They Invented the Must-Have Instrument for the Burning Man Set. Now They Want to Kill It Off
(Bloomberg) -- During a tense scene in Netflix’s hit drama Narcos, a Colombian official confronts Pablo Escobar over his prolific drug smuggling, and their standoff is punctuated by the strange sounds of a metallic instrument. It’s the same haunting strain that can be heard in the soundtrack for the game Minecraft and in recent live performances by Björk. The melodies are created by one of the weirder trends to take hold in the world of professional music: the handpan.
Invented just 20 years ago, the handpan is a large hollow metal object that players balance on their lap and strike with their fingertips to create a deep, reverberating tone. The instrument has become a mainstay of alternative cultural events like Burning Man, and videos featuring handpans have racked up hundreds of millions of views online. Grammy Award winners Imogen Heap and Jacob Collier have played them onstage. Dave Matthews owns one. Even the Dalai Lama has tried it out.
Behind the instrument’s ascent, however, a painful saga has unfolded. Once the handpan achieved internet fame, copycats and lookalikes rushed to follow. That process was made all the more extreme because the original version of the instrument is almost impossible to come by. Each one is handmade by a pair of reclusive Swiss artists, Felix Rohner and Sabina Schärer, using a process so careful, painstaking and slow, that for years, supply has been wildly eclipsed by demand. In a rare interview over Zoom at their home in Switzerland, the artists are passionate and idealistic, given to speaking seriously about the “spirit of the hammer” and the purity of their craft. They’re also furious about the wider commercialization of their work.
But the instrument’s familiar trajectory from art piece to online sensation to copycat victim has a twist: Rohner and Schärer have launched a broad legal campaign to wrest back control of their invention. In a series of cases around the world, the artists are testing the limits of copyright laws’ protections against an army of knockoffs, prompting independent handpan makers to sue Rohner and Schärer in turn. Some musicians fear that the legal feud, which will have its next hearing in Switzerland next week, could kill the instrument off altogether.
Because of its own creators’ assault against the commoditization of their work, a cottage industry of handpan makers are in limbo, as are thousands of would-be players and the legacy of a peculiar instrument. One independent handpan craftsman, Kyle Cox, put it this way: “The handpan as we know and love it becoming extinct is a real risk.”
Decades before they became the villains of a musical subculture, Rohner and Schärer conceived the idea for a new instrument while making steel drums inspired by Trinidadian players. Another musician asked the artists a question: What if you built a metal drum that could be played with hands, not mallets? In their workshop in the Swiss city of Bern, they joined together the rims of two hammered bowls of steel and created a flattened sphere—like a small alien spaceship. Playable only with fingers and palms, they gave it the name Hang, after the Bernese word for hand.
Initially, the Hang was a flop, they said. But that changed with the emergence of YouTube around 2005. Hang players filmed themselves playing serene, rhythmic melodies punctuated by fingers brushing across steel. The instrument started appearing on the laps of buskers at busy street corners and on stage at world-music festivals. Because it was so unusual, the video footage was both surprising and mesmerizing. The BBC called it “perhaps the first instrument to go viral.”
Interest grew steadily online. In 2006, Josh Rivera, a lifelong percussionist, stumbled across a YouTube clip of someone playing “this weird instrument,” he said. “I was instantly captivated.” After days of Googling, Rivera eventually figured out it was called a Hang and found a music shop that said he could get a one by sending $1,500 to an account in Switzerland and waiting. “It sounded so shady,” he said.
But three months later, the instrument arrived and he was enchanted. He began playing it in a band and found a community of other enthusiasts starting to gather at dedicated Hang festivals.
For years, Rohner and Schärer’s company, PANArt, was the only place to get a Hang or anything like it, and both sales and repairs were an intensely personalized process. Musician Sylvain Paslier and his cousin traveled to Bern to have their instruments re-tuned by Rohner and Schärer and were invited to stay as house guests. “We were so excited that we couldn’t sleep,” said Paslier, who also hosts a podcast about handpans. They recorded themselves playing together and put the video up on YouTube. The resulting “Hang Insomniac Jam” quickly got 4 million views—a massive audience for that time.
Demand for the Hang rapidly outstripped supply. Rohner and Schärer personally constructed each instrument, a process that requires hours of careful hammering to get each dimple tuned to the correct frequency. They also had no interest in scaling up operations to accommodate the surge of hopeful buyers. Instead, the artists kept to themselves, never advertised and rarely spoke to the media. “We were never meant to have a big factory,” Schärer said. “We’re not a normal business.”
Indeed, the business is very far from normal. Rohner, 69, and Schärer, 49, met in 1985 when they both played in a steel drum band in Switzerland, and started working together at PANArt in 1996. They live together, but they’re not a couple. In conversation, Rohner is more fiery and Schärer more even-keeled. They called their decades-long partnership an exercise in “intense empirical research” and an “artistic work.”
An obvious solution to tame aggressive demand could have been to raise prices. But Rohner and Schärer didn’t want their Hang to be used only by the very wealthy, and declined to do so. Their resistance to commercialization extended to the Hang’s players, too. They wanted the instrument to be used for the personal musical connection between player and object, rather than be handled by professional musicians making money.
“Playing the Hang is an intimate, personal moment, even a sacred instant,” they wrote in a Hang guide in 2010. “It becomes difficult if you are on a stage and people want something from you.” They started to make Hangs that weren’t tuned to standard scales, which made them harder to play in an ensemble.
