Oh boy. This is a topic and a half. We were having a chat in the office a few days ago, and we worked out that almost half the inquiries we got were all questions about Darbuka skins! It seems that of all the Darbuka topics, this is the one that catches most people out! Not to worry, this post will address any question you have on Darbuka skins, and ensure you have the knowledge you need to keep your Darbuka in top shape!
This is an active post which is updated every time a question comes in on this topic which isn't addressed below. If you have any Darbuka skin questions that aren’t covered in this post, leave a comment at the bottom or send us a message!
This question catches many people out! These terms are often (incorrectly) used interchangeably; however, they are two completely different things.
The skin is what the Darbuka player will hit to make a sound. A metal Darbuka typically has a plastic skin, and a clay Darbuka usually has a natural leather skin.
It has between 4 and 8 holes for bolts to be screwed in to affix it to the Darbuka body. A Darbuka head is only found on a metal Darbuka, not a clay Darbuka. Simply because a clay Darbuka does not use screws to secure the head to the body, but instead uses rope. On the other hand, a metal Darbuka requires a head to fit the Darbuka skin to the Darbuka body securely. Typically, if referring to the Darbuka head of a clay drum, we are talking about the clay part directly underneath the leather skin.
Put simply, if you hit a Darbuka skin (which is fitted to a Darbuka), it will make a loud noise. If you hit a Darbuka head, you will just hurt your hand. The skin is made of leather or plastic, so will vibrate and resonate, whereas the head is made of clay or metal, so will not vibrate or make any loud sound. Simple.
A Darbuka skin can take different forms based on whether it is fitted to a clay Darbuka or a metal Darbuka.
In a clay Darbuka, a leather skin (often goat or fish) is placed on top of the body and tied (with rope) around the top section of the Darbuka body with an intricate series of knots.
In a metal Darbuka, the Darbuka skin is a plastic membrane that is enclosed by a crimped metal hoop (see Figure A above). It is attached to the top of the Darbuka by unscrewing the bolts on the Darbuka head (see Figure B above), placing the skin on the main section of the Darbuka (the Darbuka body) and then screwing the bolts back onto the Darbuka, thereby securing the plastic skin to the Darbuka.
A question we are often asked is can you fit a natural leather skin to a metal Darbuka. The answer is yes, it is definitely possible to fit a natural leather skin to a metal Darbuka body. You can do so by removing any current skin fitted to the metal Darbuka, and then using a rope to tie down the natural leather skin to the metal body. It is advisable you get an expert to help you with this, as if the knots are not tied correctly, it could lead to the head being imbalanced and creating an uneven sound! It is also important to note that while a natural leather skin can be fitted to a metal Darbuka, a plastic skin cannot be fitted to a clay Darbuka – for obvious reasons (you can’t screw bolts into clay or it will crack)!
The size of the Darbuka skin you need depends on the diameter of your Darbuka’s head. You must first measure the diameter of the Darbuka head and then fit a skin that is the same size as the Darbuka head.
To measure a Darbuka head, you must measure the diameter between the insides of the Darbuka head. Like this:
If your Darbuka skin is a different size to your Darbuka head, you may have a problem.
In a clay Darbuka, it’s not too bad and as long as they are roughly the same, you will still be able to fit the Darbuka skin to the head with an appropriate knot pattern.
However, if you try to fit an incorrect sized plastic Darbuka skin to a metal Darbuka, you will not be able to screw the head back onto the body, because the crimped metal hoop will get in the way of the bolts that will screw through the Darbuka (see Figure H). If the head is too small for the Darbuka, it will simply not fit inside the internal tuning mechanism. It is therefore essential that you get the correct size plastic Darbuka skin. The good news is, as long as you measure your head properly, you should easily be able to purchase the right size Darbuka skin!
There are a number of reasons you might need to change a Darbuka skin. A list of the common reasons are below:
Oftentimes if a Darbuka goes out of tune, it’s because of the Darbuka skin. Now if it is a plastic Darbuka, you may not need to change the Darbuka skin, you may well be able to retune the Daruka by tightening (or loosening) the bolts at the top of the Darbuka. It is recommended to always try this before going out and purchasing a new skin.
You can retune the Darbuka by going in a clockwise direction and tightening each bolt with an allen key by a quarter turn. Keep tightening by a quarter turn on each bolt until the Darbuka reaches a sound profile you are comfortable with.
If this does not work, you'd need a new skin!
If it is a clay Darbuka that goes out of tune, you can get the roping redone to resolve the problem. However unless there is an actual problem with the leather skin on the clay Darbuka, you will not need to purchase a new skin. If re-tuning a plastic skin on a metal Darbuka does not put the Darbuka back in tune, you will need to purchase a new Darbuka head.
