Updated: May 3, 2021
Ron Kravitz is a notable figure in handpan history. As the sole Hang distributor in the US (2002-05) and then one of only two worldwide distributors (2005-07) Ron recounts untold stories and reveals secrets from the past. A must-listen for any old-timer, Hang-lover or anyone trying to make sense of PANArt's position towards the handpan community.
Watch the jam Ron & I recorded after the podcast episode:
2005 1st Gen Hang retuned by Rivera Steel Tuning:
Sylvain: Hey, it's Sylvain. And this is the handpan podcast. I have to start this episode with a short anecdote. A few months ago, I threw my back. So I found a chiropractor online to see if that would help. I walk in the door, the usual chit chat, and the chiropractor asks what I do for work. So I start describing hand pans and she stops me and says, is it like the Hang I'm like, wait, how do you? And she begins telling me, well, I have another patient who used to sell those. Hold on. I go, is it? And it was, it was Ron Kravitz, who's today's guest on the podcast. And in a moment, you'll understand what a crazy coincidence that was because Ron is a historical figure in what would later become the handpan art form as we know it. In this episode, we uncover secrets from the past and share untold stories about the hang and about PANArt not based on rumors, but through the lens of Ron's firsthand experiences there. Now I know PANArt has been a polarizing topic in the handpan world, especially right now. And the goal of this episode is not to pitch a certain agenda or to make a statement because I believe that the stories you're about to hear, speak for themselves. So if you're curious to know about the early history of this family of instruments, we call hand pans. Well, enjoy this fascinating conversation with Ron Kravitz.
Ron: I'm ready.
Sylvain: All right. Well, Ron Kravitz, I don't think it's an overstatement to say that your name is legendary among Hong and early Handpan players in the U S a legend a story from the past. That's what you were to me until we met a few months ago in the most unusual of ways I should add, but it's really amazing to be able to sit down with you and to ask you all these questions, because there are very few people who were there at the very early stages of this art form. So it is a tremendous joy to be able to finally make this happen. Thank you for being willing to be on the handpan podcast. Let me start with this for the people who don't know you, can you tell me what your role was with PANArt?
Ron: Sure. I was, I became an PANArt's sole U S representative for selling Hangs to the U S population. I became because there was a store prior to me and we were selling at the same time, but the reason why the store lost favor with Felix and Sabina was because they were selling the pentatonic C and F and in the beginning, PANArt only had 15 scales. When I came on board, they had then up to, to either 30 or 45. It didn't make sense. Now, I didn't, I didn't get all this, you know, coming in. I didn't know the history or anything, but it made sense to them to only sell two scales in a store when you have 45 other ones available and from a retail stores, point of view, that you can't, you can't have 45 in this case instruments. And some of them are pretty out there right. Financially. It has to make sense. So that's why that's where they started out. And as PANArt grew, I just happened to come along at the right time. Yeah.
Sylvain: What inspired you to become their distributor? How did, how did all that start?
Ron: What inspired me to become their distributor? In essence, I recognized the instrumental tonal gold mine, that this instrument was just in how, it was affecting me. So I have to back up. There's a lot of stories that go tell this part first. You know, I am a part of an organization called music for people for many years, since 1988, which was created by David Darling cello player whose initial renown was for being the cellist in the Paul winter concert, a band that played with whales and wolves, there are recordings, um, and music for people, uh, we're primarily a United States, uh, organization based mostly on the East coast. And then David would do concerts on the West coast and other places. He's pretty renowned, the Maverick cellist, David Darling, and eventually Grammy award winning cellist David Darling. We had a workshop, uh, at Immaculata, Pennsylvania and music for people is a school of improvisation. And I guess it was the year 2000 must have been late 2001, 2002, somewhere in that time, it was the last day of a workshop. And David says, "Ron, check this out". I see this yellow bag, bright yellow with the kind of a black dot on the bottom. Okay. It's this flying saucer shaped instrument. And I play it briefly because briefly because we were all leaving, we were departing, the workshop's over. And I thought like, Oh, that's kind of nice. I, I like it. You know, I like it. Um, and I'm a big tongue drum fan. I have, like, I don't know what the count was at that time, but I know at some point I had 24 tongue drums. A lot of them made by Michael Thiele whom I consider the best artisan craftsmen making tongue drums, melodic, melodic tongue drums out of wood. This is kind of a similarity, but it's out of metal. So now at least three months go by. We have another workshop at, uh, in Bryn, Athen, Pennsylvania in the new, uh, the college of the new church. One of our, uh, graduates, uh, is, uh, the head of, the assistant Dean of student affairs. We are able to be in this