The Very Beginning
The use of metallic percussion in Trinidad goes back at least to the middle of the 19th century. Instruments such as the Chac Chac, Salt Box and Tin Kettle were widely used and the Tamboo-Bamboo bands, that is bands with instruments comprising of pieces of bamboo of differing lengths and thickness either banged on the ground or beaten with sticks (Tambour Bamboo-Bamboo Drum) also often used a large biscuit tin as a bass. The fact, however, that bamboo would often split and so be rendered useless led to a preference for the use of metal in the 1930s. Players on the road whose instruments had 'popped' would look around for something else to play, rubbish bins, biscuit and paint tins, olive oil cans, motor car parts in fact anything which could produce a percussive sound.
It isn't known who produced the first tuned steeldrum. Probably young men working separately, experimented with metal containers which could be found locally.
Legend has it that Winston 'Spree' Simon lent a drum to Wilson 'Thick Lip' Bartholomew. When the drum was returned it was badly dented. Spree started to flatten it out again and in the process noticed changes in pitch. This inspired him to begin to tune different notes, at first onto caustic soda tins.
The development of the 'Ping Pong' was the most important advancement in steel pan tuning. Up to the end of the second World War 'Spree' Simon had changed to small oil-cans and is said to have tuned up to 8 notes. At the same time in another yard, Ellie Manette working with 35 gallon sweet oil cans, claims to have achieved 9 notes.
It is also generally accepted that Ellie Manette was responsible for the introduction of the 45 gallon oil-drum. The Trinidadian oil industry and the presence of the American naval base, meant that discarded oil-drums were easily obtainable. With their larger diameter and superior metal quality they allowed the use of more notes with a clearer sound and better sustain. He also changed the method of sinking. Up until then the pans had been beaten outwards into a convex shape. Ellie sank the drums inwards into the concave form we know today. By 1947 he had built a drum with two complete diatonic octaves.
As the instrument developed more notes were put into the tenor to increase it's range. This meant the notes had to be smaller, making them higher in pitch, and so put the tenor into the soprano area. The name, however, remained the same.
The first 'circle of fourths and fifths' tenor pan was the 'Spider Web' created by Antony Williams. Later the notes were separated to decrease acoustic coupling. This layout, which features each note surrounded by it's fifth, fourth and octave, has evolved into the standard lead model today.
General Information about the Handpan
The Handpan, also known as Pantam or Hangdrum is an instrument which has been directly developed from the west Indian Steel Drum or Steelpan.
One special quality of these instruments are their warm, resonant, magical sound with perfectly balanced tuned harmonics.
The Handpan is made up of two rounded metal hemispheres which are glued or welded together to form a shape reminiscent of an unidentified flying object.
The upper face, which is the playing surface, usually incorporates a centre note, also the lowest note on the Handpan in the centre of which is a dome (also called the Ding). Surrounding the centre note forming a circular pattern are the corresponding higher notes. As with the 'Ding' they also have centre domes or dimples. These are there to reduce the vibration of the playing surfaces which can otherwise sound metallic. The low centre note is almost always the fundamental or the fifth of the chosen scale.
On the lower side of the Handpan is a sound hole usually located in the middle, also occasionally placed off centre.
Handpans are normally made of steel, nitrated steel or stainless steel.
Generally Handpans have a diameter ranging from 45cm to 65cm, a height of 15cm to 30cm and weigh between 2.5 kilo and 4.5 kilo.
The Handpan is made by hand in a complex process based on the building of a Steel Drum which simplified is done like this.
The upper surface of a 200 liter oil barrel is hammered inwards into a rounded concave shape. This is called 'sinking'.
After that the surface is smoothed, the individual notes are sketched in, hammered and tuned.
Handpans are constructed in a similar manner, the difference being that the raw shells are generally produced industrially through pressing, deep drawing or hydroforming.
The shells are clamped into a tuning ring. This greatly improves the sound while tuning and also stops the shape of the shell from deforming during the tuning process. Using templates or stencils the individual notes are drawn onto the metal. In this way the layout, which will define the chosen scale is ready.
Now, by hand or using a press, the dimples which stabilize each note are inserted into the middle of each note on the Handpan.
In order to produce a tunable surface, the space surrounding the notes is hammered thus relaxing the material in the playing surfaces and also separating the notes to stop any crossover interference.
