Updated: Apr 3
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 this instrument is...
Simple by design, the handpan allows musicians and non-musicals alike to create freely (get started here). But what you may not know is how the world's newest musical instrument came to be... Here is the origin story of handpans which began with 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 to come.
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, when picturing a handpan.
The name "Hang" (pronounced "hung") 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 also reflects how PANArt's own philosophy was evolving over time.
The first generation Hang has become iconic due to its primitive look and sound. The lenticular-shaped vessel measured 49 cm in diameter. On the top shell, there were a total of 9 notes often referred to as "8+1" with 8 notes around the tone circle (placed in a zig-zag pattern with their long axis aligned with the radius) and one note in the center (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 Hang was only available in a dozen different nameless scales tuned spontaneously by the Hang makers. The Ding, no longer polished, was now tuned lower—to a D3. The surface of the instrument was more uniform than the previous generation and brushed with brass. A messing ring was fixed around the flange. Most 2nd gen Hang instruments had a 7+1 note configuration.
PANArt eventually narrowed it down to offering only a single scale called the Integral Hang, believed to be the optimal expression of the Hang. The notes were (D) A Bb C D E F A. Soon after, PANArt decided to move away from the standard 440 hertz concert pitch, thus tuning completely by ear. This became known as the "Free Integral Hang" which you could not play with other instruments.
All these changes were also reflected in PANArt's approach to selling the Hang... The Swiss company had initially distributed the Hang through retailers, at home and abroad, but distribution ended abruptly in 2005. From then on, 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.
I got to interview Ron Kravitz who was the sole Hang distributor in the US (2002-05) and then one of only two worldwide distributors (2005-07). You can listen to him share untold stories and reveals secrets from the past in this exclusive conversation for The Handpan Podcast. A must-listen for any old-timer, Hang-lover or anyone trying to make sense of PANArt's position towards the handpan community today.
Why did they stop making it? One may wonder why PANArt would step away from the Hang and its success and the answer may be found in the Hang's successor, the Gubal.
Where the Hang took off to the heavens, the Gubal lands back on earth and even goes deep. This latest instrument from the PANArt studio is grounding and more subtle than the Hang. The Gubal surely won't be as popular as its predecessor, 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.
In 2019, PANArt announced the Hang is, in fact, still being made in isolated cases. This is a major development since handpans emerged precisely because there was no supply of the Hang—not in spite of it. So after nearly 10 years of absence, it appears PANArt is now making and selling the "original handpan" again. What's more, the Swiss inventors are now claiming a copyright on the design which would consider all handpans as being "illegal copies". This is a developing story...