gorgeous brand, new, fine arts building, like 30-foot high ceilings. And it's the beginning and I'm actually teaching this week and it's a Friday. And I see that yellow bag, you know, as one of the instruments on the table, because we all, I would supply percussion instruments from my massive collection of instruments that I've always done, you know? And I said, I might as well try it. And I start fiddling around with it. It's must be around eight o'clock in the morning. Workshop starts at nine. I'm intrigued. And I'm not quite getting the sound, not quite getting, but I'm, I'm in it. And then Mary Cornish, who was another person who had the Hang, here's me kind of struggling a little bit, just run, go like this. And I go like that go. Now, I don't want to do anything. I don't want to teach this weekend. I just want to play this thing, like Ron, you have to really do. I have to, every break I had, I went back and I played it. The workshop's over and say, David, can I, can I borrow this? She says, Ron, sorry, but I have a gig on Wednesday. And I can't, but here's the contact information I sell. You know, I sell a djembe here and there. I'm leading these percussion works ups in my house, uh, music for people, workshops, African drum classes. And I come from a, uh, a, a greeting card and family gift shop backgrounds. So retail sales is in my life. I've sold things and I've been in that environment, but loved working with customers, but I never liked anything I was selling in that conventional world. I've always considered myself non-conventional, not so conservative in ways. But when I played the Hang, I recognized like I was like lit up so much. So I, I sent an email to this guy by the name of Felix Rohner on Monday, the workshop's over on Sunday. And I say something like, I would love to purchase one of your instruments. Uh, David Darling, and Mary Cornish from music for people introduced it to me. And I'm just, I love the sound of it. And by the way, I also sell instruments and would love to sell yours Tuesday. I believe it is. I get an email response back says, uh, we can send you, uh, an instrument of your choice. And it was the, uh, the Phrygian scale that David had. So that's what I wanted. That's the only one, the only thing I knew, and, uh, it says your Phrygian scale would cost this, but your selling price for the instruments would be $180. Says, tell us what you'd like, how many you'd like for your order. Literally my mouth dropped open, like what what's going on? Like, I'm a no body in the world of selling instruments. I don't have a store. I sell out of my house. I just take it in. I go wow. And at some point I call him up and introduce myself. And at some point I say, I want to come visit. And they loved that, that I wanted to take the time to visit because I don't recall that the other buyer did that. I don't recall, but he, they both feel a sense of Bina loved that I wanted to come and visit. So that's how it started. And I was just, again, blown away because I have no credentials other than I'm saying I sell. And I do. I sell a djembe here and there. I sell a tongue drum here and there, but I don't support myself doing that. I'm in this other world. Well, I'm actually out of that gift shop world. I've left the family business. And I think it's two years outside that family business for, for various reasons. I left that world. And now I'm looking to support myself from and in any musical means that comes within my sphere to try it out. Well, I knew that this was, I didn't have to think about it. Like now the original selling price was $345. That was the first year. If I'm not mistaken, I know there might've been a 400 jumps somewhere. I know there was a $550 point. And then the second generations, I was selling them for $1,500. And I remember my first order was, uh, there was 12 instruments. One guy got three. Um, uh, and I just went down my list of percussion friends because I'm, I'm a percussionist and a vocalist. That's how musically I, I, how I identify. And I, you know, I told my friends, check this out, look at whatever resources and they'd say I'm down for this. So that's how it started. And at some point in that period, I bought my ticket and I remember flying into Geneva, which is not Bern, and it's not the other closest airport. I forget where, where it would come in. But I flew into Geneva because that's where, that's what was available at that time for me to get in during this time period, I've never been to Europe before and Felix met me at the airport and we, we took a train together to, uh, to Bern. Um, and then I kind of recollect, maybe we drove, we drove in his car and it was a very warm and cozy, very friendly. Um, and the hang house is located on the river at that time. Um, the, I forget, which is the Hang house in the hangbau house. There's the, to cross the street is one or the other. And, uh, but it wasn't the other one wasn't there yet. Um, so those were the, the roots of the, the beginnings of how it all happened. And then there is an evolution of stories. Um, I felt very, in some ways it felt very comfortable, privileged, and part of my payment, like I wasn't paid directly with money. I would get paid in Hangs. Like, I think there was a certain amount. I mean, I forget how the equation worked, but I know that maybe it was a certain amount that were free to me. And then the other amount I would have to purchase and, and whatever I sold, that was my income. And then they would get paid, you know? Um,
Sylvain: It's an interesting arrangement.
