How to Play a Toombi – Part 1 – by Sangtar
Today we’ll talk about Toombi.
Toombi has a very high status in Punjabi music.
As you know in every Punjabi song there are real or artificial Toombi parts.
If there is no Toombi, then there is another instrument played in the style of Toombi, on a keyboard or another instrument.
The reason behind its status is its ancient origins.
It is an old instrument.
But everything that looks like a Toombi is not necessarily a Toombi.
We can only call it a Toombi if its body is made from a Toomba (Indian gourd).
If it is a big gourd then the instrument is called a Toomba if the size is smaller then it’s called a Toombi.
But if it is made of wood, when you buy a common Toombi from a music shop, the body is generally made of wood, Technically speaking, then it doesn’t remain a Toombi anymore, it becomes an Ik-tara (one string instrument common in India).
This is also an ik-tara as it has only one string, but it is also a Toombi, as the body is made from a gourd.
And, when we talk about an Ik-tara, then not just in Punjabi music, it has a very special place in Indian Music.
The world’s oldest music book Natya-Shastar says that the original Veena (stringed instrument) was an ‘Ik-tantri Veena’ (single-string Instrument).
Which means it was an instrument not much different than a Toombi.
It does make sense.
As humans first made flutes and drums, but when they made their first stringed instrument, of course they didn’t say let’s string together 352 strings and make a piano.
It was for sure a one- string instrument.
It also means that it was used for classical music as well to play Ragas etc.
These days however, players generally play only one or two notes on a Toombi.
A few play three notes, the good ones play four and one or two players play five notes.
And the whole octave?
Just forget about it.
Perhaps there are rare exceptions.
Toombi is actually capable of producing one and half octave.
As a Bansuri (Bamboo flute) is capable of producing two octaves, a Toombi is capable of producing one and half octaves.
But when people hold it, they hold it in a way that they cannot move their hand from this position.
Whenever you learn an instrument, learn to hold it in a way that you gain full control over it.
As I am holding the Toombi now, you can probably tell that it won’t be much difficult for me to move my hand like this.
If I tie my hand here like a pigeon caught in a net, then it becomes apparent that I can’t play more than one or two notes.
And yes, how to play a Toombi?
To play a Toombi…, there are two ways to hold a Toombi.
One is like this, and the other like this.
To hold it this way, a bigger instrument is required.
On a smaller instrument, as it is played with the index finger, the other fingers are already touching the string.
For that reason a smaller Toombi cannot be held like that.
Mostly the beggars (or buskers) used to hold it like this because they could easily put it on their shoulder or would play it like this while walking.
Or, if you’re dancing and playing at the same time then moving your hand in this way appears symmetrical.
So they played it in that fashion.
But all modern techniques about how to play a Toombi, all of those point to this position.
So hold a Toombi like this and balance it entirely in one hand.
And here, the palm should be touching the body.
If you hold it here, then it will swing like this.
But if you let it touch your palm, as there is a rod above the plough tillers, holding it in two places stabilizes it.
Now it doesn’t move.
And where to play, Play it where the upper fifth is.
To find it locate the note without pressing down on the string.
As this is the open note.
Here is the upper octave note, that is without pressing on the string.
And here is the upper fifth on this one.
Where the finger is touching.
So that means that is the place to pluck.
See, if I hold it like this, the index finger naturally goes there, where I was playing it earlier.
Toombi produces the best sound from here.
If you would play toward the head then the bass (harmonics) will disappear from the sound If you would play from this side then the top end (harmonics) will keep diminishing.
So Toombi’s best sound will come from this spot.
And now, how to pluck the string.
Some grasp it naturally and others just never get it.
Some have been paying for years still, they jam their finger in the string as the safety- lock jams into the gears of a water-well.
Don’t play that hard.
Pluck it with just enough contact that the finger would move up and down without resistance.
The string should be able to jump easily out of the way.
The finger should not get stuck in the string.
That is all about plucking a toombi.