As an extension to the Darbuka skin going out of tune, it might warp due to bad storage conditions. Note that this only typically applies to plastic skins. The most common case of this we see is leaving the Darbuka exposed to direct sunlight, which causes the plastic in the middle of the Darbuka skin to loosen, while the plastic that is around the sides remains tight. There is no coming back from this, and the skin will need to be changed. Another thing that people can overlook is leaving their Darbuka in the boot of their car when it’s hot. The boot of a normal car can typically get quite hot, and sometimes if its 35 degrees plus you can have some melting of the plastic Darbuka skin which again, will require it to be changed.
If you stick a knife through your Darbuka skin, you will need to change it. 100%. In fact, if you stick any sharp object through your Darbuka skin, you will need to change it. There is no coming back from a tear or a hole in the Darbuka’s skin. We advise keeping your Darbuka safe so that you are not in a position where the skin needs to be changed. It’s best to transport the Darbuka using a case at all times, and ensure that when you play, you are not wearing any rings etc. And don’t stick a knife through it, you monster.
A Darbuka skin should easily last for a number of years. However, if it’s been over say 5 years, it might need to be changed. You can assess it by seeing if the Darbuka sounds out of tune or not. If it does, and it’s been a long time, change the skin. As an aside, if your metal Darbuka has been sitting out of tune for a long time, it will be harder for you to retune it as the molecules in the plastic skin will have set in an uneven position – it will probably just need to be changed.
This is an issue which is more common in countries with cooler climates. When playing a natural skin Darbuka, the skin may not be tight enough to produce an appropriately good sound if the temperature is too low. This is because when a natural leather Darbuka skin is cold, it sags and becomes loose. You can stop a natural leather Darbuka skin from going out of tune by using a Darbuka lighting tool (see Figure J). This is a light that is fitted to the inside of the Darbuka body that creates heat, thereby warming up the natural leather skin and making it tight. This will assist in getting the best sound from your Darbuka with a natural leather skin. If you don’t have a lighting tool to hand, your best bet is to heat it over a gas cooker (or fireplace if you have one of those handy). Note: it’s not advisable to use a lighter to heat a Darbuka skin. Just don’t.
There are many kinds of Darbuka skin out there, however the best kind for you will typically depend on your own circumstances. Nevertheless, there are some rough guidelines you can follow.
The best natural leather skin to use is fish skin, as a good general rule of thumb. Fish skin is very thin, which means it creates the most powerful and clearest sound. Fish skin is also relatively more difficult to come by, which makes it more expensive. While fish skin itself isn’t that hard to find, you would need an unblemished and even piece of skin wide enough to fit over the Darbuka head, which reduces the choice you have. However, most Darbuka makers will have a supplier where they can acquire a nice piece of fish skin suitable for use on a Darbuka, so get in touch with someone if you need help sourcing some. Fish skin is widely regarded as the best skin to use on a Darbuka.
Another fantastic option to use on a Darbuka is goat skin. Goat skin is strong but supple, allowing for a good resonant sound to be created. It’s also not too thick that it’s thickness interferes with getting a good amount of vibrations going through the Darbuka. Goat skin is also much easier to find in a size large enough to fit a Darbuka, and hence it makes it much cheaper than fish skin. On the whole, goat skin is a great all-round choice for skin to use on your Darbuka.
Choosing between the two can sometimes be quite difficult. Should you go for goat, or should you go for fish? Well, there are a few good rules of thumb that we can follow here too, depending on the size Darbuka you are playing:
Solo Darbuka (20cm – 22cm head diameter)
If your Darbuka is intended as a solo Darbuka, i.e. it’s a smaller size Darbuka with strong, high pitched Teks, fish skin is by far the better option. It will allow you to create a great sound and will work very nicely with your Darbuka to create that solo sound you are aiming for. Goat skin will also work, but it will just be average, not amazing.
Bass Doholla (25cm+ head diameter)
If your Darbuka is intended as a background bass instrument, for example a Bass Doholla, acquiring a fish skin might be quite difficult. A skin that big will cost a lot and will likely be a challenge to get hold of. Goat skin on the other hand, would be relatively easy to acquire and not cost too much. Goat skin might also arguably create a better sound! The reason being that the increased thickness of the goat skin will create a deeper and more bassy sound. Fish skin might be a bit overkill!
Medium size Darbuka (22cm-25cm head diameter)
A standard medium size Darbuka or Sombaty Darbuka could work well with either fish or goat skin. It will again really come back to what kind of sound you want to create. If you want to create a sharper and more striking sound, you would be better placed with a fish skin. However if you want to create a more bassy and deeper sound (the difference will be noticeable but only slightly), go for a goat skin. In these situations, we would recommend just going with what you can acquire without spending too much time or money. Both skins would work well and you probably won’t regret the fish skin if you go for goat skin.
