In 1976, Felix Rohner discovered the steel drum (a Caribbean instrument) and decided to build one himself by assembling two steel spheres. Felix began building steel pans in Switzerland in 1976 and supplied many instruments in the 1980s and 1990s before teaming up with Sabina Schärer. Together they wanted to explore new formulas for the metal coating of the instrument. In the late 1990s, hand percussionist reto weber came to Sabina and Felix with the idea of transforming a steelpan into a "steel sound pot with a few notes to play with the hands". The goal was to mix the sound of the South Indian Ghatam with the sound of a steel pan.
From there, the research continued, and for more than fifteen years, he tried every formula, every material and every evolution. But in 2001, he finally reached his goal: the Hang drum, the first handpan, was born. After many tests and experiments, the Swiss company PANArt Hangbau AG gave birth to the hang. Felix and Sabina stopped the production of steel pans in 2001 and started to work on the hang. In the same year they presented the instrument at the Musikmesse in Frankfurt. From 2001 to 2005 they offered the instrument in about 45 different sound models. The instruments all had 8 notes in a circle around a central note, which they called the "ding". Felix and Sabina are said to have made more than 5000 first generation Hangs which were mainly sold through selected distributors worldwide.
Initially, the Hang was not very successful. But that changed with the emergence of YouTube around 2005. The BBC called it "perhaps the first instrument to go viral."
For years, Rohner and Schärer's company was the only place to get a Hang or similar instrument, and selling and repairing it was an intensely personal process. The demand for the Hang quickly outstripped the supply. Rohner and Schärer personally built each instrument, a long and tedious process. They had no desire to expand their business, never advertised and rarely spoke to the media.
PANArt quickly found itself overwhelmed. When PANart moved on to making the second generation Hang and eventually the third generation, it became increasingly difficult to get one. PANart began asking each potential buyer to send a handwritten letter explaining their motivations and desires for purchasing the instrument. Buyers then waited for months, even years, without receiving a response, hoping to be contacted and invited to purchase a Hang in person in Bern, Switzerland. Initially, each copy sold for about 2400 Swiss francs and the waiting list was long. More than 20,000 letters were received at the workshop! The lucky ones were then invited to Switzerland to choose the Hang Drum that best suited them.
Due to the demand and the many disappointed people, a flood of new manufacturers (in Spain, the Netherlands, Germany, the United States…) arrived on the market and proposed their own versions of the Hang under a generic name: handpan. At first, demand was so high that buyers often had to wait years for a new instrument. But eventually the number of sellers grew from a handful to hundreds.
In 2014, PANart stopped the production of the Hang. This left all fans with one option, buy a used Hang. However, this is almost impossible as any buyer has made a moral commitment to never resell their instrument.
As the ecosystem grew, Rohner and Schärer stopped focusing on the original Hang and started developing new instruments - the Gubal, the Gudu, the HangBal, Pang strings and other instruments from their Pang material. But they continued to pay attention to the proliferation of handpans. The couple had hoped that handpan makers would build on the original concept and invent their own variations, rather than mass-produce factory-made instruments with the original Hang shape.
The end of production has inspired a new generation of builders Some have picked up where PANart left off, while others are exploring new possibilities. During the production of the Hang, PANart published a number of excellent papers on tuning, design, materials, and forming methods.
This new generation of builders continued to develop and evolve the art form with more notes on the instrument, new layouts, additional tuned frequencies such as shoulder tones, improved stability, new shell forming methods, and exploration of alloys that do not require nitriding for rust resistance.
Then came an important event. In April 2021, Dutch government officials entered the shops of Ayasa, a supplier and manufacturer of handpans in the Dutch city of Almer, and banned the company from selling its products. These actions have raised questions among the handpan community. Ayasa is one of the world's largest manufacturers and this action made it clear that PANArt was not giving up.
The question now is whether Panart will succeed in stopping handpan production. These actions may simply stifle the activity of some of the handpan manufacturers, but to establish this across all countries would involve a costly and endless effort.
The handpans for which copyright infringement has been recognized by the courts so far differ from each other in details.
They vary in color, the shape of the sound fields or their number, the shape of the central dome, the size of the opening, the thickness of the material and its external dimensions. Some have a brass ring, others have a cord or plastic edge protection. However, the judges found copyright infringement respectively.
Copyright requires that the personal characteristics of the original "fade away" from the newly created work. The characteristics of the new work must come to the fore. Only then can one speak of permitted inspiration.