The Tanbur: A Traditional Musical Instrument That Brings All Sudanese Together

The Tanbur: A Traditional Musical Instrument That Brings All Sudanese Together

Singer Mohammed Alnasry



KHARTOUM (Sudanow) - From the East of the Country to its Far West, all Sudanese like to tune to the tender and exhilarating sounds of the simple musical instrument: the Tanbur.


In every village around Africa’s second largest country, one can find many citizens who own and play this popular instrument. In some cases one can find several tanburs in a single household..


That is because it is simple to put it together and simple to play it.


The lute-like instrument is made of five strings based on two long vertical wooden rods and a horizontal wooden bar, which are in turn fixed on a tortoise-like wooden frame. This frame can also be an iron or steel bowel.


People often confuse the tanbur with the rababa, played in many West and Central Asian countries. The difference between the tanbur and the rababa is that the latter is broad at the bottom and slopes narrower towards the head while the tanbur is broad and almost rectangular.


Another difference is that the rababa can only be played with a bow (like in a violin), while the tanbur can be played by a straw or simply by the user’s fingers, like what happens in the lute.


Certain Sudanese ethnic groups, in particular the Manaseer and Shaygiyya of the extreme North of the country, are mistakenly thought to have monopoly of this instrument. But the fact of the matter is that the tanbur is manufactured and played everywhere in the Sudan. However, it takes different names as one travels around the Sudan. It is the Tanbur in the North and the Center. And According to Music Professor Mohammad Adam Terneen of the Sudan University of Science and Technology, it is known as the ‘basitko’ among the Bija of Eastern Sudan, ‘ebnigren’ among the Engassana of the Blue Nile Region (South), ‘Kengin’ or’kasindi’ in the Nuba Mountains District (South West), ‘um bari bari among the Hawazma of South Kordofan (Mid-South West) and in some parts of Darfur. In the now the Republic of Southern Sudan it is called ‘toam’.



Though some Arab researchers had noted that the tanbur had originated in ancient Persia, yet some archeological excavations have revealed drawings of this instrument in the artifacts of ancient Sudan, notably those of the Kush dynasties of Northern and Eastern Sudan. It is also thought that the instrument had permeated from Sudan’s Nubia through neighboring Eritrea and Ethiopia. Some researchers indicate the instrument had first entered Egypt from Asia and then spread through Nubia and then to neighboring East Africa.



Herdsmen, farmers and workers in isolated areas find great joy in playing the tanbur for recreation and to drive away boredom. Here the individual is absorbed in relics that remind him of his loved ones back home. The poem may also be a glorification of gone brave tribal members.



Like in any other musical instrument, the tanbur tunes change with the changing environment around the player. In the extreme North it is as quick as the movement of a horse or a donkey. Among camel or cow herding communities, it is as gentle as the movement of the camel or a cow.



Tanburs take different looks according to the materials used. It can be pieces of wood arranged and tied together with leather ropes. But it can also take attractive decorations and embroideries, according to the financial ability of the user.


Tanbur maker Badreddin Osman says he can make a new tanbur in a matter of a few hours. ”All I need is five metal strings, two of these strings are tightened to the tanbur’s body according to need: The Ghadeer (for the sword dance rife in the Sudan) and ‘herkak’ for other types of dancing.



Ibrahim Babikir, a researcher in Sudan’s arts heritage, maintains that tanbur songs of Northern Sudan are now understood and enjoyed all over the country. Song themes range from romance to homesickness and the glorification of noble values of chastity and benevolence.  

Anna’am Adam



Generation after generation tanbur singers have been admired by young music lovers. Singer Mohammed Alnasry of the Meroe District (North) has currently acquired a sweeping popularity that his galas are always held under tight police security for fear of trouble from zealous fans who may for one reason or another go out of control. On stage the humble Nasry appears and disappears among his crow orchestra members who repeat the first lines of the song and clap their hands and beat the floor with their feet in harmony with what he says and the music he presents. To guard against possible rioting clandestine body guards hide within Alnasry’s orchestra for time of need. A zealous Nasry fan once ascended the stage and lay prostrate before him (like in Moslem prayer) to the dismay of Nasry himself, the audience and the press that reported the case the next morning. Very mad are Nasry’s fans about him. They learn everyone of his many songs by heart. The view in the theatre is that Nasry sings and his mad fans close their eyes (hands up and heads rotating) and perform the entire song with him.


Another important figurehead in the tanbur art is the late Anna’am Adam who passed away a decade ago. Born blind, Adam had taken center stage in tanbur melody for more than two decades. It was Adam’s mastery of the tanbur that caused his fame. To show his tremendous skill with the tanbur, Adam would sometimes hold the instrument behind his body and play it in his characteristic artful manner.



The list of tanbur ultras also includes some specialists who travel around the country, hold symposia or appear in radio and TV shows explaining the tabur’s particulars, history and its artistic value.



All tanbur melodies are simple, composed along the fifth musical scale, a trade mark of Sudan and Southern Sudan. Professional tanbur singers like to mix its tunes with drumming. Thus created, the melodies enthuse the public and enliven the show.




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