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The History of the Tambourine

The origins of the tambourine are largely a mystery. Some scholars believe the instrument has its roots in West African culture while others think its origins are Turkish, Middle Eastern, Greek, Italian, or Indian. We do know that the tambourine has been mentioned in several ancient, sacred texts from different areas of the world. We know it was prominent in many cultures and some scholars attribute this popularity to merchants and minstrels that traveled between Africa, Europe, and beyond. Most scholars agree that the tambourine was one of the first instruments created by humans and dates as far back as 1700 BCE, roughly correlating to the Neolithic Period or New Stone Age. The tambourine has been called many different names by many different cultures all around the world and its form can differ slightly between cultures — for example, in Morocco, it is known as a dif or bendir and lacks the jangling metal disks that are considered a characteristic element of the instrument in the United States. Still, despite differences in nomenclature and minor differences in design, the tambourine is essentially a single-headed hand drum. It is likely based on the hand-played frame drum, which is one of humanity’s oldest instruments and is represented in the musical traditions of many cultures. (Examples of frame drums from around the world include the Egyptian rik, Brazil’s pandeiro, the Middle Eastern tar, the West African sákara (which is made of clay), a variety of unique frame drums used by Native American tribes, and the bodhrán, which is used in traditional Irish music.) The tambourine as we know it today is typically used in a support capacity as part of the percussion section, though some forms of folk music have been known to use it as a song’s rhythmic foundation. It has also been used in several classical music pieces, including in performances of compositions written by Stravinsky, Mozart, and Berlioz, as well as in some operas. Today, the tambourine is most commonly used in America as part of gospel, pop, and rock music.

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