From Steelpan to Handpan (Part 2)

TT – Handpan goes global: Yesterday we explored the history of the evolution of the handpan from steelpan to its original form, the hang. Now we look at its further explosion in both manufacturing and performance.

This new class of instruments that started 20 years ago by a steelpan manufacturer in Switzerland are now made all over the world.

Kyle Cox of Pantheon Pan started playing steelband under Professor John Wooten at the University of Southern Mississippi. Completing his undergraduate studies when he graduated, Cox became an apprentice to Alan Coyle, one of Ellie Mannette’s first students at West Virginia University.

Cox loved playing and building steelpans and when he moved back home to Missouri in 2003, he began a life of building steelpans. But, he changed course a few years later after being introduced to handpans.

In 2009, Cox stopped making steelpans and created and built his own hand pan design, the Halo.

In recent years, his Halo business has taken off as new techniques have developed for the creation of the instrument there has been a sharing of technology between various handpan manufacturers. Cox developed a rolling process to shape his instruments along with late business partner Jim Dusin.

However, about one year ago Cox switched to a hydroforming process developed by Colin Foulke in California that has revolutionised the handpan world. The hydroform process allows the pan shells to be formed in a matter of minutes and stacked resting inside each other. This allows for easy shipping of Halos to tuners located in Belgium, Greece, and Canada. Cox’s Missouri factory has grown to ten employees and still cannot keep up with demand.

The creator of the hydroforming process Colin Foulke calls himself a “problem solver” without formal engineering training who got interested in handpans and was hooked. Foulke began has experiments with handpans by employing various hand sinking techniques until a chance viewing of the television show Mythbusters demonstrated hydroforming. A light went on and developed his own method of the hydroforming for handpans. This method uses a pressure washer and metal forms and can sink a steelpan shell in just a few minutes. Now, over 40 manufacturers around the world use this method.

Handpans have become more well known in all kinds of settings. The UK-based Portico Quartet have released multiple albums featuring it as a lead instrument. One of the best known handpan players, David Kucherman, has toured with the rock band Dead Can Dance and played solo opening sets.

Perhaps the best known handpan player these days is Manu Delago. This Austrian, who is based in London, has been playing handpan with orchestras, DJs, choirs, producers, jazz bands, and rock bands. Delago has released three solo albums and has collaborated with artists the likes of Bjork, the London Symphony, and Ravi Shanker’s daughter Anoushka among others. Interestingly, Israeli sculptor and musician Nobuya Yamaguchi plays both steelpan and handpan and performs in what may be the only steelpan and handpan duet on YouTube.

In recent years, the sound of handpans has made its way to new markets. Film and television composer Gregory Tripi is an LA-based film and television soundtrack composer who first discovered handpan sounds working with film composer Cliff Martinez—who most notably used steelpan in soundtracks on several occasions, most notably the film Solaris.

Tripi became infatuated with handpans after attending the Burning Man festival several years ago where he heard a hang live up close. The experience was life-changing, and he has since bought several different handpans from different manufacturers, including a Hang, Terrapan, Inner Sound from Berlin, and his favourite the Halo from Pantheon Steel.

Tripi has found an intense appeal to playing hand pan and is constantly playing and experimenting, using them in almost all the soundtrack work he does these days. He has used them in soundtracks of films Dark Places, War Dogs, and Rememory.

Tripi recently featured himself performing on a Halo Handpan extensively throughout the soundtrack of much of the eight-part mini-series Manhunt: Unibomber, a Discovery Channel series the soundtrack of which was just released.

With a growing popularity has come increased interest in hand pans and media outlets such as Public Radio International’s The World radio programme have done segments on the instruments.

In Trinidad, however, there appears to be few if any handpans and very little to no interest in the instrument. Yet, as Dr Anthony Achong has pointed out, the early history of steelpan shows both convex instruments and playing with hands or hands wrapped with cloth.

Currently, there does not seem to be a movement to produce or play hand pans in Trinidad or to explore Faulke’s hydroforming technique to see if it could apply to steelpan manufacture. But who knows what the future may hold.

Written by Ray Funk and Andrew Martin for Guardian

Ray Funk is a retired Alaskan judge and a Fulbright scholar who is passionately devoted to calypso, pan and mas. Dr Andrew Martin is an ethnomusicologist, percussionist, pan player, and Professor of Music at Inver Hills College in St Paul, Minnesota.

Read Part 1