On Life With / Without Handpans, with Lewis Johnson

The benefits of the handpan are many. But could this instrument become a stumbling block for us sometimes? Lewis Johnson shares his experience, with and without handpans. He helps us find balance and purpose in our approach to the handpan.

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Podcast Transcription:

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

Sylvain: Do you remember your life before the handpan? Can you imagine a life without a handpan? Because the handpan is this self-contained, acoustic and portable musical instrument, it's easy to incorporate it into the rhythm of our everyday lives. Think about it, you don't need a full band to play with, you don't need to plug into an amp... which means you can play anywhere anytime. I like to say it becomes the soundtrack of your life. And remember, it's not accidental, it was intentionally designed that way, which is brilliant from PANArt. We also know that the handpan is clearly a powerful expressive tool that allows us to experience complete creative freedom. But could this instrument still become a stumbling block for us sometimes? On today's episode, my friend Lewis and I explore the benefits (and also the pitfalls) of owning a handpan. Lewis is on the brink of remarkable life adventure... What role will the handpan play in it? Here's my conversation with Lewis Johnson.

Sylvain: Hey, how's it going, Lewis?

Lewis: Hey, what's up? Sylvain.

Sylvain: Good. I'm really glad to catch you while you're on this side of the Atlantic. Are you packing today?

Lewis: Today is definitely a day dedicated to packing. How many things can I fit in my suitcase?

Sylvain: Wow. And when are you leaving again?

Lewis: Uh, actually leave a on Monday. April 1st April fool's day. The flight is kind of cool. It works out to where I'll be flying from Michigan to Philadelphia for a couple of days. I have like an orientation and then from there to South Africa and then all the way to Zambia.

Sylvain: Wow. So I think that's the place to start with. Um, just tell me about this amazing journey that you're about to embark on.

Lewis: Yeah. So, um, the next, I guess exciting, challenging upcoming journey that I, my life is kind of going down is I'm starting Peace Corps on April 1st. So I'll be moving to Zambia for 27 months to start working in a small village and a rural aquaculture projects. So that's essentially just like small scale sustainable fish farms. Yeah. Uh, so that's of my other passion aside from playing pan and music is just kind of working with people in the environment and finding a way to kind of all make it jam together if you will.

Sylvain: What made you decide to go to Zambia for this project over a two year long project?

Lewis: You know, there's how this quite a few different reasons. Um, I guess to start, uh, this particular project and Zambia is something that was fairly unexpected to me. Uh, when I was thinking about applying for Peace Corps, first of all, my hangup was the time commitment, right? Like two and a half years in another country. Like I can't even commit to what I want to eat for breakfast usually. But the more I thought about it and, you know, just thinking about development work and really when it comes to any project, you know, there's so many things where people come in and they'll start something and there's just not enough time to finish it. You know, you almost have to say goodbye as soon as you're saying hello to someone. And so to really like, you know, get into a community and get to know everyone. I think two and a half years is almost what may be happy about it and in the first place. And as far as Zambia is, uh, whenever I thought I wanted to do peace corps, my eyes were always set on west Africa because I wanted to go and study djembe on the side too, which is a little selfish, but I thought, you know, music culture is cool there. Um, but when they offered me the position in Zambia, it was just like, you know, I didn't even know where it was on a map and just that, I dunno the way that it all lined up and then the timeframe and where my life was at at the moment, it just seemed like this awesome adventure into something that was off out of my comfort zone or out of the realm of places where I would normally have wanted to go. And that in the end is what was just overwhelmingly exciting for me. Um,

Sylvain: Wow. Yeah. I think I've told you that I've met a number of people in the Peace Corps and those were the most amazing people. They just were such good ambassadors of this program, which I don't really know that much about, but it's a part of the US government, right? It's put together by, by the government.

Lewis: Yeah. So it's part of the u s government. Yup. Okay. So you're like an ambassador of culture and...

Sylvain: And I know you'll be bringing a handpan, so you'll also be an ambassador of the handpan. Cause has a handpan ever been introduced to Zambia? I don't know...

Lewis: You know, to be honest, I have no idea. But I'm so excited to be able to take a pan with me, um, and to be able to share that with the culture and also just, you know, so I'm going to be there for the two and a half years to 27 months and initially there's going to be a bit of a language barrier, right? Like I'm doing my best to study. Um, but Zambia has, I think it's either seven or nine official languages and then 73 odd dialects spoken throughout the country. And so I've had been fortunate enough to travel a little bit so far and it seems like every time, um, yeah. When you can't communicate with somebody directly through words, if you sit down and play music with them for a while, it really allows you to bridge that gap and feel and connect on another level. And the handpan is particular, I'm sure as everyone who listens to this podcast know it's just such a good way to express yourself and to relate as humans.

