Updated: Sep 1
The handpan is a musical instrument which was invented 20 years ago. But chances are, you are only finding out now! Don't worry, you're not alone. Believe it or not, the handpan is still largely unknown to the public...
Since 2006, I have been delving into this new art form and engaging with its growing community of players and makers across the globe. If you are looking for guidance about handpans, the information below might be a good starting-point.
Here are 6 handpans I think you should know about! They are some of the best handpans out there (and they are my personal favorites). Oh, and if you want your own handpan, check out handpans available in the store!
The Original PANArt Hang from Switzerland
The Hang by PANArt (often called "hang drum") was the first instrument of this kind ever made. The inventors, Felix Rohner and Sabina Schärer, were steel drum makers before producing the Hang. But they had already improved the sonic quality of the Caribbean drum on several levels. Indeed, it was PANArt who first introduced "dimples" in the center of each tonefield. This allowed for tuning two controlled overtones into each note (which explains the rich layered sound of the instrument). And their nitrided steel material called Pang protected the metal from corrosion while giving it a kind of springiness to it.
Then one day, a Swiss musician named Reto Weber visited the PANArt workshop and suggested the Hangmakers try to build an "inside-out steel drum" that could be played by hands... the idea of the Hang was born! Over the years, this new resonant vessel went through several iterations known as "generations" but it was clear from the start that it worked. The Hang was an immediate success. From 2000 to 2013, it is estimated that PANArt built 10,000 Hang sound sculptures.
Already by the year 2006-07, acquiring a Hang instrument had become nearly impossible. PANArt had intentionally slowed down the production of their steel instrument and would continue to do so until it came to a full stop in 2013. This marked the end of the Hang but not of PANArt...
The successor of the Hang was the Gubal. A whole new experience. If the Hang is uplifting and ethereal, then the Gubal is earthy and grounding. It features a deep bass which is the pulse of a new kind of groove. PANArt's instruments continue to evolve even though they never completely returned to the original Hang. I was lucky to get my Hang in 2007 (read the full story here) and I had the chance to meet Felix and Sabina at several occasions in Bern, Switzerland. I am deeply grateful for Felix and Sabina's work. Without them, these remarkable instruments would have never come to exist.
The Halo Handpan of Pantheon Steel from Missouri
The duo's paths complimented each others' well. Kyle came from a musical background in tuning steel drums and Jim was an industrial engineer. Through the Halo, Kyle and Jim opened the handpan era by offering the first alternative to the original Hang and by helping aspiring tuners to learn the craft of tuning steel.
Pantheon Steel's Halo handpan quickly gained popularity as PANArt had slowed down its production of the Hang. The Halo, being the only handpan available in North America, built a huge following of lifelong fans and friends. Pantheon Steel's new handpan differentiated itself from the original Hang due to its larger diameter (22" and 23") and lower pitch (B2 and C3).
What's more, Kyle's generous approach of openly sharing handpan-building knowledge with others, his contribution to many handpan gatherings and his willingness to tune original Hang instruments spoke volumes about his character and about his vision for Pantheon Steel. Kyle Cox is undoubtedly the second most influential character within the handpan story, after the originators Felix Rohner and Sabina Schärer.
Since Pantheon Steel's early beginnings, Kyle has trained many others to tune handpans with the hope that more people can experience creative freedom. Nowadays, Pantheon Steel has expert tuners in the United States, Belgium and Greece.
Listen to my conversation with Kyle Cox of Pantheon Steel for the 10-year anniversary of the Halo.
It was in the spring of 2013 at Handpangea, a handpan gathering in North Carolina, that I first met Mark Garner and played one of the first Saraz handpan prototypes. It was exceptional! Saraz handpans continued getting better and better and Mark became a key member of the handpan community.
In the fall of 2013, I was lucky to acquire a Saraz handpan through a flash sale on their website (it's a fabulous instrument—see this video). Believer it or not but I liked Mark's handpans so much that, a year later at HangOut USA 2014, I went back to North Carolina to pick up my second Saraz (an Oxalista—watch this video). I have had the chance to visit the Saraz workshop—you can read the story here—and I can't say enough good things about Mark and his team.
Josh Rivera has since launched his own handpan tuning company called Rivera Steel Tuning. Listen to Episode 5 of The Handpan Podcast "The Art of Blending with Josh Rivera" to hear a fascinating conversation I had with Josh about the tuning of handpans.
The Boreal Handpan from Montreal, Quebec
When I played Jocsan's C# Celtic Minor Boreal handpan I feel in love with the magical sound of the handpan all over again (listen to this piece on the Boreal). It was the instrument that Jocsan had brought for the event's lottery. I participated and miraculously won the chance to buy this instrument!
Getting to know Jocsan was fantastic. He does all parts of the making process himself and even tunes by ear. That's amazing! I like to think that the handpan is more than a "market" or an "industry"... it's an art form! Meeting handpan builders, learning about their philosophy, hearing about the building process... It makes it all the more meaningful to play on such unique instruments!
The Iskra of Symphonic Steel from California
Sean Beever of Symphonic Steel has recently unveiled a handpan bearing strong resemblance with the original Hang... It's called the ISKRA sound sculpture (and you can buy it right here on this website).
He uses the same materials and tuning techniques as PANArt did. The result is a unique timbre that takes you back to the early years of the Hang. I have to say that Sean's ISKRA handpan is particularly refreshing because it's a return to the basics. It's a simple but intentional design whose success—as seen through the Hang—is guaranteed.
Sean has actually gone back to the original PANArt papers and done the research. He is likely the smartest handpan builder I know...
The Æther (CFoulke) of Colin Foulke from California
Colin first discovered handpans when Pantheon Steel introduced the Halo. Classically trained on the cello, he quickly picked up handpans and developed a a passion that became contagious. He joined online forum and began attending global handpan gatherings which made him a key player of the community.
At the Handpangea gathering in 2013, Colin unveiled steel pans he had been secretly working on. And a couple years later at another gathering called Pantasia, he announced he was making his own handpans called CFoulke back then—now called Æther.
But there's more to the story... You see, the most physically-challenging step of the whole handpan-making process is shaping the handpan shell (giving it that bulging shape). Some builders do it by hand-hammering the sheet of steel for hours, others use pneumatic hammers and finally, others invest expensive machines to press the shell into shape. Well, Colin developed and popularized the most efficient way to shape handpan shells... It's a method using water pressure that he calls hydroforming. On his website, he gives all the details and DIY instructions.
Sharing critical knowledge like that attests to his generosity and benevolence within the handpan art form. Colin could have easily patented this method and prevented others from using it, but Colin gets it. Like me, he's been a part of the first generation of handpan players who understand how special this art form is and that we need to protect it.
I recently visited Colin Foulke as part of The Handpan Podcast and recorded a two-parter series with him which you can listen below.