Sylvain: It's unconventional.
Ron: It's unconventional, but it also, boy, it's, it's the currency I was looking for. I'll tell you. Yeah. It became currency instant, pretty much instant currency, especially as time grew on.
Sylvain: Right. Because how much demand was there, especially this was before social media, um, how much demand was there for the Hang? How did people find you? How did you make yourself known? Yeah,
Ron: They did have a website at that point. And then I had my website, um, musicinthemoment.com. So I believe I had something on my website and pan art listed. I think they listed who their distributors were around the world. At that time, there were eventually 14 distributors around the world, eventually the warrant, quite that many at that point. And, and then again, that other, that other company left the, you know, they sent me a letter saying, we've decided to however they word it, but we like how you're working with us. So we would like you to be our sole distributor. And that was like a celebration. Like I loved the instrument. I was, I've never been moved by sound in that way. And it was, uh, I, it was so special and, and people who, who were not people who were hearing it were in enthralled. Percussion people, instant music people, um, were enthralled. So a lot of it, a lot of it was, you know, as it started to get out there sales and it wasn't, I had to work too. It wasn't like the, those first couple of years, it wasn't like sales were going out the window. Um, it was slow in a way. Um, I was selling a musical instrument and they also called it a work of art. They also called it a sound sculpture, but it was a musical instrument. I'd pick them up, Um, at, I'd have to go to Philadelphia international airport, the cargo, uh, to cargo and it could be continental airlines. It could be one of the many different airlines and then go to, uh, the customs. And it was a, uh, it was always a trip to go to customs and make sure the, everything checked out. And I always felt a little nervous about that, you know, and, but then, you know, okay, you pass and then you drive your car. I was driving a van at the time and maybe 12 boxes, you know? And then, I mean, I mean, it's clearly the last, my largest order was 37 instruments at one time. And maybe that was, it was either the last year or the 2006, 2007. And I remarkably, they all fit in my van. You know, I was a master packer, like from the family gift sharp business. I was a stock boy at 12 years old. And I try to find something in the back stock room and say, Hey, dad, there's no more rooms. Find a space for it. And he'd go back. And he says, here, look, here's how you do it. Move this around. I was, uh, it was like a giant puzzle of space. I always loved like finding space for things. So I knew how to find so here, even if I had to put something on top of the roof, but I don't think I had to do that with this, but somehow it all worked and I get home and I have a house through that family business. I made some, some bucks where I was able to buy a house and a very unorthodox house. And it's another story about my house. So, but in the basement are these 37 boxes of Hangs, some people, in some instances, they were almost, I remember 34 were already sold of those 37 before those were, that was a year that they were selling for 1500 bucks. So that's why I left to go, well, Hang is just another name for currency at that point in time. So I, the year I left the business, I was making on my, uh, my, uh, tax form. It showed, I made like $58,000. It's the most I ever made in my life. You know, uh, again, there's stories about family businesses and stuff. Keep it short. The next year when I left, I showed $8,000 on my taxes. So from having the freedom from making the, the intentional choice to leave the business into the music world with both feet in the door and look and taking on any opportunities that came my way, the first year was challenging. The second year, I think is when the Hang came along and I go, Whoa, I'm going to sell this baby and I not going to have a problem doing it. So, um, So I'll switch over to a story. It's, it's part of the Dante Bucci story. Um, Dante has a lot of people in the Hong world remember was a remarkable, uh, young, gifted, uh, person and who passed tragically. And, but before all that happened, Dante did not make the list on that last, that last time around or whatever that year was. There was a police officer in New York who is the last name on the list. Don't remember name. He had financial issue and his, he had to cancel his order. Dante was next. I remember calling Dante Bucci up and saying, Hey, I got some good news for you. And there's like this celebration. He was celebrating, you know, so I remember here are these 34 instruments or so all the instruments, the boxes and the instruments were laid out on the top. And I would call people up around the world and say, some people had an idea what they wanted already, but most didn't, I go, okay, I'm going to play for you. So I would play with the speakerphone and say, okay, can you narrow it down? And that's how I would sell these things. It's amazing. And Dante was local, you know, Philly suburbs. Um, so he came over, um, and he narrowed it down. And, um, I know he got one and I know we got another one. I don't remember if he got two at the same time. He may have actually gotten two at the same time. And, you know, I had this think I had this rule that, you know, I want to give everybody an opportunity. Um, so, uh, I'm not so clear on