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Origin of Handpan, Hang Drum & Pantam

origin handpan, hang drum, pantam, origin

Handpan is a musical instrument that captivates the listener with a strong hypnotic attraction and whose timbre is unique. This instrument remains intangible in its acquisition. It has its origins in the steel drum family, imitating the traditional steelpans of the Caribbean islands.

In this comprehensive article, you will learn what is the true origin of the handpan, hang drum or even the pantam.

What is a handpan, hang drum or pantam?

Handpan, Hang Drum, Pantam and UFO Drum are different names for a closely related family of relatively young musical instruments. The instrument consists of two convex steel blades glued together. They contain notes tuned on the upper half and sometimes on the lower half, which can be played with the hands.

Each instrument is tuned to a single scale, such as major, minor, or harmonic minor. No understanding of music theory is required to make beautiful music, as there are no wrong notes in the unified scale. This also allows a player to improvise from a more emotional and kinetic inspiration that is freed from the mind. Many players use these instruments for personal meditation, sound healing, and more traditional group compositions.

Each high-quality instrument has notes with tuned overtones that can be played individually, as well as a tuned hole in the lower shell that creates a Helmholtz that is playable like a Udu drum.

Some designers have referred to this hole as a "port" or "gu".

This overtone-rich instrument has an ethereal, hypnotic sound that radiates in all directions and often captivates listeners.

handpan black, 9 notes, hang, origin handpan

The history of handpan, hang drum and pantam

1) When and where was it invented?

The path of the development of this instrument went all over the globe and is closely connected with other musical instruments, some of which are also very young and others are centuries old.

Most people agree that the founders of the handpan were Felix Rohner and Sabina Schärer of PANArt Hangbau AG in Bern, Switzerland. Both were career steelpan builders as well as inventors of numerous other musical instruments. Felix began building steelpans in Switzerland in 1976 and supplied numerous instruments to the steelbands that sprang up in the country in the 1980s and 1990s.

In the late 1990s, Reto Weber (hand percussionist) came to Sabina and Felix with the idea of transforming a steelpan into a "steel sound pot with a few notes you can play with your hands." The goal was to mix the sound of the South Indian ghatam with the sound of a steelpan. After many trials and experiments, Felix and Sabina gave birth to the "Hang Mother". More information can be found on wikipedia).

2) Origin of the word "Hang

The word "hang" comes from the Bernese German word for "hand". The instruments were commonly referred to as "hang drums", an expression that is still very common today, although PANart strongly advises against it.

3) Production of Hang PANart

Felix and Sabina stopped producing steel pan and started producing the first generation of Hang Hang in 2001. One can be seen in the photo above right. That same year they introduced the instrument at the Frankfurt Music Fair. From 2001 to 2005, they offered the instrument in about 45 different sound models, focusing mainly on ethnic music scales such as Ake bono, Hijaz, Pygmy, Melog and Zhi Diao. The instruments all had eight tones arranged in a circle around a central tone, which they called the "ding." Felix and Sabina are said to have made more than 5000 first generation hang.

The first generation Hang were sold mainly by selected dealers around the world. In 2005, the popularity of the instrument skyrocketed when people started finding videos of these instruments on Youtube. Even today, we hear the same words from people who discover this art form for themselves: "I saw the video of this incredible instrument and knew I had to have one".

As PANart moved to produce the second generation Hang and eventually the third generation Hang, it became increasingly difficult to obtain a Hang. PANart began asking each potential buyer to send a handwritten letter explaining their motivations and desires for purchasing the instrument. Buyers then waited for months or even years without receiving a response, hoping that they would be contacted and invited to buy a Hang in person in Bern, Switzerland.

During the production of the Hangs, PANart published a series of excellent documents on mood, design, materials and forming methods, which can be found HERE.

"Greater collaboration between art and science is necessary for other Hang makers to exist in the future." - Felix Rohner - 2007

4) Is the hang a handpan?

PANart has repeatedly said that the Hang is not a Handpan or Steel Pan. They state that the Hang is tuned in a way that is not used in tuning handpans or steelpans, especially with regard to the structure and architecture of the notes. However, this claim has been directly disputed by one of the greatest authorities on the steel pan, Anthony Achong, author of Secrets of the Steel Pan, Unlocking the Secrets of the Science, Technology, Tuning and Operation of the Steel Pan. Achong states unequivocally and directly at the end of this commentary in response to PANart's claim: "Hang is a steel pan (pan) with a limited musical range (low register only) due to the chosen method of direct hand playing."

In addition, many handpan makers have researched and used the tuning techniques, architectural designs, and shell molding techniques published by PANart to make their own handpans and pantam instruments. Some handpan makers even base their entire design on emulating as closely as possible the original design and sound of the Hang.

