Professor Jay Tee

History of the Hand Pan Drum by PJT

Feb 26, 2022

History of the Hand Pan Drum by Professor Jay Tee

The hand pan drum looks and sounds like some form of antique instrument, but it was invented in Switzerland around the year 2000 by two Swiss artists.

Felix Rohner was a well-known player of a musical instrument called the Trinidad Steel Drum which received its first recognition in Europe in the early 1970s. He and Sabina Schärer founded a new musical instrument company named PANArt in 1990, and they became well known for creating steel drums.

In the late 1990’s, Reto Weber, a hand percussionist, came to the company with his idea for transforming a steel pan into an instrument that could be played with the hands. He wanted to mix the playing method of the South India Ghatam with the sound of a steel pan drum. After considerable experimentation, Felix and Sabina developed the first hand pan drum, which they still insist must be called the "Hang™" – which simply means "hand" in their Bernese German dialect. In 2001, the company first officially introduced their “Hang™” in Frankfurt, Germany.

The hand pan has a beautiful tone and high resonance, and it is made in many mysterious and unique scales. However, the PANArt company did not mass produce it, and as a result, only a tiny number were made available each year. As the instrument became more popular, they resisted its expansion, thinking of it more as their personal, artistic creation and not as something that should be mass-produced and sold worldwide. They trademarked their name Hang™ in an attempt to prevent others from reproducing it.

In their efforts to restrict the instrument, PANart required every person wishing to buy a Hang™ to send them a handwritten letter explaining why they wanted it and exactly what they would do with it. Prospective buyers waited months, sometimes years to find out if they would be allowed to purchase one. Once PANart approved their requests (if ever), the buyers then needed to travel to Switzerland in person to make their purchase! Many people were upset by this policy.

However, the design of the instrument itself was not protected, and numerous books and articles of information on the methods of construction and tuning were already available. Other makers began to make instruments and sell them, using different names for their creations: hand drum, handpan, hang drum, steel hand drum, and more. The most commonly used term is now “hand pan” or a combined “handpan.” (Personally, I prefer to specify it is a Hand Pan Drum, using drum to remind people that this is a percussion instrument.)

Since the hand pans all had to be shaped completely by hand, hammering the deep shells into shape (or using a very expensive steel press and die), the prices of hand pans remained quite high for a long time.

Then, Colin Foulke invented the easier, safer, much cheaper, and more reliable hydroforming method of shell-making. In 2015, Foulke shared all of his methods free online, while describing his equipment in detail for others to copy. The result has been an recent explosion in makers and a nose-dive in the prices of hand pans worldwide. A good one can now be found for under $1,000 (US Dollars), where they used to range from $3,000 to $5,000.

The basic form of a handpan is two metal half-shells fixed together at the edges. The upper shell has a central raised tone area often called the “Ding,” surrounded by a circle of sunken tone areas around it. The notes they generate vary depending on the scale that was used in making it, and cannot be altered very much by the player.

Some have additional tone areas on the bottom shell, but those are more difficult to strike well, and such instruments are usually used by more highly experienced players. The center of the bottom shell has a large resonating hole in it, sometimes called the “Gu.” Different manufacturers use different steels, manufacturing methods, and shapes for the tone areas, resulting in considerable variation in the sound of hand pans from one to the next...

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