that, how that all went down, but I know he eventually got a second one, if not that time. And then he, we used to have a band with a little, we call ourselves a band and it was me Dante, my colleague Lynn Miller from music for people and my dear friend, Natasha wonderful percussionist. Um, and we all sang, Dante was a gifted musician. I mean, really gifted. And he would play two at a time and he had these compositions. And, um, so we called ourselves Stereo Shruti Hanghang Shruti is, I'm also in the, I'm a distributor for Shruti boxes. Um, I'm the US rep for our company in Germany. And then I become the us rep for a company. Um, the M-1s out of the UK with Stefan Cartwright and they're really high quality instruments. So this drone and I am playing the two greatest gem merges together, a hang with a, a Shruti box, this drone. Shruti box is a relative of the harmonium, but it doesn't have keys. It's got levers in those days, the original one, the German ones. Now before the German, once they were traditional and they had knobs on the top, there were no chromatic scales. And then, um, chromatic scales were introduced. And so, and then foot pedals came out for the, so I used to play the hung with one hand and a Shruti on a table on the other, and I could manage that, but I can never have my hands free to play both. That's what it's like. Ah, and, uh, so that eventually changed when the foot pedal came out and it's like, ah, God, this is God's gifts. Yeah.
Sylvain: And it was made by Richard of Sounds Inspiring in the Netherlands. Right. It's funny because even though we, you and I only met recently, there are so many people in our lives that we have in common, like just a couple of days ago. Um, I was reminded by Danny Sorenson who bought a Hang from you and, and he experienced just what you described. You were playing the different tunings for him and that's how he chose over the phone. And then obviously Dante, uh, yeah, there's a lot of names that are familiar. Um, yeah, I'm sure. Uh, rusty James, um, Richard Saggio, these are all people that you sold hangs to. Um, and there are people outside of the U S who know you as well, because there's a point in time when PANArt dropped all of their distributors except two.
Ron: Well, they dropped them all. And then they brought me and David Cates from Canada back, if you say it just developed the second generation and they had this idea of how they wanted to offer that.
Sylvain: What did the evolution of the Hang look like? Did the culture or the philosophy change, did you feel some of that moving in a specific direction?
Ron: Not necessarily, but there is recollection, vague recollection of, we know we can make a better instrument. And when the word came down that they were, you know, I guess all the distributors received a letter or an email, And they said, we want to develop, we know we can develop this. And they did into, you know, the, those first generations they had, they used to heat it with a blow torch out back in his little shed, in the Hang House. And that was most, most off. That was Sabina's part of her job. Um, when the second gens came about, they created new instruments to work on them. And I believe it was a four tiered oven where they could make four instruments at a time, said, get the shells in a raw form. Um, and they each had their room, which you've probably seen. Yeah. And they'd have their head gear on and they'd be hammering all day. And, and, uh, you know, memories of, you know, I have a video that I, on an eight high eight video that they said, you're welcome to video us tuning. So I haven't looked at it in years. I mean, many, many years, but it's still around, but this intimate, you know, it's a little interaction between us, but it's watching them hammer going from one room to another, watching the colored sand on the instruments, which was fascinating. It was way over my head. Like I'm a player, but I'm not a scientist. I'm not a physicist. And I remember Felix would talk to me and a lot, I just would shake my head. I couldn't understand like where he would go off and I would call it the Hangosphere in conversation. Um, David had a better, because David really was a musician's musician. And I never learned that stuff. You know, any theory I was a feel player and that's why I love the hang as a feel player. I feel it, I looked at the notes and I didn't know what combinations went with other combinations and always a treat like to, to sell the instrument. Not, and not, yeah. I was finally supporting myself, which is not an easy thing to do when you're on your own and a musician and I have skills, but I'm not that I'm not an elite musician or I can go out to the clubs. And I didn't like that life. The time that I did that in my life, didn't like those late hours anyway. So now I can kind of have my cake and eat it too, from the joy that people would get from receiving this, um, absolute pleasure, you know, and making connections with people or Danny Sorensen. I remember back in those early days when after the Hang thing was over, he would contact me to be part of, you know, these early hang gatherings. And it, and it, I can never do a piece. I was involved in other things. The timing was always off, but I always appreciate that he would, I would be one of the first people he'd he'd ask, uh, Dante was able to get to a lot of those things. And his name was now out there. Um, I drift from story to story as I have these recollections about, you know, from here. Oh yeah. That, you know, um, ask me something else.