Now the pattern… The traditional style popular in Punjab is the “Da – Ra, Da – Ra” pattern.
Here I should also explain that any plucked instrument, played anywhere in the world, can only be plucked in three unique ways.
The first one is called ‘Da-Ra’, the second one is ‘D-Re’ The third is called ‘DaRaD’.
When we pluck a string downwards That is called a ‘Da’ movement, even on Sitar etc.
When we pluck upwards or away from us, i.e.
guitar, sitar, sarod, toombi, that is called a ‘Ra’ movement.
So that means if I… [plays] play like this that would make it da ra, da ra, da ra, da ra, Traditionally, that is the most popular way to pluck a Toombi.
However, when we play other instruments such as mandolin, sitar or sarod, then we use all three of the above.
‘D-Re’ is… [Plays] See doesn’t it practically speak Dre, Dre, Dre… [Plays] Again ‘Da-Ra’ is… [Plays] If we play both together… [Plays] And the third one is ‘DaRad’ [Plays] That is DaRad.
So these are the three ways to pluck an instrument.
You can translate them to any instrument.
Although ‘DaRa’ is more common on Toombi, when we play Toombi after studying music we can implement all three in our playing.
And onto the size of a Toombi… This particular Toombi can be tuned pretty high.
This is a good size.
Neither too small, nor too big.
I have two bigger Toombies than this one.
While I show you those, I also wanted to point out that Toombi’s neck can be made from both types of wood.
It could be the hardwood or the softwood.
Softwood such as Pine or Hardwood such as Oak or in Punjab such as Tahli or Kikkar.
When the neck is made out of Hardwood such as this one, then there is no need to work on it further, it just works.
When it is made of softwood, as you see, here is one with a softwood neck when we play a note (on a softwood neck), it produces a dull sound.
So we need metal sheathing on it.
This Toombi is bigger than the first one, And it is louder and can be tuned lower.
and… This one is even bigger than the second one.
This one could also be specified as a Toomba.
[Plays] And this is even louder yet.
[Plays] The plucking pattern of what I just played was Dara Dara Dara… And Toombi’s Bridge, or Ghodi or Meru as it is known (in India), needs to be small.
As you see one here.
You must have seen some playing a toombi with a bridge of the size of Himalayas on the map of Indo-china.
How would that poor instrument resonate?
It has to be small.
If it is embedded into the skin, then the Toombi resonates better.
And what material it ought to be?
At least, it has to be hardwood.
But if possible as the one I have make it from an old piece of pottery.
Find an old piece of pottery and file it into the desired shape.
I think that is about it, we have concluded the basic information about the instrument.
When you play the Toombi, don’t just keep pressing anywhere like this.
Although Toombi is not fretted, but intervals on Toombi are as apart, as they really are.
Meaning, that the Ma (forth) will only sound like a forth when it is as apart as the forth on a flute or a Harmonium.
And in the same fashion the fifth can only be created by reaching 3:2 frequency.
How these notes can be found?
One must train one’s ears to hear the minute difference.
When I play a note here, [Plays out of tune second] You have to learn to realize that no, that is not it.
If one learns that way, then eventually one finds the right positions.
But if you just think… If you place the fingers right next to each other without any consideration it won’t make any tune.
[Plays out of tune] No, that won’t amount to anything.
The notes have to be played where they actually are.
And now I’ll play something for you.
I will begin with the traditional ‘DaRa Dara’ pattern And then I will play it like any other stringed instrument, like a sarod.
Toombi can be played like a sarod because just like Sarod, it is a fretless instrument.
For that reason it plays sliding notes beautifully.
Not many use it in that fashion but you will see how lovely it sounds.
Why isn’t it played like this more often?
It ought to be.
Here we go… [Plays in the traditional style] [Adds higher notes] [Plays Sarod style higher sliding notes ] [Reverts to the traditional style] And there it is, this is how Toombi is played.
We will explore it further in the future lessons.