A Conversation with Kyle Cox of Pantheon Steel

If Felix & Sabina of PANArt invented this art form, it was Kyle Cox of Pantheon Steel who launched the handpan era. On this episode of the podcast, Sylvain & Kyle revisit the inception of the Halo handpan and how it forever changed handpan history.

The Evolution of the Halo:

New Era Halo Unboxing:

Podcast Transcription

Sylvain: Hey, it's Sylvain and this is The Handpan Podcast.

Sylvain: If you just read the title for today's episode, you know it's coming. I promise I'll keep this intro short so we can get to it. But let me say this: If Felix and Sabina of PANArt invented this art form, it was Kyle Cox of Pantheon Steel who launched the Handpan era. The Halo was the second commercially available instrument after the Hang and Pantheon Steel's influence cannot be overstated. They came up with the vast majority of scales (or sound models) which are now made by handpan makers throughout the world. They fostered a culture of kindness and generosity by participating to the first hand pen gatherings and they shared knowledge, empowering many people to pick up the hammer and start making handpans. So... On today's episode, you're about to hear from the second most influential person in the handpan art form, someone to whom we owe so much. Here's my conversation with Kyle Cox of Pantheon Steel.

Sylvain: The handpan podcast... What would this podcast be called if it weren't for you? Kyle Cox, welcome to the podcast, which owes you its name. It's good to have you on, man.

Kyle: Hey Sylvan, how's it going?

Sylvain: Good. Thank you so much for accepting my invitation. This is really special. In fact, I try to make each and every episode very personal asking questions I legitimately and genuinely want to hear the answer for, and this episode couldn't be any more personal for a couple of reasons. First, yesterday I received my new era halo and it's so amazing that I almost didn't show up for our call today. And, second, you know, when I started this podcast, your website Was a really big inspiration because you verbalized some things that have helped me define the theme for this podcast, which is the simple joy of creating. On your website, you talk about the halo offering, the rarest of gifts, creative freedom, and this is lingo that's very common on the podcast. So for these reasons and so many more, it is so good to have you on.

Kyle: Thanks so much, man. I appreciate you asking me to be on and I really love what you're doing here. Uh, having good meaningful discussions with people about not just about the handpan, about who they are and how they use the handpan and their daily lives. I think it's, I think it's deep and rich stuff you're doing there.

Sylvain: Thanks. Appreciate that so much. Um, so in the short amount of time that we have, I want to take a trip down memory lane and here the halo story because it's my understanding that you've got a pretty big anniversary coming up.

Kyle: Yeah. Uh, mid March is actually the 10 year anniversary or the 10 year birthday of the halo of when we released it to the public. It's crazy.

Sylvain: Wow. Man. 10 years.

Kyle: It's gone amazingly fast, but there's so much in those 10 years. Uh, it's hard to believe that it seems like it's happening fast, but man, it's been, it's been quite a ride.

Sylvain: Yeah. You've gone through so much. Um, and we're going to talk about it, but maybe my first question is who was Kyle Cox before the hand pan?

Kyle: Uh, professionally speaking.

Sylvain: Yeah.

Kyle: Something like that. I was a steel pan maker before getting into making the halo.

Sylvain: Okay. So, obviously it's, there's so much overlap. Yes. But at the same time, you come from, in my understanding of classically trained background in an institutionalized or at least very structured industry.

Kyle: Right.

Sylvain: Is that correct?

Kyle: That's, yeah. That's very true. And hold on, I'm getting another call. Let me end that.

Sylvain: Okay. We're back on.

Kyle: Yeah, my bad. I just had to turn the phone on do not disturb, so nothing comes through. Sorry.

Sylvain: No worries.

Kyle: I don't think that's happened on any of your podcast yet.

Sylvain: No, you're right. You're a busy man. I understand.

Kyle: Okay. Where were we? I was talking about institutionalized beginnings of my music, I guess. Was there more to that question just so I get it right.

Sylvain: Well, I guess, um, what drew you to pursuing this new form of, of the steel pan?