Sylvain: Yeah, that's so true. Music in general does that, but I think the handpan because it's simple to approach and sort of effortless to play, it facilitates that even more. Right.

Lewis: I agree 100%. And especially too, when you look at a lot of these African culture is and how just musical everyone is, I'm excited to just go and be a sponge until learn so much about their culture too and see how that translates into just playing in my expression as well as there is on the instrument.

Sylvain: Oh yeah. Yeah, that's a great approach. Um, what do you think that it is about the handpan that draws people in?

Lewis: That's a tough question. Um...

Sylvain: So you've traveled quite a bit with your handpan and you've introduced a lot of people to this sound. Have you ever experienced people's reactions to the instrument in a way that, um, left a mark left an impression on you?

Lewis: Yeah. Um, and this, uh, definitely is, I feel like I've had so many different experiences with this. Um, but the one that comes to mind that was almost one of the most impactful experiences for me and actually the same one that we discussed a little bit in Pantasia was a, my experience, my first experience trying to busk. Okay. So it gives you a little bit of background information. Uh, so I'm from the state of Michigan and I grew up, uh, just on the outskirts of a smaller town called Jackson, Michigan. It's famous for having the biggest prison in the state. It used to be the biggest prison in the country for awhile. Um, and you know, it's a good city, uh, but it's got its rough patches and you know, street performing and live music is something that is a little bit hard to find in Jackson.

Sylvain: Yeah.

Lewis: And then from there I moved to Michigan State University for College. That's where I had been the past four years prior to this. And, uh, east Lansing is a, is a cool town. Um, you know, but at the same time, there's not a single venue in east Lansing where you can go to see a live band or something. It's all a bunch of Djs and a lot of football, which is fun. Um, but it also means that street performers, so this journey kind of started because, uh, Jeremy Arndt is a handpan player who's from Michigan, who is amazing. He's like one of the best people ever. He was invited to play at this Michigan busker's festival they were putting on, it was like the first year, uh, just to kind of introduce some people in Michigan, uh, to what street performing is. And so he was unable to make it. So Jeremy had passed the invite along to myself and by really, really good friend, I've known him for my whole life. Uh, Parker Horesh who also plays handpan. And so in my mind, you know, I'm excited because I'm going to play at the street performers festival. Uh, it's, you know, a cool thing to get to expose people to the Pan and music. And, but I was like, you know, I've never really, a street performed before ever. So I took my pan and I decided to go downtown into East Lansing where I was living at the time. And there's this one older gentleman who's always down there playing a guitar and he was just wrapping up for the day when I was rolling up on my bicycle with my handpan. Uh, which is a pretty funny sight sometimes. And so I asked him, you know, if he wanted to just play some music with me, and whenever we made as far as money goes, he could keep a, so, you know, we sit down and he's like, he kind of looks at the pan at first and he's like, what is that? Is that some kind of super, he called it a Super Kalimba, which is a, a good, uh, the handpan gets cancer, pretty crazy things every now and then, uh, that was one of my favorites. Uh, so I sit down and I started playing with this guy. He's a really good guitar player too. Um, and you know, we wrap up our can of jam sesh and he looks at me and he just starts sobbing and he starts talking about how, you know, when he was a kid and as soon as he finished high school, he just started, he decided that, you know, music was going to be what he was gonna do. And so he said he was in a couple of different bands for a while and after too long, you know, everybody kind of moved away, decided they wanted to stop playing, had families, got busy and so he just started playing on the streets and knowing a little bit about the background of Michigan and the busking culture that's around, uh, you know, a lot of times when you're out there street performing, people just see you as like some bum on the street asking for spare change. Um, and you said, you know, like he loved music and he was just like playing every day and you know, putting his heart and his soul into playing this stuff. And he was getting kicked out of places. People were spitting at him, people were calling him names. And so he started to talk about after a while he really started to lose his love for music. He told me that he would just play so he could get a half pint of pop off and get drunk and pass out in a ditch somewhere were his exact words. And so he said that, the hand pan in particular and like being able to play music with each other that day really reopened to his heart to like his love for music. And it was just such a powerful eye opening experience into I guess just music in life and life in music and the journey that it takes everyone on.

