I ran across this mesmerizing video this morning of virtuoso Hang drum players Danny Cudd and Markus Johansson – the duo’s official name is Hang Massive. Their music is simple (a Hang drum has only a drone plus seven tones) but endlessly varied. The soft, ethereal tones of the Hang drum are otherworldly and bewitching.
A word or six about this unusual instrument. A Hang is essentially a steel drum turned inside out and played with the hands and not sticks (Hang is Swiss German dialect (Bernese) for “hand”, pronounced ‘hahng’). It made its debut at the music mega-fair in Frankfurt in 2001, and is the result of several decades of research and experimentation by Felix Rohner and Sabina Schärer. The shape, as you see, is like a large lens. The feeling of the metal surface is cool and soft and smooth, almost velvety.
I know because I have one.
My first visit to Switzerland was rather long (a couple decades). I never heard of the Hang until I came back to the US in 2000. I saw videos of it and immediately got severe Hang envy. This craving merely festered on a back burner (to mix metaphors) for a couple years. And then in around 2007: there was a horn workshop in CH (Switzerland). I was going. And it was a chance to get a Hang. I wrote ahead to contact Felix and Sabina. I did this because if you want a Hang, you have to go to their house. And, basically, convince them that you are worthy to own one (the way I understand it now, it’s more or less impossible to get a Hang even this way because the waiting list is so long). No sales of Hangs outside of their home, with the exception of occasional and exorbitant eBay sales (I don’t know why anyone would ever sell their Hang unless they were starving). I entered a spacious and magical room with about, oh, two dozen Hangs in it. There was one other guy there (who came from Spain and brought his family along). After a delicious vegetarian lunch served by Felix and Sabina, the other guy and me were turned loose to try out the Hangs and pick our favorite. I knew more or less what I wanted – I wanted one with the following scale 5 b7 1 2 b3 4 5, kind of a D Dorian. Different Hangs had different tunings. I would loved to have had several in different tunings, but I had already exceeded my budget and lifetime supply of luck being here and getting this one. I found it. I bought it (and a slick case with backpack straps to carry it). I was overjoyed, especially when I found out that it just fit (at an angle in my biggest suitcase) so I didn’t have to ship it.
I’ve used the Hang in many of our Latitude (improv chamber music group) concerts, but the most fun is simply to start beating a tattoo on it and lose yourself in the rhythm, the motion. I’m no expert on it – technical mediocrity is my fondest dream – but after a while, ten, fifteen minutes, maybe, you kind of loosen up and get going and work up some useable chops (I have to study the Hang Massive video and learn some things) and then you just go and glide and ride along on the gentle wave and pulse of this magical sound. It’s fun to play it with other instruments as well, but they have to come to you – the Hang can do certain things very well and a whole of of other things not at all. But if everyone doesn’t mind steeping in D minor, lots of fun is to be had. If you want to find out more about the Hang, you might hang out (sorry) at Handpan.org – “A place to share about the world of singing steel.” Also: HandPans Magazine – “Hang, Drums, and HandPan Explored.”
If you, like I did, lust mightily after a Hang, but have no hope whatever of ever having one (like 99.999999999% of the world), cheer up, there are a number of other options.
There are a number of other Hang-drum-like steel lens-shaped drums around. Most of them use metal tongues (like the wooden tongue drum) to create the different tones; most are smaller and have more available notes than the Hang. Some of them are listed below; I have no first-hand knowledge of any of them, just what’s available online.
The Hapi Drum looks similar to the Hang and is way less expensive. It comes in various tunings and sizes. It’s not as gorgeous as the Hang, but it is available (you can actually order one!) and at a reasonable price (and you don’t have to factor in the cost of a trip to Switzerland). I have to say, I’m tempted (remember my itch for a second Hang…). Here’s a demo of one of their drums:
The Zen Tambour has a beautiful shiny, outerspacey iridescent colorful sheen and Hang-like sound. The price of the ZT is more than the Hapi Drum, but still not more than half a Hang. It’s available in a very wide range of scales as well as stunning custom graphics and patina.
The Zen Tambour appears to be a bit smaller than the Hang, from this video where someone is playing both instruments side by side:
[An alert reader (see Comments) points out that this is not a Hang, but a Halo – which I’ve never heard of – and that the size difference between a real Hang and a Zen Tambour are minimal. I am grateful for the correction.
The Milltone Drum appears to be similar to the Hapi Drum. Smaller size, available in various colors. Available through eBay. Videos of it in action available on YouTube.
Those are some options to the Hang (late note: if you check in HandPan Magazine you will find a much longer list of alternatives, plus hand drums for sale, and more).
But there’s another way to do it.
Get a djembe.
The djembe is an African drum that is around two feet high with a drumhead about 13-14 inches across. The original models are made of wood with a skin-head; I opted for one that was made out of artificial stuff to keep maintenance to a minimum (I’m neither a percussionist nor a purist, just somebody that loves percussion – an amateur in the best sense of the word). I couldn’t live without my djembe. Mine was about $180 new. You can find them for both more and less. They are capable of a wide variety of sounds and can be pretty loud if you really whack it. Like the Hang, if you get going for a while on one of these, you can completely lose yourself in the sound and rhythms. Get yourself a djembe. Play it with friends. Play it alone. Play it with your pets. Just play it. You will save tons in therapy, vacations, (possibly) alcohol, first-run movies, and will just plain feel great about everything.
Personal rhythm is an important thing that it very much neglected in a society that depends on someone else far away to make up stuff and then we listen to it passively. Allow me to quote myself (from a comment I left this morning at Rachel Payne’s blog, to a post entitled “Rhythm Wisdom“): Everyone should be issued a drum at birth. Everyone should be rapping and tapping rhythms all the time. Rhythm is our Ur-native language and has been since we first felt our mother’s heartbeat. Dancing is rhythm talking. You don’t need sheet music. You don’t need to be in a band. People are so cranky because they are quarts low in boogie. Rhythm. We all need to be making rhythms, all the time. Life and everything in it is a dance, or should be.
If you don’t have a Hang or a Hapi or a djembe, turn the world into your percussion instrument. Beat out a percussion concerto on your steering wheel at stoplights. Slap a syncopated beat on your lap. Shake a bottle of Ibuprofen instead of taking it. Any table begs to be drummed upon. Take three different-sized cardboard boxes – presto, you have a drum set! The kitchen has an orchestra of sound possibilities. Chop those vegetables to a beat. Want world peace? Make a rhythm as you whirl peas. Knead bread with a brisk beat. Do it all with a partner – set up a potato ostinato, solo over it with carrot sticks.
Life is rhythm. Don’t miss out.