Overall, most people consider Hang, Handpan, and Pantam to be a single family of instruments, although of course each company has its own brand.


Before the Panart Hang: the beginnings of the steel pan story.

The Hang was anything but a completely new creation. To use Achong's words quoted above: It was in fact a modified Steel Pan. It is therefore important to look at the important steps that led to the development of the Steel Pan when talking about the history of the Hang, Handpan or Pantam.

First of all, one must consider Trinidad and Tobago, the birthplace of the steel pan. In these islands, musical instruments were banned in the early 1900s. As a rebellion, the inhabitants began to look for other items to drum with. Since there is a lot of oil being produced on the island, it wasn't long before the residents started drumming on the oil barrels. After some time, some people began to shape the drums to produce a certain number of different sounds on the same drum. Years later, young Ellie Mannette, widely considered the father of the modern steel pan, spent years turning the oil drum into a musical instrument. When Mark Garner met them in 2012, Ellie said, "I wanted to be able to play Mary had a little lamb or any other song on the steel pan." These early instruments were tuned by ear while being formed in the mosquito infested swamps of Trinidad before the "pan yards" became more common on the island for steel pan making. The next image is an old photograph of young Ellie and the Oval Boys at work in 1944.
At the time, Ellie focused mainly on tuning the single fundamental frequency of each note while helping to perfect the only new acoustic instrument invented in the 20th century. The following video gives a glimpse into the process and history while interviewing the man himself (Unfortunately in English).
"Looking back over half a century when I had my humble beginnings in this unique art form, no one could have guessed then the rapid growth of this instrument. Over the years, as I developed my skills, my entire state of mind was to share my knowledge with others for the betterment of this instrument." - Ellie Mannette

Ellie Mannette passed away at the age of 90 on August 29, 2018. We are immensely grateful to Ellie for her incredible life of contributions and dedication to singing steel. We are all here thanks to her.


1) The Steelpan matured.

After years of Ellie, as well as Winston Spree Simon, Anthony Achong and many others perfecting the instrument, it continued to evolve. From what we've heard, in the 1960s the first person began tuning an octave harmonica to each note along with the fundamental frequencies. After 10 to 15 years, it became more common for the makers of the highest quality steel pan to also tune another frequency on the now shorter axis perpendicular to the octave axis. This third frequency eventually became the compound fifth frequency found on the highest quality steelpans and handpans. Even today, there are makers of steelpans and handpans that tune frequencies corresponding to a 2nd, 3rd or 4th octave step on the short axis, but this tends to result in a "garish" sounding tone and what is generally considered an inferior instrument. There is magic in the primary harmonic relationship of a fundamental, an octave, and a compound fifth.

2) The frequency ratio 1:2:3 in the notes of the steelpan and the handpan.

If we consider the basic wave physics, the fundamental is a wave, which could be represented as the top layer in the diagram below. The octave is made up of exactly two waves of the same length as the fundamental, which could be represented as the second layer in the diagram. The compound fifth consists of exactly 3 waves of the same length as the fundamental, which could be represented as the third layer of the diagram. This 1:2:3 ratio is the most basic harmony possible, and is perhaps responsible for some of the magic of the steelpan and handpan sound.

3) Tuning more frequencies in the steelpan.

In the 1990s, the best steelpan makers, such as Ellie Mannette, began tuning additional frequencies at the edges of the big notes. These frequencies are more commonly referred to today as "shoulder tones." The first steelpans with "shoulder tones" usually gave the tuner a second octave overtone. For example, if it was a fundamental E3 with an octave harmonic E4 on the long axis, then the shoulder tone would ideally be an E5. The second octave has exactly four loops in the same space as the one loop of the fundamental.

Although we have seen some early slopes with shoulder tones that were very close to tuning, the first handpan builder to systematically and intentionally tune shoulder tones specifically to the midrange was Victor Levinson, creator of the SPB. Ezhan of Echo Sound Sculpture was not far behind. Mark Garner began learning to tune shoulder tones in 2013.

4) History of Gong and Gamelan Instruments.

The technology of handpan, hang, and pantam is very similar to that of steel pan, as both are tuned and built with incredibly similar variables, but there are other influences that also have a major impact on handpan. Another important influence is the central dome structure of gongs and some gamelan instruments. These dome structures go back hundreds of years for both instruments. The dome structure was also used by PANart in the 1990s to control the upper partials of the diaphragm for a warmer, more controlled sound and timbre on its steelpans. It was a natural transition for PANart to use the same structure in the development of the Hang.

Origin of the names "Handpan", "Pantam" and "UFO Drum".

1) The name "Handpan".

