Hang Pioneer Steve Shehan on The Handpan Podcast

Updated: May 1, 2020

For Hang pioneer Steve Shehan, “the unexpected became a profession”. Hear from one of the world’s most recognized percussionists about what makes a fulfilled creative life, rich in experiences, adventures and relationships.

Full-Length Documentary About Steve Shehan's Life:

The Hang Documentary by Thibaut Castant featuring Steve Shehan:

"Centaurea" by Steve Shehan with Hadouk Trio:

"High Jazz" (live) by Steve Shehan with Hadouk Trio:

"Gamelang" from Steve Shehan's Hang With You Album:

"Kite Dream" from Steve Shehan's Visa Mundi Album:

Steve Shehan's Purvi and Hungarian Scales:

Sylvain Paslier Meets Steve Shehan in 2008:

For more music, painting and poetry from Steve Shehan, please visit

Podcast Transcription:

Sylvain: Hey, it’s Sylvain and this is the handpan podcast.

If you already know Steve Shehan, you know you’re in for a very special episode. If you don’t know Steve, well, lean in because the next 40 minutes provide us with a rare insight into the brilliant mind and the open heart of one of the world’s best percussionists and one of the first pioneers of the handpan. Steve Shehan’s life story is extraordinary. Others have covered it much better than I could. In fact, there are many TV and radio interviews about Steve, including a full-length documentary about him that I’ll link to in the shows notes. Steve’s had a prolific career as a percussionist and a composer and he’s created a monumental body of work of his own, spanning over 3 decades. But what shines through all this are the adventures and the people along the way. We’ll touch on some of these things as we revisit Steve’s first encounter with the Hang, his early involvement with PANArt and his relationship to this instrument over the past 20 years. So here is my conversation, with probably my biggest inspiration, Steve Shehan.

Sylvain: Well, thank you so much Steve, for accepting my invitation to be on The Handpan Podcast. You are a guest of honor. Steve: Oh, that's really kind. It's a pleasure here too. Sylvain: So let's set the stage first. Bring me back in time. Where were you at? What were you doing? What did your life look like around the year 2000, Steve: 2000? Well, I was actually, I was living in New York, New York city playing with Paul Simon played, I worked with him for about 10 years. So I had to find in New York, switching to Paris, but I was based in New York for 5 years. So in 2000 I was in New York city. Yeah. Sylvain: And around that time you discovered the Hang? Steve: Yeah, actually I'm 1998, Mark Steward handing me a hang drum. I think it was in San Francisco. It was maybe a prototype, but it was, it was interesting. It was unexpected. 1998. That was early. So was my first introduction to the hang drum and then coming back to France. 2002-2003 I met. Oh, I had a friend called Jimmy Braun. Maybe if you heard about him, he introduced me to Felix and Sabina to the Hang and to different possibilities that we would find with them. So talking about different scales and they did send me a shipment, six or seven, I don't know, five or six Hang Drums, first generation. That was, that was the moment. I mean like it was fascinating. I mean this instrument was a real revolution. It would change a lot of things, you know, for nomads. And in terms of the musical approach right away, I knew it would be a major change in both in a good way and a strange way maybe. But I was facing an instrument that was possibly revolutionary. I mean, no electronics carry-able, you know, you need to carry around like elegant. I dunno. Nice scales, easy to sort of, you know, cope with or dive in what it made possible. So that was really interesting, by the way. So, so I was fascinated. I thought it was, yeah. Something new.