The finished shell is ready to be heated. This can be done over an open fire, with a gas burner or in a nitrating oven. (Traditionally Steel Drums are heated upon a burning car tire, this can however cause some displeasure among your neighbours). During this process steel will become dark blue, stainless steel a gold/brown copper colour and nitrated material a blue/grey colour.
Now the tuning can begin. Using special hammers the material is beaten back and forth, until it has the right characteristic to be tuned. All tuners have their own concept of how a handpan should sound. Also the methods used to tune vary from tuner to tuner. Standard is the fundamental surrounded by an octave and the fifth above the octave. It is however possible to use other harmonics for example fourths or even the fundamental and two octaves.
When the Handpan has been tuned it is removed from the frame and attached to the bottom part. This can be done using screws, rivets or by welding whereby gluing has proved to be the most rational alternative.
As the tension changes slightly after being removed from the tuning ring the Handpan must again be finely tuned after the glue has hardened.
This is done from the inside and outside using special hammers.
As you can imagine, building a Handpan is a complex, complicated and time consuming business.
The History of the Handpan
The first Handpans were built in Switzerland in the year 2000. Their name, which, like the villain in Harry Potter, it is forbidden to mention, is the word Hand in Swiss/German dialect.
Their popularity grew slowly as they were at first more or less only known to the steel drum community, but as they became better known, they rapidly achieved cult status.
The Caisa was the second similar instrument to appear, based on the Steel Drum and played not with sticks but with the fingers. After 20 years of building Steel Drums, in 2005 Bill Brown started experimenting with various metal forms endevouring to build an instrument that would bridge the gap between the Steel Drum and the Handpan. As the owner of the company Kaisos Steel Drums he developed the Caisa. The first Caisas went into production in 2007 and up to 2015 several thousand had been made.
From the end of 2015 the production of the Caisa has been transferred and is being carried on by two fellow ex-collegues and our new company consisting of Bill Brown and Tim Baur is appropriately named BAUR&BROWN HANDPANS.
BAUR&BROWN produce Handpans made from normal steel of varying thicknesses, stainless steel and hardened rustfree steel of excellent tonal and material quality.
The Question of Quality
There is a considerable variation in the quality of Handpans on the market today. Many new builders offer Handpans whos development, to say the least, is really not at all complete. On the other hand, there are also several makers producing excellent instruments.
What to look out for when buying a Handpan
Sound quality. Before buying, it is important to try out the Handpan personally or at least to have a guaranteed return and money back option. When buying a Handpan through the internet, the seller should provide a video of the instrument being sold. If there is no video or should the video be unconvincing it is extremely unwise to purchase it.
Service. Every now and then the Handpan will need to be retuned. This is best done by the makers themselves who of course, have the greatest knowledge of their own instruments. It also therefore makes sense to buy a Handpan built as near as possible to where you live allowing you to either to bring the Handpan personally for the retune or at least send it with the minimum of time and shipping costs. For example, there are Handpans on offer made in the far east (Vietnam, Bali, etc.) and it is wise to consider before buying who will be prepared to retune them or take care of any problems which may arise. Most tuners will not touch unfamiliar or sub-standard instruments.
Rust. A problem many makers have. If the paint on a Handpan is too thick it can have a negative effect on the sound. This means some instruments are not treated at all others only with a very thin protecting coat. Handpans made of normal steel must be carefully looked after. Recommended are Handpans made of stainless or nitrated steel as rust problems with these are much less likely to occur.
A Handpan is played with the fingers or the hand therefore the name Handpan (the instrument which is known in europe as the Steel Drum is called the Steelpan in Trinidad, the country which invented it).
A Handpan can be played on the lap or placed upon a suitable stand.
A Handpan is played relatively softly with the fingers using a short sharp tapping technique so that the the notes can freely vibrate. It is also possible to play with the thumb or even the whole hand.
There are also special dampening techniques for specifically playing the harmonics.
There are DVDs available offering an excellent step by step playing guide from David Kuckhermann and Colin Foulke.
There are several big names in the Handpan scene that are worthwhile checking out in Youtube, here are some Youtube stars:
Daniel Waples, Sam Maher, Hang Massive, David Kuckhermann, Fabian Küpper, Rafael Sotomayor, Samirah al-amrie.