Middle Eastern Folk Drums Echo In Idaho

January 31, 2019

By: Olivia Weitz


“When you’re closing your eyes ... you’re seeing yourself inside,” says Jan Porvas about playing the daf in this way.

The daf drum is one of the oldest instruments in the Middle East. In Iran, the instrument has traditionally been used in Islamic prayer rituals. About 40 years ago, musicians started playing this drum in more contemporary settings. Jan Porvas, who is from Iran, plays it in Idaho.

The daf drum is not a drum that rests in your lap or in front of you. It’s about the size of a car tire that’s balanced in mid-air when played. On the inside, circular metal rings hang from the wooden frame.

“It’s kind of you’re adding shaker to your rhythm,” says Jan Porvas as he demonstrates.

Porvas is from a family of professional musicians in Tabriz, Iran. He says approaching music as a rhythm of life is something his parents taught him.

“In the world, everything has a rhythm,” says Porvas. “Every table, pictures, anything. Like when you are in the beach and you’re listening to the sea—it’s coming.”

Porvas has long, dark hair and bushy eyebrows. He plays with his eyes closed, as if he’s in a trance.

Porvas came to Boise as a refugee a couple of years ago. He performs with his wife in their band Tora’dan. This past year was a big one for him: Porvas was named a Master Artist in the Idaho Commission on the Arts’ Folk and Traditional Arts Program.

He also started recording his first album, and he’s been teaching his student Marty Johncox how to play the daf.


Jan Porvas says the playing the daf, with the rings around the inside of the frame, is like playing two instruments at once.


Marty Johncox studied percussion in college, and he now plays about a dozen percussion instruments. But he had never met someone who knew how to play the daf the way Porvas does. To Johncox, the instrument was exotic. And it presented a challenge.

“So far the actual rhythms and music that we’re learning is not particularly difficult right now, but just holding it, and just developing correct technique, I’d compare it to something like the violin or the flute or the East Indian tablas where technique, you work a long time to get a basic, good sound out of the instrument,” says Johncox.

He demonstrates.

“So, there’s three basic sounds,” Johncox says. “There’s the tomb, the beck and the chap. And the beck and the chap should sound pretty much the same. See, I’ve got a ways to go.”

Johncox says he enjoys learning from Porvas because their lessons often diverge into religion and history.

“In the daf we have also magams,” says Porvas. “We call this magame hay allah. It means God is present.”

“Hay allah. God is present,” Johncox echoes. “That’s an awesome name for a rhythm.”

Historically, the daf has been for Sufi prayer rituals in Iran. But that changed in the 1970s.

“Mostly still they are using for traditional musics, but you can see somebody that is using the daf in rock music or even jazz music,” says Porvas.

Jan Porvas is teaching Marty Johncox how to play the daf as part of an apprenticeship offered by the Idaho Commission on the Arts’ Folk and Traditional Arts Program.

“You have to use many muscles in your body,” says Jan Porvas about playing the daf. “You’re using your backside muscles also. If you are not ready and you didn’t warm up your body you can’t continue that technique.”

But this was a slow transition. In the same decade daf was brought out in the open, the leader of Iran banned musical broadcasts on the radio, comparing the effects of music to opium. Concert restrictions followed. That didn’t sit well with Porvas.

“Instruments, anything in the world, it belongs to humans,” Porvas says. “I think it’s good to share with them.”

Porvas says that when he plays the daf, especially in front of audiences who have not yet heard the instrument, the crowd is amazed at the way sound emanates from this instrument.

“It’s just skin and frame,” Porvas says.

His goal for Idaho is to have a daf drum circle. His student, Marty Johncox, says he’ll join. But, Porvas still needs more people who want to learn how to play this ancient instrument.

This piece was produced for the series Expressive Idaho in partnership with the Idaho Commission on the Arts’ Folk and Traditional Arts Program and with funding support from the National Endowment for the Arts.