Sylvain: Yeah. And when most people come across the Hang and then later hand pans they, they might think it looks odd, but you're accustomed to eclectic instruments. Uh, what inspires you about odd musical instruments? Steve: Well, the thing is, you're right in many ways. I mean, it's the first thing is, okay, how can I adapt myself to this instrument and how can this instrument make me say something or create something? How can it cope with other instruments? It's like an instinctive first approach and quality of the sound. I mean, and, and, and then the scales made it obvious, but it was worth trying to make it cope, you know, with different instruments. And it's true that my approach always tried to integrate like crystal Organ or even lithophones, you know, pre-historical lithophones that you can find a big museum of mankind and a strange sounds. And naturally I tried to, how do I, how can I introduce and blend this sound or this way of playing into some something else. And then different styles if possible. And the Hang is definitely playable. Different really different ways. As a matter of fact, you can play Salsa, you can play jazz can play Oriental really it's so generous an instrument. So right way I was, I went into this like, okay, how can I blend this? Is it worth it? Is it an instrument that becomes part of the world instrumentarium? And I thought so. I thought it was definitely something powerful and profound. So that was the base of the discussions we've had with Felix. Yeah, that was interesting. Sylvain: And I, I've heard rumors that you worked with them to develop sound models. I knew about Purvi. Are there any others that you created specifically for the Hang? Steve: Well, yeah. Well it's discussions, ideas, I wasn't a part of the work on development. No. But ideas, yes. So Purvi, Hijaz yeah, I was part of this movement that wanted different scales. I don't know. So it's a rumor, but it was discussions, but it was not easy because it's not easy to be free spirits. It's an interesting instrument of because of what it provoked in terms of visions of what the instrument should be. But listened the Violin is played, violin is played in so many, many, many, many ways in this the history of music. So you know, same with drums or frame drums or anything you take. So why not the Hang or the pan drum? It should express as largely as a humanity has in store, I think Sylvain: You've definitely taken the Hang into a space that has become the Steve Shehan's sound signature. Cause that, those same kinds of frequencies or sound textures in your albums before the Hang was around you would, you would feel and you still do you would fill them with the gamelan or the Kalimbe or other similar lyrical instruments. Steve: You're right, absolutely right. Yeah. Suddenly the dynamic was different, the structure, the construction was different. Everything was different in the approach of the instrument, the shape and the fact that before that only eight notes that but the sound and then the family of sound it would approach. You're right, it's close to gamelan if you want. Or it's close to, you know, steel drums if you want or, yes, indeed. It was, it was kind of close to the family and what I usually use. Yeah. Sylvain: And it seems like you were gravitating towards certain scales or sound models. Can you, can you tell me which Hang scales are your favorite to this day? I think you still have them, some of them. Steve: Oh yes. I still use them. Of course. Well, I know you'll understand. I mean, I always, Hijaz has been one of, you know, because I've used it with Hadouk Trio, Rokia Traoré and Jon Hassell all these guys and girls. But so as, as as itself, the Hijaz Hang, but then the notes on the Hijaz blended with Purvi, for example, brings in something totally different. I mean, you can write thing that includes these two scale. Quite different. So true. That Purvi me. Hijaz the Hungarian, I loved that scale. It's great because it's easy to blend, and, and, and actually if you starts playing salsa, with the Hungarian. It works great. The way it, I mean the notes. So I would say these three PANArt Hangs, I'd really use them a lot. Yeah. Purvi, Hijaz. Hungarian. And there's another one. I don't remember if name a kind of a Greek scale. Sylvain: Is that the one that you use for the Centaurea piece? Steve: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. The name slips, but I like it very much. It's a bluesy scale and, and it blends easily with others because what I do too, and you maybe you've seen it, there might be some videos of concerts. I mean, sometimes I have like four or five Hangs in front of me and maybe one, I'll use two notes of it. I need to come an instrument with the sound, but you don't have to play the scale as it is. As it dictates, I would say, so it becomes, you know, I try to find the notes I need. I mean, this is like 10 years ago. Sylvain: Yeah, yeah. And we'll, we'll jump around chronologically a bit, but it's important to remember that, that time, and that's around the time that I met you. You were playing a concert with a Hadouk Trio at the opera of Lyon and at the, at the intermission, I remember just coming up to you and saying you know: "hi, I love your music. I also play this weird thing". And you were incredibly kind to invite me and my friends the next day. Steve: Well I remember actually, yeah, you were on the left side of the stage, I remember, right? Yeah. Sylvain: Yeah. And then we met a couple other times cause you were doing a concert series at La Fnac, the kind of record store. Steve: Whoa. Oh boy. Yeah. That's like 10 years ago. Was it with the touareg guy or yeah. With Nabil Othmani. Yeah. Sylvain: Yeah. So it's important to remember that at that time the Hang was not famous yet. And then something happened. And, and this "discreet revolution" became no longer discreet and this thing blew up and it went viral. Steve: Oh yeah. Oh yeah. Especially in places like Spain or Russia. Whoa. Russia. Sylvain: So what, what changed for you during those years? Because this instrument became associated with street performers and with a totally different I guess context than what it meant for you. What were those years like for you? Steve: Well, for me it was, it was far away from this context. You right. I mean it was not at all my pace. I was really into getting deep into writing, composing. You probably heard of Hang With You. Sylvain: Of course. Steve: It's a tough, tough, tough, tough work. It took me many years to be able to play it on stage which we did, we do actually still to adapt it. That took me quite awhile, parallel to, to, to my regular gigs. Because these years I was playing with John Hassell. I was playing with, I don't remember, and I was actually writing other music for different stuff. Yeah. And with elevation. So I was multi-writing. Yeah, I was more preoccupied to take it to this position, feeling and yeah, it's slow work, slow. Yeah. Take time. But then you're at the same time, I will work my piano or I will work my crystal organ or I wasn't limited to the Hang or pan.

Sylvain: Hmm. Yeah, I mean it's definitely, it was definitely interesting because I think if we think about this psychology of viral content, viral videos, it gets, it gets so much attention that it comes to define something, whether it's the right definition or not. And I, I remember those years and, and how it's a, yeah, I mean it's, it's, it's paradoxical that the Hang documentary was called a 'discreet revolution', the calm before the storm and then it blew up. Yeah. I want to go back for a second because you, you did play a big role in the Hang documentary and actually I didn't take me long to realize that Thibaut Castan the, the filmmaker of the Hang documentary is also the filmmaker of the documentary about your life From Bali to Baly and a lot of other projects. Steve: Well, actually did it, how I