The Darbuka has the ability to create fantastically deep Doum sounds, and impossibly high Tek sounds. A plastic skin will create higher Teks than most natural leather skins, which can be terrific fun to play with. However, not all skins are created equal, and it becomes important to choose one that will really bring out the best in your Darbuka. A number of factors should be considered, let’s take a look at them:
This is a big one, so much so that it can be split into 2 parts:
If the quality of the plastic used is low, for example, it has lots of scratches on it, it won’t sound as good. Think about this, sound comes from sound waves, which are effectively vibrations. You want your Darbuka skin to vibrate as evenly and clearly as possible to create the most resonant and best quality sound.
Metal crimped hoop
The metal crimped hoop of the Darbuka skin is the metal piece around the plastic skin that allows the skin to be fitted to the Darbuka. The metal hoop fits snugly inside the internal tuning mechanism which allows the skin to be stretched across the Darbuka head. Consequently, this also needs to be of good quality. If the metal hoop is of low quality, it will not fit evenly inside the internal tuning mechanism. Say, for example, one part of the metal hoop was thicker than another part. It would result in the sound being imbalanced, which might create a problem when playing.
Let’s take a look at the different Darbuka skins there are available:
The short answer is, no – we would not recommend re-using a plastic Darbuka skin. It is possible, but not recommended. Firstly, to clarify what we mean by reusability. If you fit a Darbuka skin to a Darbuka, and then you remove the skin from the Darbuka after it has been tuned, you will struggle to re-use that same skin. Visit : https://malikinstruments.com/ for more details .
The reason for this is simple – a plastic skin stretches when it is fitted to a Darbuka and then tuned. Normally the skin has to be stretched quite tightly in order to get it tight enough to play properly. When it is stretched to this degree, it will not return to its original looseness when it is unscrewed, it will still be quite tight. As such, in order to tighten it onto a new Darbuka will be quite difficult. Think of it this way:
In most cases, yes a natural leather darbuka skin would be reusable. Unless there is damage to it, they should be fine to be removed and refitted to another Darbuka.
This is a common occurrence with badly made Darbukas (although it can occasionally happen on a good quality Darbuka too). Let’s take a step back and look at the reason this happens.
When a plastic skin is fitted to a Darbuka, it should perfectly fit on the opening at the top of the Darbuka (if it doesn’t, the skin is the wrong size). The head should then be placed on the skin and screwed into the Darbuka body. As it’s screwed in, the skin will become tighter and tighter. While the skin is tightening, it is in direct contact with the internal tuning mechanism at the top of the Darbuka. If the skin gets trapped inside the mechanism, for example it catches on a protruding bit of metal, it will tear. This is the most likely reason for the skin to tear, with the only other common reason being the skin itself is faulty.
Now, provided you have a good quality Darbuka and a good quality Darbuka skin, you should be able to fit your skin to your Darbuka without any major issues. For example, all of our Malik Instruments Darbukas should not have any problem when being re-fitted with a new skin.
The major issue that causes this problem is badly finished internal tuning mechanisms, and this really comes back to the quality of the Darbuka that you purchased. The reality is that the internal tuning mechanism is not outwardly visible and so some lesser Darbuka manufacturers would not ensure a high level of quality on the inside of this mechanism. As such, we often find that the internal mechanism is in very bad condition if the Darbuka has not been made well. If this is the case with your Darbuka, be extra careful when attempting to fit a Darbuka skin to the Darbuka, and ensure that you tune it very slowly to avoid it catching on something and ripping. To make it easier, there are a few techniques that you can use in order to soften the plastic on the Darbuka skin so that it doesn’t tear as easily if you are worried!
It is possible to loosen the plastic molecules of the Darbuka skin using the heat from a hairdryer. All you have to do is put the hairdryer on the lowest heat setting (but make sure it is heating and not cooling), and heat the Darbuka skin for between 5 and 10 seconds when you feel that the skin is becoming difficult to tighten. The heat from the hairdryer will loosen the molecules and allow them to be tightened more easily. It is essential not to heat the skin too much, or you will cause irreparable damage to the plastic head.
When we told Ibraheem, our Darbuka specialist, about this technique he laughed and said
“ When I first started teaching Darbuka, I bought 8 Darbukas to use with my students. They were badly made and very sharp around the head. Getting the skin on the Darbuka without tearing it was looking very difficult, so I heated the skin with an iron. I managed to get the Darbuka skins on without tearing them, but a few days later I realised that all 8 of the Darbukas were sounding terrible. I realised I’d heated the skins too much and ruined them! Make sure you’re very very careful when using this technique!”
Check out the following video for a detailed tutorial of how to change a Darbuka skin:
So there we have it, our Complete Guide to Darbuka Skins! Remember that this is an evolving document which are constantly updating as more questions come in regarding Darbuka skins. As such - if you have any questions on Darbuka skins at all that aren't answered in this guide, make sure you send us a message, so we can firstly answer your question and also update this guide!