Their origins can be considered – however – Asian or “oriental“. Some trace their early origins to China, others to India. Its use in India (and Nepal and Tibet) is indeed ancient, long connected with both Buddhist and Hinduist sites and ceremonies. Interestingly, the cymbals’ original use stem from shamanistic traditions, finding their way into Buddhism and Hinduism, with the cymbal sound meant to “ward off/chase away” evil spirits. It kept this function in Buddhism and Hinduism.
In Turkey it got used by soldiers since the 14th c.. In Europe they became played by the 18th c., especially in military bands and orchestras. It is kind of remarkable that from a spiritual function in Hinduist and Buddhist contexts, the cymbal got – partly - a role in a military context, for first the Turks, and later spread throughout Europe by the 18th c.
Percussionists more focused on “the most percussive” continent, Africa, or on the Americas, like myself, do not play or encounter the “Asian” cymbals much, safe for some drum kits, and some salsa percussion sets (often in combination with the Timbales), with an added cymbal, mostly for “climax” effect, not really as steady rhythm keeper. Maybe percussionists specialized in Asian percussion – I am hardly one of them – use cymbal-like instruments more.
I travelled to Cuba about 7 times between the period 2001 and 2006. I visited habitually music venues there – known as Casas de la Musica – with usually live music playing local genres like Son and Rumba, in several cities and towns (Havana, Santiago de Cuba, Guantánamo, Trinidad, Baracoa a.o.) on the island. I saw few cymbals, simply because I saw very few drum kits, so common in Western pop music. I vaguely remember having seen a modern drum kit/set played in a, for Havana, relatively “sophisticated” club, employing modern salsa band outfits. This was exceptional, and more upper-class. I realize “upper class” is a strange term in a Communist state, but that night club in outer Havana had a “posh” feel about it, with mostly well-dressed White Cubans. Maybe the patrons were “relatively” wealthy, thus with more money to spend than other Cubans, or had high functions in the Communist Party. Normally in Cuba, though, I saw regarding percussion mostly congas, bongos, shakers, claves, scrapers at times, timbales a few times, bells are common.. Rarely cymbals. Apparently, the cymbal is alien to the Afro-Cuban world.
That Afro-Cuban world is one of the main influences on my (choosing) percussion. Other influences are from Jamaica, and African traditions. I therefore never played a lot of cymbals, associating them more with drum kits/sets in standard pop bands.
I appreciate them as part of it, especially the rhythmic, “groovy” hi-hat use in Reggae (or also Funk), and well-chosen “crash-cymbal” accents in Reggae songs. On that, more later.
Its first historical inclusion as part of the drum kit occurred – however – in a nearby part of the Americas from “cymbal-poor” Cuba, specifically in Jazz circles in New Orleans. This was in the early 1900s. In that area there were Cuban musical influences, as well as various European ones, including French ones, such as from military bands as common in the US (that tended to include cymbals).
There, in New Orleans, the cymbal use from military bands got incorporated into a basic set of drums to kick or hit, also including military band-type drums, played by sticks: snares, and bass drum. Added to this were in time the “toms” (meant to give a certain African touch), and in a few cases even actually “Cuban” drums, like timbales or bongos, or bells and woodblocks, though not commonly. It becomes more remarkable symbolically, the history of the cymbal: from a spiritual use to a military use.. then to a musical use..
Drum playing was African-influenced indirectly, as in all Black music genres, including jazz. Cymbals as percussion instrument are not really known in African traditional music in that form. Though there were metal percussion objects in Africa history, notably bells with sharp or dry sounds, not the resounding, prolonged metal quiver of the cymbals. Some scraper of shakers had somewhat that musical function in African music.
In the modern drum kit, however, the cymbals obtained a rhythmical function, when used in Black US genres like Jazz, Blues, Rhythm & Blues, Gospel, and Rock, and later on internationally in genres like Reggae, Calypso, or Soca. Also, in Surinamese Kaseko music, the cymbal plays a role, musically comparable to its use in Trinidadian Calypso.
The drum kit/set did not travel so much to Cuba, nor very much to elsewhere in Latin America – in this instance – but did travel to Jamaica, gaining an important role in genres there, especially those that developed since the 1950s in urban areas like Kingston. Before that, more rural Jamaican Mento tended to be played with acoustic hand drums.
Ska originated around 1959, influenced by Rhythm & Blues (especially the New Orleans) variant, and local Afro-Jamaican (and Mento) influences. Its early musicians were in fact Jazz musicians, and the pioneering Ska band, the Skatalites, used the drum kit since the early 1960s. It became common in Jamaican popular music since then. It remained standard in following Rocksteady and Reggae genres, just – of course – as in most Western pop music genres.
CYMBAL AND SHAKER ROLES
With that common drum kit in Jamaican music, came of course the use of different types of cymbals, traditionally part of the drum kit/set: the hi-hat (double cymbals joined through a pedal), and the ride and/or crash cymbal. These now played a role in a different Afro-Jamaican musical setting.
