The Origins of Handpans: The PANArt Hang


If you're reading this, it means your life has intersected with the handpan in one way or another. Me too... I was actually incredibly fortunate to discover handpans before handpans even existed. Back then, there was only the Hang. Here is the story of this amazing instrument...


Felix Rohner and Sabina Schärer invented the Hang in 2000 in Bern, Switzerland. Through their company (PANArt) the Swiss couple had historically built steel-drums. In fact, they had already improved on the Caribbean instrument by introducing a new material called Pang. PANArt's new nitrided steel made its steel-drums better all-around and hinted at the innovation to come: the Hang.


The inspiration for the Hang came from a very simple idea actually. 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 (the word "hang" has a double meaning, "hand" and "hillside", in the Bernese German dialect). It was far too big and bulky to play with ease (see video at the top of this page), but over time, PANArt refined its instrument to settle on what we now think of as handpans. Hang instruments went through a series of iterations known as "generations". The first generation Hang was available in 40+ scales from Middle-Eastern to Central European to African to Western blues (I am lucky to own a 1st gen Hang in the Harmonic Minor scale of D). The second generation only existed in a dozen scales with mostly D dings (the top note). The third generation had even fewer options. PANArt finally narrowed it down to single scale called the Integral Hang believed to be the optimal Hang scale. A Free Integral Hang generation was also introduced. It was a instrument tuned with itself but not to the western scale based on the A note at 440 hertz.


The changes at PANArt were also reflected in their approach to selling the Hang. While the Swiss company had used distributors across the globe in years prior, PANArt gradually reduced its production to just a few instruments per year sold locally in Bern. As demand for the Hang increased, supply from the PANArt workshop decreased thus making it nearly impossible to acquire a Hang. It was clear that Felix and Sabina were not in this business to make money but instead holding true to their vision of this art form. It is, in part, this scarcity that led others to start building Hang-like instruments. At last, the Swiss inventors announced that they retired the original Hang in 2013. Between 2000 and 2013, it is estimated PANArt built 10,000 Hang instruments.



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 Swiss shop is grounding and deep, more subtle and mature. The Gubal surely won't be as popular as the Hang but that's the point. As for PANArt, they continue to innovate and create new instruments. What is certain is that they will forever remain the origins of handpans.

If you're in love with the sound of the Hang, you will like the Iskra Handpan made by Symphonic Steel. The Iskra is made using the same techniques as the original instrument from Switzerland.


I am excited to tell you about his instruments because, as a maker, Sean Beever holds true to the handpan art-form. He's been a part of the handpan community from the start and he's held in high esteem by all.


I recently visited the Symphonic Steel workshop and I filmed a mini-documentary about the Iskra. 



Over the years, Sean and I have become friends and he's giving $50 OFF of the purchase of your Iskra by entering the code SYLVAIN at checkout. Iskra handpans are made in California and ship world-wide. 


Click here to learn more about the Iskra.

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.


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