The History of Hand Pans Part Three:
From Felix Rohner to Our Own NovaPans
The modern hand pan, as we know it today, emerged from the experiments of Felix Rohner and colleagues with a variety of instruments, but his business dealings and sales methods have shrouded the hand pan is a kind of mystery that we here at Nova Pans are working hard to unravel. In this blog post, we will try to steer clear of the murkiness and controversy surrounding Rohner and his company (as that’s all material for another post), except to say:
We believe that hand pans should be available to anyone and everyone who wants one; that’s why we make a guarantee that you’ll wait no longer than 21 days between ordering a Nova Pan and having it arrive at your door. If you’re excited and ready to buy a hand pan, feel free to check out our selection!
In this post, we’ll present the clearest line we can from Rohner’s inspiration from steelpan in 1976 to the foundation of Nova Pans 40 years later. Because in spite of the controversy, it’s only right that we pay homage to Rohner (and later his business partner Sabine Scharer), without whom we wouldn’t be here today.
As we touched on at the end of The History of the Hand Pan Part II: From Ellie Manette to Felix Rohner, the steelpan came to Switzerland through performances by English and Carribean players like Sterling Betancourt. They went from scattered performances, by small bands, in high-end hotels to orchestral performances at larger cross-cultural events.
It was at Bern-Fest in 1976 that Felix Rohner first came enchanted by the ‘pan-jumbie’ (or the ‘spirit of the pan’) upon witnessing a performance by a Trinidadian steel pan orchestra. Just how much of a debt Rohner has admitted that he owes to the culture of Trinidad is something of a hot topic of (often fierce) discussion, on which figures like Dr Anthony Achong and Rudy Kendall have much to say.
But, again, that is a topic for another time….
Before he left the steelpan ‘scene’ in Switzerland to focus on experimenting with the creation and evolution of different instruments, Rohner was instrumental in the development of that scene; he was a founding member of the Swiss steelpan band The Bernese Oil Company, and was involved in the founding of nearly 60 steel pan bands and 30 school orchestras in Switzerland. He also made and tuned hundreds of steel pans for other players during that time.
In 1993 Felix Rohner was a founding member of PANArt Steelpan-Manufaktur AG, and so began the transition from steel pans to, eventually, the ‘Hang’; the years from 1994 up to 2000 were a time of research, in which Rohner and his colleagues worked with physicists like Uwe Hensen and Thomas Rossing experimenting with different metals, methods of production and the sounds they created.
For example, the Pang instrument was still a steel drum, but this time with a dome in the middle called a ‘crown’ – an early move towards the modern hand pan. Later, the ‘Gatham’, which comes closer to looking like a modern hand pan but is much larger, almost resembling a globe.
The Very First Hand Pan
Eventually, at the 2000 ICSTS (International Conference on the Science and Technology of the Steelpan), Felix Rohner introduced his ‘Hang’ (which has the double-meaning of ‘hand’ and ‘hillside’ – a nod to its convex shape, and perhaps to the Swiss hillsides?). This was undoubtedly intended to be a move away from the tradition of the steel pan, which was most commonly played with sticks – although Ellie Mannette had stated that early steel pans were often played with hands wrapped in cloth.
There is recorded footage of Rohner at the conference presenting the ‘Hang’ with the following lines;
“The hand tunes
The hand write papers
The hand held spuddles and spoons
The hands say ‘Hello’
The hand fights!
The hand turns on the lights!
The hand makes love”
(Note: It is unclear whether this is a published poem or whether Rohner wrote them himself – I, for one, hope he didn’t, as he seems to read the lines with a troubling Caribbean twang…)
The Hang did not garner enormous popularity among the steelpan community. Instead, interest in this new instrument (a term rejected by PANArt) developed after PANArt presented the Hang at the Musikmesse Frankfurt (Europe’s largest trade fair for the music industry) in 2001. At first, Hangs were distributed through an international trade network, but this network was discontinued with the introduction of the Second Generation Hang in 2006.
For reasons we delve further into in our post on the cult of the hand pan, Rohner and his partner Sabine Scharer made it harder and harder to obtain what they regarded as their individual “sound sculpture[s]”, and so began the multitude of hand pan sellers in the market today. Suffice it to say here that PANArt’s air of exclusivity (and therefore the high cost of their products) is unfortunately widespread in the market for hand pans to this day.
That’s where we, in a roundabout kind of way, came in to un-muddy the waters;
Nova Pans was formed by David Wexler, a student of Music at King’s College London, after the time he spent studying abroad in Hong Kong. By the end of 2016 he had formed a team across Asia, Europe and the US with the explicit goal of making hand pans more accessible to anyone and everyone who wanted one.
At this point, in spite of some backlash from the hand pan ‘community’, we have sold over 500 hand pans across the world, and have received 70+ reviews, all of them giving 5*s – not bad for a small band of music lovers! That’s what we are; people who love, make and share music:
Our mission is to get our affordable hand pans into the hands of anyone who wants one in as quick as 2-21 days. To check out our selection, click here.