Kyle: Oh, man. Yeah, we have 20 minutes. Huh? Uh, I don't know how I can make that a short answer. I will certainly try, um, well, from my beginnings, yes. To learning music and the Western culture, uh, learn the theory, uh, learn all of your techniques, have a, a teacher student relationship. Um, and you know, I lived and breathed that. Uh, I actually thrived on that. But when I got into playing steel, drums and college was the first time that I was able to experience a freedom and music that I hadn't experienced since I was really a young teenager. Um, we had a piano at home and then one day I decided I wanted to, uh, to play something of my own on this piano. I'd always taken lessons and I hated it. So I sat down and started composing, had no idea I was able to do anything like that. And for the first time I felt like a real artist or a real musician. Um, and so I did that as kind of a release to the normal music scene of which I didn't, uh, I didn't have a problem with because it's really all I knew up until that point a bit, it kind of helped me stay balanced in this world of music. So I go to college to study music, very, uh, regimented, organized, structured, intense experience of learning music. But I had lost that, that freedom of creating. Um, and I had, I, I guess I was kind of out of the flow of playing piano. They weren't, even though I was in a school of music, they weren't really that accessible, come to think of it. But it wasn't until I joined the steel drum band, um, did I re realized this musical freedom. So steel band is a lot like a jazz band, but there's a lot of Improv. So my first year playing steel drums, I just played in the group. I played the notes that were written but still loved it. And then the next year, another guy who played beside me, who was a great player, his name was also Kyle. He left the school, went somewhere else. And um, well my teacher said, okay, Kyle, you gotta be Kyle. You got to be the old Kyle and start taking the soul. It was like he used to, and I looked at him like deer in headlights. I said, Nah, I don't think so. And he's like, well, you don't really have a choice. You're going to be this guy. So kind of a trial by fire, I began to explore improvisation. And it opened up an amazing new world to me of yes, there was some confines with chord structure and whatnot, but I can make my own melody and I love that. So that was what kept me balanced, just as I as a younger music student in college, steel drums is what kept me balanced as a creative person. So anyway, um, began my career in making steel drums and then we had heard about the Hang early in its days, 2001 or so a video was circulating amongst steel drum tuners. This was before youtube. Um, and it was a very grainy, a low quality video. Certainly not low quality instrument, but, uh, it was hard to really get the essence of it, but I could see something there that was really interesting, which was immediately I recognize the less is more concept and a lot of steel drum tuners, they saw it as, oh, these guys just don't want to, they don't want to make steel pans anymore that have 30 something notes and are full of chromatic, they're taking the easy way out. And uh, you know, that rubbed me the wrong way. I didn't, I didn't like that, that judgment. Um, but I started looking into it a little bit more and really thought that what they were doing was revolutionary and a simplistic instrument, certainly not simple to make or to tune, but for the person to play was so freeing, not confined to anything. You got to do exactly whatever you wanted to. And there really was no right or wrong other than playing too hard and you know, things that could possibly damage it. But musically it was very simplistic and not just musically, but just creatively. It was simplistic. It broke down so many barriers.

Sylvain: Well, it's my understanding that when you've performed at handpan gatherings, you've, you're always improvising, right?

Kyle: Oh yeah. Well, once I got into this and how I was brought up through the whole music, uh, programs of, of the regiment, the steel drums broke me free of that. And then getting into making the halo, um, reinvigorated that concept. And I kind of vowed to myself that, well, since I have the, uh, the blessing of always being in contact with various Halos, a various sound models, um, I was, I was lucky in a sense. I didn't have just one that I had to do the most with or to go out and perform on it. I didn't have to write pieces, which there's certainly nothing wrong with that. I mean, there are some amazing handpan pieces out there that I'm glad we're composed and learned to be able to be repeated because that's amazing.

Sylvain: Right.

Kyle: I was a little bit different. Um, and kind of that I didn't have to, nor was I able to have one halo here always to always play because they're in and out. They're created and then they're gone. They're created and they're gone. So it keeps it very fresh for me. And I kind of made a vow to myself is I'm seriously going to resist, uh, a planned performance, a a rehearsed performance. I love creating so much. I love making music so much that I'm going to be much better just at improv because I always was as a, as a musician, I always did much better in the moment. So music on Halos for me, um, is improv and it probably always will be an anytime I've tried to recreate a past performance, it was a horrible failure. So I've learned my lesson anyway.

Sylvain: Well, I find that incredibly profound and inspiring because I think as musicians or as artists we tend to gravitate towards controlling the art. Um, so anyways, I just think it's really interesting. Um, okay. I alluded to it at the beginning of this conversation, but you came up with the term handpan.

Kyle: Yeah.

Sylvain: Do you have a recollection of the moment when you did that?

Kyle: Well, uh, I suppose so. Um, back when there was only the Hang, I actually happened to call it the HangPan because when the first time I saw the Hang, I knew that they were also steel pan makers or they had been still paying makers there. There's the word pan and PANArt and they made steel pans. I enveloped the Hang into the steelpan world because it is the hand pan is part of Trinidad. And I just inherently felt that. So it just came out in the way I even categorize the Hang the Hang Pan. Yeah. Well we all know that Hang means hand. It's very simple. I don't think I did anything super profound there. Um, but I also knew that Felix and Sabina, I didn't want Hang to be a generic term. Uh, and I wanted to respect that. Um, so there, and at that time there was already Hang drum. That's all you knew and heard of and they disliked that. Um, and it, it isn't a drum, but they also didn't want Hang to be a generic term. So I also felt an obligation since we were basically the next people after them to come out with something. There had to be a generic term created anyway. So it was honestly a very simple decision there. There wasn't much thought put into it. Um, so yeah, that's how handpan came to.

Sylvain: Yeah, that's amazing. And for, for many years handpan and Halo, the name of your instrument were synonymous, but now the handpan defines this entire art form. It's misused, it's abused and used properly. How does feel to see your term having just blown up like this?

Kyle: Sylvain, I really don't know. I'm not surprised and it's not because it's anything that I did, I knew how powerful this art form was and was going to become. And just by my placement and the whole thing coming up with the name, uh, knowing that one had to be created. I'm, I'm not surprised that this, this term has become one of those. And again, it has nothing to do with me. Um, it's just, it was me being in that place at that time and things that came after that have, uh, I guess brought the term to where it is.

Sylvain: How has the halo evolved over the years from 10 years ago to today?