circular metal hoops fastened to the inside of its rim, the hoops rattle when the membrane of the drum is struck. Daf has traditionally been used as the main sacred percussion instrument in Iran, while its smaller cousine, Dayereh (popularly pronounced Dariyeh) is used for party occasions.


Belonging to the lute family, the tar appeared in its present form in the middle of the eighteenth century. The body is a double-bowl shape carved from mulberry wood, with a thin membrane of stretched lamb-skin covering the top. The long fingerboard has twenty-six to twenty-eight adjustable gut frets, and there are three double courses of strings. Its range is about two and one- half octaves, and is played with a small brass plectrum.


The ancestry of the setar can be traced to the ancient tanbur of pre-Islamic Persia. It is made from thin mulberry wood and its fingerboard has twenty-five or twenty-six adjustable gut frets. Setar is literally translated as ``three strings''; however, in its present form, it has four strings and it is suspected that setar initially had only three strings. Because of its delicacy and intimate sonority, the setar is the preferred instrument of Sufi mystics.