Sylvain: Yeah, no, that's fine. I know that I'm sure it triggers a lot of memories.
Ron: A lot.
Sylvain: Transition to the hype or the moment when the hang became viral and what that meant in your world. I know you have a story on the most expensive Hang that ever sold on eBay. What was that number again?
Ron: Uh, $23,000 that I recollect from, um, the most, the Hang ever sold for was $2,400 from PANArt. But even before that time, they people, you started to see these prices 3000, 5,000, 10,000 and upward. So there was a friend of mine who has two children and purchased a first-generation hang from me at that, who was that amongst that first batch at $345. And he says, I, you know, I need, I need money. I've got to sell my hang. Um, he needed money for something. I don't remember what the circumstance was. So through a connection of his, Some guy in Europe, from France, is going to buy this instrument for $15,000. And he does. And my, my friend says he had just flown in on his personal jet from one of his chateaus in France. That's how I recollect the story. And he, and he took out like pocket change. Here's $15,000.
Ron: He eventually got another hang, you know, PANArt had a lot of trouble with people selling it. Understandably. Yeah. Yeah. When did it go viral the last year? Well, it was going, they could never meet the demand. They were too. They always consider themselves artisans. They always considered themselves artisans. And so if you wanted it to repair, send it back. They were very generous. They were extremely generous with me putting me up in their house. I, um, I, yeah, again, it, I remember Felix put me up in his house. Um, his wife was there, um, his three children, young children. And I took his oldest child's room, his flat on the other side, they lived in this, um, uh, what'd you call it, I guess you would call it a co-housing development, something like that or something, or their version of a condo and walking a lot. Like we would walk home after from the hung house to this place, Felix and I would go together and then I learned the route, so I can go back by myself. And I just, I just felt his generosity to me, eating together. We would eat at his, at their house, sit down at the dinner table. And, uh, we ate a lot of cheese. I remember eating a lot of cheese and, uh, I was always treated, uh, kindly and with respect. and, uh, so the viral thing happened. They would tell me that they would get at least 50 emails a day. I found it hard to believe, but when David and I went there, we were let go. And then we were brought back to sell Hangs to the world community. They would take a break every single year to rest their hands. They had to Felix and Sabina. And so we were brought back and They had made, I believe it was either 90, or I think it was 90 instruments that they would sell, sell. And it was our responsibility to sell to the Europe, to make the sales, to contact this list of people. And that's what we would do start early in the morning, call people say, yes, do you have an appointment to come in? As many as I think we would have as many as seven appointments in a day. And we were sold out in three day, two days, three days, and people were irate. What do you mean? You're sold out? I'd been waiting for months. So they feel since Sabina decided we're going to up the level to 190 instruments. So we'll satisfy some of that demand. And during this time, David and I witnessed the extraordinary number of emails that would come, that would flood. This was every day they would receive 50 or 60 emails a day, for requests with like the Pope never asked for hang, but you would have, or the Dalai Lama that I know of, but you would have the, I mentioned their names because the highest accolades and goodness of people that serve, lots of people wanted this instrument. Wow, very high people and all kinds of levels of people. Right. But they couldn't meet the demand. And it was not something that you could like make copies of, mass produce. You just can't do it. They could only do so much. People were angry. I remember people were angry and thought that they were trying to hoard it. And it was from my point of view, it wasn't the case. It's just that they could only do so many and why do you hire people to do it? They, there were two or three stories that Felix had told me that they had brought back some of the people from the earlier days when they were making their pang material there, their steel pan drums. Um, and it just didn't work out. Those people never hung in there long enough and maybe someone else would try it, but the conversation became more like if we start teaching, then we don't have time to make instruments. And then people are angry with us for not making instruments. So it was like, you can't win in this situation. Um, They used to say to us, I wish someone would develop this instrument. It was all free. It was all out there. The documents on how to make the Hang from early on. And I think was the Frankfurt music festival where they showed it. He, uh, had conversations with Ellie Manette from West Virginia early on. And, um, Allie was impressed. Um, I remember Felix was somewhat, I don't know if the word is distraught or what not happy that there were some, someone had written something maybe more than one piece. I don't remember about, you know, here you have this instrument from Trinidad or you've taken this, but it's, it was kind of the essence of your you're taking this instrument from our culture. And Felix didn't think he was doing that. U