Eventually, facing an overwhelming number of orders, PANArt settled on a solution: It started requiring all prospective Hang buyers to write them a letter explaining why they wanted to own one. The lucky few selected had to fly out to Bern to pick it up in person and sign a contract promising never to resell it for a price above what they paid.
In 2007, the pair acknowledged that they still couldn’t keep up. “It is impossible to satisfy the growing demand,” they wrote in an academic article for a symposium on acoustics. “Further collaboration between art and science is needed to make it possible that other Hang-makers may exist in the future.” Then, they published what would become a critical document: an eight-page guide to building the Hang. Instrument makers took it as a green light.
What followed was a trickle, and then a flood of people making their own versions of the Hang under a generic name: handpan. Handpan makers popped up in Spain, the Netherlands, Germany, the U.S. and beyond. At first, demand was so high that buyers often endured years-long waitlists to get new instruments. But eventually, the number of sellers grew from a handful to about 300 by some estimates. Rivera, the professional percussionist, went on to start his own handpan shop in North Carolina. Today, typing “handpan” into Amazon yields hundreds of results, with prices ranging from more than $4,000 to $15.
As the ecosystem grew, Rohner and Schärer stopped focusing on the original Hang and started developing new instruments—for example, a Hang-like object with a shoulder strap and a large bulb at the base, which deepens the resonance. But they still paid attention to the proliferation of handpans. The pair had hoped handpan makers would take the original concept and invent their own variations, rather than churn out factory-made instruments with the original shape of the Hang. What they saw instead was a deluge of lookalikes, and they felt that the forces of capitalism and the internet had converged on their creation to wreck it.
“The vultures of the market fall upon everything that exudes life,” Rohner wrote in a statement on the PANArt website earlier this year, lamenting the handpans’ mass production. Rohner calls it “the use of the machine in the domain where the hand should rule.” If everyone’s handpan is a copy, it’s a monoculture, he said in an interview, and that is not the “spirit of the hammer.”
The pair weren’t just angry, they were litigious. In 2008, they tried suing a Spanish handpan maker and lost. In a book published in 2013, they acknowledged that patent attorneys they hired told them they were “already quite late.” But last year, a new decision changed the legal landscape and improved their standing. In a case about a folding bicycle, the Court of Justice of the European Union ruled that copyright protection, usually limited to art, could apply to some everyday functional items as well. That same year, PANArt scored legal victories in three lawsuits they had filed in various districts in Germany. Judges made preliminary rulings each time that the Hang was protected by copyright.
Then came the most dramatic action yet. In April, Dutch government officials descended on the workshops of Ayasa, a handpan supplier and maker in the city of Almer, Netherlands, and prohibited the company from selling its product.
The moves filled the handpan community with fear and fury. Ayasa is one of the most prominent manufacturers in the world, Rivera said, and going after them made it clear that PANArt wasn’t giving up. The legal aggression felt personal to musicians who had devoted their lives to playing or making the instruments. “To have it suddenly attacked, or to feel like we're doing something wrong, or that we could have this taken away from us—you can imagine the rage,” Rivera said.
A GoFundMe to support handpan crafters resisting the Hang creators’ legal assault has raised more than $200,000 so far. “The seriousness of adequately funding and defending this cause cannot be underestimated,” the group says on its page. Its goal: “To effectively protect the handpan industry from the very real threat of being shut down.”
Kyle Cox, an instrument maker who has sold more than 2,000 handpans from his shop in Farmington, Missouri, said that PANArt’s legal maneuvering has upended what had been a happy musical subculture: “I’ve witnessed much fear and anger surrounding PANArt for years, but this past year Iʼd say we can add despair to the list of emotions,” he said. Cox, who has been involved in handpan organizing against PANArt, said the effort’s goals are modest: “We should gain nothing but the freedom to continue doing what weʼve always done.” Next week, attorneys for both parties will gather in Bern for a case management hearing.
A key question in the handpan struggle is whether Rohner and Schärer will ever be able to kill off the instrument—even if they spend millions trying. At the most, they may simply stifle the businesses of some of the most prolific handpan makers. Copyright is enforced separately in each jurisdiction, which means a costly and never-ending effort for PANArt, said Richard Dissman, an attorney with Bird & Bird, representing the handpan makers. “If Felix and Sabina want to eliminate all other handpans from the world, they would have to sue everybody in every country,” Dissman said.
“They would have to spend billions in litigation fees. It’s pointless. It’s totally pointless.” The handpan is a global instrument now, he said. “There’s no way to monopolize it.”
Still, Rohner and Schärer are continuing their crusade against what they say are the corrosive forces of digital capitalism—facing opposition from both devoted artisans and the unyielding flood of cheaper knockoffs. The pair say they’re particularly interested in Europe, and they may keep winning local victories. But they’ll likely never get what they profess to want: to force hand drum makers to deploy creativity, art and metallurgy to create something new and wonderful, like they did themselves in the beginning.
Instead, as has been the case for so many other popular products, the mass commercialization of the handpan was as inevitable as it is now irreversible. “They want to give us money,” Rohner said in an interview, scoffing at the idea. “We are not interested in money. We are interested in respect.” Unlike handpans, that’s still hard to buy online.
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