Lewis: It definitely, definitely it's something that I very hold near and dear to my heart and that I hope that everyone gets the chance to have an experience like that at some point. Um, you know, the handpan really, really, really does have the ability, I feel to help people in so many ways that, you know, go beyond what we could ever imagine when we sit down and we decided to play and I dunno. And just talking about, yeah, like the intention that you put into the playing. And I guess if I think about it, like that day when I decided to play with this guy, um, you know, not from any, like, so my intention was to sit down and to play essentially for him. Right. And whatever money we could make, he was earning, like it would just give to him. And like that my intention was to play for him. But the scope of what I thought that would bring was just a monetary value. But for the to just surpass that by so much and to just reopen his heart to music is something that I would never have imagined. Um, yeah, just you never know what the handpans are going to do.

Sylvain: Yeah. One of the amazing things about this instrument is that it empowers us to go out there and make stuff, either create music or go out and perform, um, just play. And if it weren't for this instrument, you may not have made the decision to go out and go street perform downtown. So it activates so many things in our lives. Right?

Lewis: Yeah. Yup. And that's the other thing too. Um, so you know, instruments, they are very, very fragile and for the most part they're also fairly difficult to obtain. So you spend so much time and so much care getting this thing that, you know, it's, it's hard sometimes to get the motivation to feel like you can just go take it and play it on the street, you know, like what if something happens to it? What if I feel like a lot of times I catch myself with my pan. Like for instance, I have this new wonderful handpan now and uh, I'm just trying to, yeah. Not Be afraid to take it places and to share with people because I think that's important.

Sylvain: Yeah. Historically, these instruments have been so rare that we were afraid that if the were damaged, there would be it. Right. Now there is an abundance of makers and tuners. Um, so there's, we can sort of relax a little bit and hopefully what this generates is that we're more generous with sharing this gift to others.

Lewis: And, yeah. So also, um, I've had the opportunity, uh, over the past like four or five months, I guess. Uh, so I finished my undergraduate degree at school and instead of doing the reasonable or sensible thing to do and get a job, I decided to, uh, just kind of like neglect most of my adult responsibilities and can go backpack through Asia with the handpan for about four months. And it was funny, the first place I got to actually, I met another pan player. Uh, it was this really, really beautiful place in the south of Thailand and he was, it was at this rock hiding place. And he said, oh, that's cool man. I brought my Rav, you're crazy travel like with that and you know, uh, cause it was, you know, just me and a backpack and I had it in the Panji cases, which are fairly large to be on public transportation in Thailand with, um, it's funny, you have to like do the penguin thing and put the case between your legs. Like it's an egg, you know, and like wattle on the subway, but it also at the same time, while it may seem like it's difficult and that one was a raw steel pan too. So it's like always worried about rust, always cleaning it. Um, instead of limiting the places that I could go. I think it also, it really like instead had the opposite effect and to where it just opens so many doors for me and like I was able to meet so many wonderful people through just playing pan around. And it really, it really goes back to the statement that it's a bridge.

Sylvain: For many of us. The handpan becomes such an integral part of who we and what we do. And I know that recently you went without a handpan for several months. So against that backdrop of how exciting and empowering interesting it is to be a handpan player, how did that feel to not have an instrument? Did you have an identity crisis?

Lewis: You know, I definitely had an identity crisis. It was, and on top of having this identity crisis, I had no outlet for these emotions. Right. Cause I didn't have a pan to play about it anymore. Um, so it definitely, definitely taught me so much. Um, yeah.

Sylvain: Yeah. Cause I remember an experience I had during my first year in the US. I came in as an exchange student in upstate New York. I only had one instrument, my PANArt Hang. And, uh, my wife, we were dating at the time, lived in Minneapolis and I was in upstate New York, so I would, you know, visit once a month. And during one of the weekend trips that I went there, I left my Hang with her so that she could get the opportunity to have extended play with, um, with the instrument. And so I flew back to my dorms without a handpan without my Hang. And I totally had an identity crisis as well because I think I had placed a lot of my sense of identity in this instrument. You know, any party you would go to, you bring the Hang, you know, that's really cool. Um, you make friends really easily. Um, and so I do wonder at times if we get too caught up in, in the handpan, I mean, it's not a bad thing for the most part is just an amazing thing. But how do we keep boundaries around this thing that we almost worship in our lives? Any insights there?

Lewis: Yeah, I guess I can only share from the brief fit I've been able to digest from this past experience. Um, and first of all, I just also want to thank you for sharing that experience, uh, that you just did it. Made me think about a lot. One of my favorite favorite things I've ever heard anyone say about a handpan, uh, actually comes from my really good friend. He goes by the name Neutrino and he described it as I used to be the weird guy sitting in the corner and I went from that to be mysterious and interesting because I had a handpan still sitting in the corner.