Shortly after the Hang was distributed, other people began to try to build a Hang. We heard that Marco Della Ratta was the first person to try to build a similar instrument back in 2002 or 2003. Around 2007, Kyle Cox and Jim Dusin of Pantheon Steel, Luis Martin Eguiguren Garrido of Bellart, and Philippe Maignaut of Spacedrum all tried to build similar instruments. As more and more people started building these modified steel pans, PANart publicly stated that he did not want the trademarked term "hang" or "hang drum" to be used for anyone's instruments, and that the term should instead be reserved for his specific instrument. This happened at the same time as a rather large disagreement on Hangblog.org, where it was also stated that the blog was specifically for the Hang, which was built by Panart. Shortly thereafter, Handpan.org was created, with the name invented by Kyle Cox of Pantheon Steel.

"It was clear that the creators did not want their brand name to be used as a generic term, so one had to be invented. Since the mother art form of steel pan originated in Trinidad and Tobago, I made a respectful effort to include the word "pan." Since it is played by hand, it seemed obvious to call it "hand pan". - Kyle Cox

2) The name "Pantam".

The term "Pantam" was originally used by an Israeli distributor of PANart Hang to describe the Hang. The term is a blend of steel pan and ghatam, the latter being a South Indian clay drum. The term "pantam" found new popularity when Victor Levinson, the inventor of the SPB, began using it to describe his own instruments in 2014. Many manufacturers and players have since followed suit, while the terms "handpan" and "hang drum" remain considerably more popular.

3) The name "UFO Drum".

This term seems to be the result of people trying to figure out what the instrument is called by searching for its name online. The shape of the instrument probably resembles the preconceived notions about an unidentified flying object with aliens inside. Even today, we very often hear people say, "That looks like a UFO" when we first show them the instrument. However, we very rarely hear people actually use that name for the family of instruments.

4) What term should we use today?

Nowadays, the terms handpan, hang drum and pantam are used interchangeably by many players and even some manufacturers to describe not only these types of instruments, but also reed drums. Some manufacturers prefer their instruments to be referred to by one of these specific names, while others simply don't care. So far, Google trends show that the term "hang drum" has dominated by far for years, however, "handpan" has become equally popular since the beginning of 2017. These two terms are by far the most popular. The peak of the term "pantam" in 2018 is closely related to the release of the "Pantam Stand", which is an instrument stand for handpan, hang, pantam and reed drums. Perhaps in 100 years, one of these names will dominate.

Are handpan, hang drum and pantam "drums"?

Technically no, it is not specifically a drum in the correct use of the word in acoustic physics. Handpan, hang drum, and pantam are technically included in the class of idiophonic musical instruments. Most percussion instruments that are not drums are actually idiophones, which produce sound by causing the instrument as a whole to vibrate. Drums are technically membranophones, which work by using a stretched material that vibrates when struck with a mallet or hand, or when excited or plucked by friction.

Why are handpans, pantam and hang called "drums"?
For the simple reason that this is the term that most people, including musicians, routinely use for many types of percussion instruments. Terms like idiophone and membranophone are very rarely used and even more rarely understood. Imagine trying to find the name for an amazing instrument made by PANart called a "Hang". You search for the word online and find a variety of search results, but none of them have anything to do with the Hang or Handpans. This is actually why the term "hang drum" has become so popular.

Most of the most avant-garde players of handpans, hang and pantams use techniques taken directly from the playing techniques of frame drums and tablas or from the rhythms on congas, djembes and drums. The popularity of these instruments, especially among drummers and percussionists, only further bridges the gap between these words, even if they are not technically correct.

End of the Panart suspension

In 2014, PANart ceased production of the Hang to focus on new instruments, including Gubal, Gudu, HangBal, Pang strings, and other instruments from their Pang hardware.

Exponential Explosion of Handpan Builders

While many people missed the Hang and were disappointed by the end of its production, it inspired a new generation of builders to delve into the final chapter of tuned steel. Some of them picked up where PANart and the steel pan builders left off, while others explored new possibilities.

This new generation of builders has continued to develop and evolve the art form with more notes on the instrument, new layouts, improved stability, additional tuned frequencies such as the shoulder tones, new methods of forming the shell, and research into alloys that do not require nitriding for their rust resistance. Players and designers generally agree that the instrument is still very young in its development and there are many more directions for development.

ZenaPan, the perfect blend of quality and price.

Before we entered the German market, we saw hundreds of people buying completely out of tune handpan, regularly sold for over 2,000 euros on ebay, Amazon or even Cdiscount.

So we decided to give new musicians the opportunity to buy high quality handpans and tongue drums at a very attractive price. The idea behind this is that as many people as possible can discover this percussion instrument.