A comparison not often made of the cymbal is with the shaker – or scraper - function in traditional African music, or in Afro-Cuban, music. Yet, I think there is a point to make here. The same role as “time keeper” or “rhythm keeper”, secondary to the clave “key” pattern in African traditions. This applies especially to the hi-hat (the double, pedaled cymbals), whose sound can after all be manipulated (for lack of a less ugly word) with the pedal, varying high and open sounds.
In some parts of Africa, like the Guinea and Mali region, they use metal scrapers, resembling more the hi-hat sound.
What about the other common, “longer-toned” cymbals in drum kits: the ride cymbal and crash cymbal? The rhythmic timekeeper function tends to be mainly kept by the hi-hat in Reggae, and its preceding genres. The “ride cymbal”, in other genres having that function, is therefore little used in Reggae, according to many. Carlton Barrets, Bob Marley’s drummer, hardly used this ride cymbal, other Reggae drummers often also sparingly, focusing more on hi-hat patterns.
“Crash cymbals”, also known as “Chinese cymbals”, do – unlike ride cymbals - have more commonly a function in Reggae, as it is used for occasional –yet regular – accents, as “climax effect”. Often it is at the “peak of the groove” that the crash cymbals are used by many Reggae drummers, or at transitions between verse, bridge, and chorus.
This is actually quite interesting, and musically appealing, adding a layer to the rhythmic groove, even if ending up subtly sounding in the mix.
Such a “climax” metal sound is not directly known in African music, though similar functions are applied to bells, rattles, or nonpercussion instruments in much African music, or even more as “breaks” within certain hand drum patterns.
SPECIFIC USE OF CYMBALS IN REGGAE
So, certain cymbal uses tend to be common in Reggae, in part differing from their use in other genres. The hi-hat is the most important, as already mentioned. These mostly play 8th notes and, especially in Reggae since 1968 – 16th notes around the bass and snare hits. This of course in differing patterns. According to drummer Carlton “Santa” Davis – who played with Peter Tosh among others – the 16th notes on the hi-hat distinguished Reggae, from its – more sober/emptier - predecessor genre Rocksteady (known as relatively more “metronomic” and tight).
A Netherlands-based Reggae drummer I know, Robert Curiel, said to me – however - that this is relative, and more complex and difficult to explain pure theoretically, depending also on chosen tempo and song. Rocksteady 8th notes on hi-hat, and Reggae 16th notes on hi-hat seems therefore a bit simplistic, though partly true.
The same Robert Curiel told me that he has used the Ride Cymbal as Crash Cymbal, thus changing its function. Replacing the Crash cymbal with a Ride one is common among drummers of several genres, as Crash cymbals are less “standard” part of many drum kits, and the sound is good enough for a “crash” effect.. It thus also saves money.
Talking about Reggae and cymbals, there is no getting around the “flying cymbal”. This term refers to a specific drumming style, becoming popular in Jamaica in the 1970s in Reggae recordings, and among the audience.
A well-known hit in Jamaica “popularizing” this style was the song None Shall Escape the Judgment, written by Earl Zero, known also as hit for singer Johnny Clarke, in 1974.
It actually consists of a quick opening and closing of the hi-hat cymbals, resulting in a “swish” sound throughout. Carlton “Santa” Davis played it on that song, and helped to popularize it, but it was played in Jamaica before him. Some, like Sly Dunbar, says he played it before Santa Davis, and that it even might go back to the Ska days. Santa Davis said it was also present in Calypso, while others point at influences from Black US music. A well-known example is the theme song of the US TV-programme Soul Train in that period (around 1973), called The Sound of Philadelphia. This reached Jamaica too.
It is an example of the way cymbals shaped a specific type of reggae, although the truncated sound differs strongly from the resonating, “gong-like” other cymbal uses.
The Flying Cymbal sound was a period popular in Jamaican Reggae, until in the later 1970s, the Rockers drumming style took over, more aimed at an extra bass kick.
My own composition El Barrio was influenced by this Flying Cymbals sound (combined with other percussion and Afro-Cuban influences).
AUGUSTUS PABLO & KING TUBBY
Worthy of mention is certainly also Augustus Pablo, and his specific production style and sound, since the 1970s. In his recordings, the cymbal (hi-hat) sounds often get some emphasis in the musical mix, especially in his 1970s work. This renders a somewhat “spacey” sound to both his Dubs and vocal productions. The patterns and styles were varied – not only Flying Cymbals – but the cymbals overall relatively prominent. Often a matter of mere volume - or simply an extra mic near the hi-hat - but still an interesting choice..
Personally, when starting to listen Augustus Pablo as part of my love for Reggae since my teens, I started “noticing” the cymbals more.
To a degree, the same applies to King Tubby and his Dubs, often giving the cymbals extra volume.
Classic Augustus Pablo Dub albums like King Tubby meets Rockers Uptown or Ital Dub (mixed by King Tubby) attest to this prominence of hi-hat and cymbal sounds in the arrangement and mix.
As this gives some “airy” or magical/spiritual feel to that Dub Reggae, this seems to give back the cymbals its original “spiritual“ use in shamanistic traditions: casting off evil spirits.