FIRST, ABOUT the WORDING: Where does the name “PANTAM”,  “HANDPAN” & “HANG” comes from?

There is a certain name confusion about this instrument. Initially the HANDPANS were commonly called just “Hang”, which simply means “hand” in the Swiss Bernese dialect. The inventor of the instrument, Felix Rohner and Sabina Schärer reject all other names. Since PANArt had let the name Hang protect itself of trademark law, it was needed to define a new name to be applied to all of these new instruments. But it is only the designation for instruments of a single manufacturer.

As a name of the instrument family ,in the English-speaking world, HANDPAN was more and more used. This name is quite established there now. But musicians from other language areas created more names like PANTAM or Cupola. Meanwhile spreads especially outside the English-speaking space slowly the name PANTAM. This name dates back to the beginnings of the instrument. The musicians Ziv Yehezkel then sold the slope of the first generation in Israel because of pronunciation difficulties under the name Pantam.


How Everything Started – Is the Steelpan the Mother of HANG / PANTAM / HANDPAN?

Trinidad & Tobago, 1930’s: The British Colonial Lords have forbidden the locals (historically descendants of slaves, mainly from Africa and India) from drumming on African percussion instruments. Being resilient and proud people, they were looking for new possibilities for musical expression. It is important to note that on this island state, oil production played a crucially important role. So in their search for new possibilities of instruments they could play resulted in the first Steelpansmade from discarded oil barrels in the early 1930s. During the Second World War the carnival celebrations in Trinidad were forbidden and at the V-Days, as an act of rebellion, Steelbands were first heard in the streets of Port of Spain!

(Photo: Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra (TASPO), 1951)

The Steelpan gained international attention when TASPO (Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra) was invited to England in 1951 to present this new musical instrument at the Festival of Britain. Some musicians from this group stayed in England (Sterling Betancourt MBE) and made the Steelpan known in Europe. Other Trinidadians carried the Steelpan and Trinidad’s music (Calypso) to America and around the world.

Steelpans ‘conquer’ the globe and also find their way to Switzerland!

Switzerland, 1965: Its quite certain, that an Englishman named Steve Berg, was the first to make a Steeldrum in Switzerland (1965) after he came back from a trip to Trinidad. However, it took quite some time to make this new instrument known. Nevertheless, in the years 1976/77 the Steelpan quickly became known and started to spread. The initiator of this was  Sterling Betancourt, a Trinidadian, who came to England at the beginning of the fifties and often played in Zurich hotels. In Bern the ‘Pan-Virus’ attracted the attention of some locals, on the occasion of a concert of a Trinidadian Steelband at the Bernfest in 1976.  Alex Santschi and Felix Rohner (literally) went into the forest and dared to build steel pans themselves.

(Photo: Steel Pans in Bern)

The 1980s to the 1990s – SteelPans made in Switzerland !

Switzerland, 1980 – 1998: Felix Rohner from Bern has been engaged in the production of Steelpans in Switzerland since 1976. In 1985, he started to practice the pan tuning as a profession. He founded the “Steelpanmanufaktur Bern” at this time. He studied lots of high class Steelpans like those from  Elliot „Ellie“ Mannette, a master Steelpan maker from Trinidad. From 1985 to 1993, Felix Rohner supplied several dozens of Steelbands with his instruments in German-speaking Switzerland. In 1995, Sabina Schärer  started to work for PANART/Felix, after all other tuners left PANART/Felix  and started to work with him. As a teenager she was member of a swiss steeband and was later member of the ‘Bernese oil Company”. Early on they recognized that the quality of the raw material used for making Steelpans is an important factor – and so they started intense research on appropriate materials !

Since this research on steel required lots of money, the PANArt Steelpanmanufaktur AG Bern was founded in 1993, under the leadership of Felix Rohner together with members of the ‘Bernese oil Company’, a steelband, founded by Felix and some friends in 1977. Decisive for its success, was the development of specific hardening process for the sheet steel, which was patented in 1998. The industrial process is by gas nitriding to create two harder outer layers with a softer core, formed at high temperature under an ammonia atmosphere. The PANG Steel was born!

From the Steelpan to the HANG  – how the first PANTAM / HANDPAN was created !

Switzerland, 1998: In the year 1999 the Swiss percussionist Reto Weber visited the workshop of PANArt and came up with the idea, where they could make a ‘new’ instrument for him. His playing on multiple Ghatams at once inspired Reto Weber. So he asked Felix to make a Ghatam with more than one note from steel in a way that he could also play like a Ghatam, with his HANDS. Some time later, the first “HANG” was born. “HANG” means HAND by the way, in swiss  dialect. A Ghatam, made from steel, with more notes, playable by hand (but too big, at the first try…). Sabine Schärer was the one, glued 2 already tuned steepans together and cutted a hole into one of them after Reto’s Webers visit. Maybe this was the moment of the birth-impulse of the HANG – and so of the PANTAMS / HANDPANS as we know them today

(Photo: Ghatam)

(Photo: screenshots from the movie “PANArt Hang documentary 2006: HANG – a discreet revolution”)

In 2001, Rohner and Schärer presented their new instrument, the HANG at the Musikmesse Frankfurt. They gave up the construction of Steelpans and instead focussed on making the Hanhhang (plural for Hang). In 2003, they renamed their company to PANArt Hangbau AG.

Photo: Front line: Prototype Hang from November 1999 (left), Ghatam (right); second line: Three Hanghang built in 2007, 2006 and 2005 respectively (from the left to the right)

Since 2013/2014 PANart® builts no more HangHang. Now they are into the development of new instruments and Sound Sculptures, all based on their patentend material, the Pang Steel.

The Author’s personal note about PANART:

Since I have read one of the few but most recent articles on PANART and their attitude, there is no longer any doubt about, that their absolutistic attitude is a very despicable one. As instrument makers, to condemn the creativity of world-renowned musicians is not only presumptuous, but also contemptuous! Thanks to all PANTAM/HANDPAN makers who are ready to make those beautiful Instruments for us, who love to play them – even they risk, to get letters from PANART’s tricky lawyers !

<< Link to the Article, published at “Der Bund” (Swiss Newspaper), written in german language >>

From the HANG to the PANTAM / HANDPAN

The first makers who started to make Sound Sculptures like the HANG were (as far as I know):

  1. Bill Brown with the CAISA in Germany (the CAISA is not really a Handpan/Pantam following the definition it has not a ‘Closed Body/Sphere’  – first selling in 2007
  2. Kyle Cox and Jim Dusin, with the HALO by Pantheon Steel in the USA  around 2007 – but first selling in late 2009
  3. Philippe Maignaut‘s SPACEDRUM in France in – first selling in 2009.
  4. Luis Eguiguren’s BELLART in Spain , domain registered in 2008 – first selling in late 2009.

Thus far, there are more than 150 makers of PANTAMS / HANDPANS active who make instruments, with varying degrees of subjective and objective quality. Moving forwards, there shall clearly be more and more and the quality shall continue to rise; meanwhile the prices shall hopefully stabilise and possibly even come down to more affordable levels…