Updated: Mar 23
If you are reading this, it means your life has intersected with the handpan one way or another. And by now, you already know how remarkable handpans are. Simple by design, the handpan allows musicians and non-musicals alike to create freely. What you may not know is how the world's newest musical instrument came to be. Here is the story of the origins of handpans: the PANArt Hang.
It was Felix Rohner and Sabina Schärer who invented the Hang in 2000 in Bern, Switzerland. Their company PANArt had historically built steel-drums—a musical instrument from the Caribbean which became popular in Europe in the 1970s. But the Swiss couple had also been exploring the vast sonic possibilities of steel sheet by building various prototypes over the years. Meanwhile, they refined their very own steel alloy called Pang whose physical properties hinted at even bigger change to come.
The inspiration for the Hang came from a very simple idea. What if you could play the steel-drum with your hands? What if you could experience the same closeness with steel as with other hand percussive instruments—specifically the Ghatam, a clay pot from India. From this idea, the Hang instrument was born, thus paving the way for handpans.
The first Hang prototype was essentially an inside-out steel-drum. It was far too big and bulky to play with ease, but over time, PANArt refined its instrument to settle on what we now think of as handpans. "Hang" has a double meaning in the Bernese German dialect meaning both "hand" and "hillside".
Hang instruments went through a series of iterations known as "generations" which clearly reflect how PANArt's philosophy was evolving over time. The first generation Hang was available in more than 45 scales. From Middle-Eastern to African to Western blues, this first Hang was presented as a musical instrument. The lenticular-shaped vessel measured 49cm in diameter. On the top shell were a total of 9 notes: 8 notes placed around the tone circle and one center note, a polished dome said to reflect the stars, called the "ding". The bottom shell did not have any notes but a port, called the "Gu". The second generation was only available in a dozen different nameless scales tuned spontaneously by the Hang makers. The ding was now tuned lower, to a D3. PANArt narrowed it down to only offering a single scale called the Integral Hang, believed to be the optimal expression of the Hang. This was the third generation for which, soon after, PANArt decided to move away from the standard 440 hertz tuning standard, thus now tuning completely by ear. This became known as the "Free Integral Hang".
These changes were also reflected in PANArt's approach to selling the Hang. The Swiss manufacturer had initially distributed the Hang through retailers but that ended abruptly in 2004. Moving forward, PANArt would only sell the Hang to owners directly by invitation to their shop in Switzerland. Demand for the Hang kept increasing while PANArt produced fewer and fewer instruments. Around that time, previously-owned Hang prices skyrocketed selling as high as $10,000 on eBay (10 times the prices set by PANArt). Felix and Sabina were clearly not in this business to make money although it is estimated they built nearly 10,000 Hanghang between 2000 and 2013 when they officially announced they had discontinued the Hang.
One may wonder why PANArt would step away from the Hang and its success. The answer may be found in the Hang's successor, the Gubal. Where the Hang took off to the heavens, the Gubal landed back on earth. This latest instrument from the PANArt studio is deep and grounding, more subtle and mature. The Gubal surely won't be as popular as the Hang but perhaps that is the whole point. As for PANArt, they continue to innovate and create new instruments. What is for sure is that they will forever remain at the origin of handpans.
How do you feel about the Hang from PANArt? Did you discover handpans through the original Swiss invention? I would love to hear your story in the comments.