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From Steelpan to Handpan (Part 1)

Published: 
Wednesday, April 11, 2018

It has now been many decades since the steelpan has spread throughout the world and now a “child” of T&T’s national instrument known as “handpans” or “hang” are starting to come of age. The popularity of hand pans is now undeniable the instrument has spawned a growing movement worldwide with well over one hundred different manufacturers and many different designs.

As a musical instrument, handpans – most are shaped like a flying saucer and played in one’s lap and only with one’s hands — are becoming more and more popular. Currently, handpan companies garner little publicity and advertising is largely driven by word of mouth; yet, demand still great exceeds supply.

Today one can find hand pan manufacturers across the globe from Bali to Russia to the United States. This is the first of a two-part series exploring the handpan.

Despite it’s direct relation to the steelpan in construction and tuning, the hand pan has a very different appeal from its predecessor. The handpan rests against the body and is played with the player’s hands, often while sitting. It has a limited range of notes, usually not more than eight or nine notes per instrument, and is modal (usually pentatonic), not chromatic, in its tonal construction and conceived as a solo instrument. There are no handpan orchestras, and the instrument is currently not taught in schools.

Builder/Tuner Dave Beery of Island Instruments in Long Beach, California sells both steelpans and handpans. Beery sees a different clientele. Handpans spark the interest of soloists and hobbyists, and have a more new age appeal. One website described them as “a personal meditation tool, for healing through sound.” Handpan gatherings are becoming more common across Europe and North America. The child of the steelpan Handpan manufacturer Kyle Cox of Pantheon Pan notes on their website, “All handpans are made on the shoulders of the steelpans first created and innovated in Trinidad and Tobago.”

The origins of the handpan are traced to Swiss steelpan maker Felix Roehner and his partner Sabina Schärer in Berne, Switzerland, who created the first handpan almost 20 years ago.

Calling it a “hang,” Roehner had previously been a steelpan fanatic.

A founding member of the Swiss steelband The Bernese Oil Company, Roehner had been to Trinidad several times and was involved with the founding of nearly 60 steelbands and 30 school steelpan orchestras in the south-western part of Switzerland.

Roehner manufactured hundreds of his own steelpans and taught pan tuning and building for years.

Roehner believed strongly in the steel pan’s roots, stating, “The Trinidadian people gave a gift to the world: the sweet sound of steel.” Yet, he also sought to create something new, something that was related to steelpan but was very different.

Roehner experimented with the best metal to use and shapes during his time as a steelpan builder which led to the creation of the hang, the first handpan in 2000.

Various prototypes of the instrument followed and Roehner opted against making the instrument chromatic and instead settled on using pentatonic note alignments so as to always create a pleasant sound when played together.

Handpans used metal shells that did not start with oil barrels, rather they use sheet metal that is stamped or “deep drawn” on massive industrial hydraulic presses in Europe. This process creates a need for a nitriding the metal shells, a metal hardening method. The top sheet featured a central “dimple” and generally only seven to nine notes surrounding the dimple. The top shell is then glued or welded to a bottom shell with a hollow that serves as a resonating chamber not unlike a guitar. Catching global attention Roehner presented the hang at the International Conference on Science and Technology of the Steelpan in Trinidad in 2000. The reception was cool and the instrument was seen as an oddity, drawing little interest. Since then, Roehner’s company, PanArt, has stopped making hangs and since 2003 has focused on creating a whole new range of metallic instruments in a variety of shapes with exotic names, gubal, bal, godo and gede. But it was the hang that caught the attention of people across the world and the original hangs have now become collector’s items. Handpan enthusiasts from around the world started to develop their own versions of the instruments.

Handpans have proved to be great busking instruments, and this performance practice has increased their exposure, especially in Europe.

Handpans are starting to appear in commercial recordings, films, and television as will be discussed in part two tomorrow. (Part 2 in tomorrow’s Life)

• Ray Funk is a retired Alaskan judge and a Fulbright scholar who is passionately devoted to calypso, pan and mas. Dr. Andrew Martin is an ethnomusicologist,percussionist, pannist, and Professor of Music at Inver Hills College in St Paul, Minnesota.

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