The handpan drum, also known as hang drum or pan drum, is a relatively new percussion instrument that has quickly gained popularity around the world. With its melodic and hypnotic sound, the handpan allows musicians to express themselves in new and exciting ways. But where did this fascinating instrument come from? Let’s explore the evolution and history of the handpan drum.
The handpan was invented in 2000 by Felix Rohner and Sabina Schärer in Bern, Switzerland. Felix was a steelpan player and was looking for ways to upgrade and innovate the steelpan design. After years of experimentation, he created the first handpan in 2000 and named it the “Hang” which means “hand” in Bernese German.
The design of the handpan drew inspiration from Caribbean steel pans, gongs, and tambours. Felix utilized metal forming techniques to shape the two steel sheets into a concave dome with a central inverted dome (called the Gu). The top side has between 7-9 tone fields hammered into the metal which each produce a different note. The handpan is played by tapping these tone fields with the hands to create melodic tunes and rhythmic patterns.
The early handpan models like the Hang were made from nitrided steel which produces bright, resonant tones. Felix and Sabina started their own company PANArt to produce and sell these new handpan instruments near Bern.
As demand grew, a two-year waiting list developed for customers to purchase an original Hang drum. Fans started referring to the new percussion instrument as a “Hang drum” since it was invented by the founders of PANArt. The company later tried to distance itself from the term since the instrument is made from an inverted pan, not a drum head.
In the mid-2000s YouTube videos showcasing the magical sound of the Hang drum started going viral. Musicians and listeners around the world became enamored with the soothing, metallic tones.
The pioneer of handpan videos was Manu Delago, an Austrian composer and multi-instrumentalist. His popular YouTube videos led to international performances showcasing handpan music.
More companies began making their own handpan models to meet the growing demand. Drum makers like Pantheon Steel from the US, Cais Drums from Germany, and Metal Sound from Ukraine started crafting handpans. This led to design innovations like new scale arrangements and materials like nitride steel.
Evolution of Techniques
As the handpan became more popular, musicians developed new techniques for playing:
- Finger rolls – quickly alternating between different tones
- Harmonic fields – playing multiple notes at once
- 8-tone – using one hand to play on both sides of the drum
- Slaps/pops – percussive plucking of the handpan rim
- Microtones – partially pressing on tones to bend pitch
The techniques expanded the melodic and rhythmic possibilities of handpan playing. Master players like Daniel Waples helped drive innovation in handpan techniques.
Today, the handpan market is thriving with makers offering diverse scales and materials. Top brands include Saraz Handpans (Ukraine), Doyle Grinspan (USA), and Symphonic Steel (Germany).
Advanced manufacturing technologies like pneumatic forming allow more precision and consistency in handpan production. This lets makers create high-quality instruments tuned to specific musical scales.
Some recent trends include:
- Integral handpans – seamless one-piece construction for richer sound.
- Low handpans – extended range with lower octaves.
- Electro handpans – built-in pickups to plug into amplifiers.
- Alternative materials – handpans made from aluminum, ceramics, or synth.
There are now festivals, concerts, and gatherings celebrating handpan music and culture. The community of handpan players continues to grow worldwide as more people discover this fascinating instrument.
Over just two decades, the handpan has undergone a remarkable evolution from a niche Swiss invention to a global percussion phenomenon. The future looks bright for the expressive melodic instrument as makers innovate and push boundaries, introducing the handpan to new audiences everywhere. The magic of the handpan will continue to inspire musicians and listeners around the world.