Tall and serene with ash-blonde dreadlocks and eyes like melted ice, Amsterdam-based Italian musician Davide Swarup exudes an aura of tranquillity. He is dressed in simple, loose clothing, and has a smile that carries the promise of a secret from another realm. As he slowly lowers himself, cross-legged, onto the open grass, he removes from an oddly-shaped bag on his back, the tool of his art.
A ray of sunlight glints off of a smooth, shiny surface; what emerges is an object that looks like a small flying saucer, or a rather large metal idli with dents around its perimeter. He places the object on his lap, closes his eyes in a moment of meditation, and gently taps the surface of the object with his fingertips. The sound that emerges is warm, resonant, soothing and singular, transporting me instantly back into my mother’s womb; the sound that emerges is the echo of my own heart. This, then, is the unique magic of the hang (pronounced “hung”), a musical instrument only a decade old that is gently conquering hearts all over the world.
The birth of hang
In 2000, while much of the world listened to electronica’s post-punk revival, an unassuming duo was bringing about a quiet revolution of acoustic alchemy. In Bern, Switzerland, drum-making experts Felix Rohner and Sabina Schärer of PANArts were responding to a request by a percussionist who wanted to
develop a new sound. They conducted extensive research on idiophones — musical instruments which create sound by vibrating, without the use of strings — drawing inspiration from ancient instruments such as Chinese gongs, the Indonesian gamelan, the Caribbean steel pan, the South American pan-pipe and even the Indian ghatam. They realised that two pan-like shells could be put together to create an instrument that was held in the musician’s lap and played by hand, thus giving birth to the idea of the hang (based on the Bernese word referring to the human hand): an instrument that looked as though it had come from outer space, and sounded like it came from the beginning of time.
connecting past and future The unique sound quality of the hang has
intrigued musicians and scientists alike. Its design, based on intensive metallurgic and acoustic research, incorporates two deeply curved steel hemispheres welded together in a ‘UFO’ shape, with nothing in between but air. The steel is treated by a gas-nitriding process that hardens it and also contributes to its particular sound quality.
The top surface (the ‘Ding’ side) has a central ‘note’ hammered into it with seven to eight tone fields’ hammered like dents around it in what is called a ‘tone circle’. The simpler bottom surface (the ‘Gu’ side) has a rolled hole in the centre that produces a tuned note when the rim is struck. When struck with the hand, each note area of the hang vibrates in a rich complement of modes. The harmonic relation of the notes leads to an interesting effect: striking one note can cause others to vibrate automatically, resulting in a complex, full and vibrant sound that delicately melds past and future.
Each hang is made with great precision by hand, often customised to suit an individual musician’s acoustic requirements. Creating each instrument is a labour of love and each hang has a personally-signed note by Rohner or Schärer inside it. Over the years, as the design has evolved and interest in the instrument has grown worldwide, the demand for hanghang (plural of hang) has far outweighed its supply.
Although other companies have attempted to mass-produce the hang, they have not been successful, and PANArts remains essentially the only producer. The creators are on a hiatus at present, not producing any new instruments. Still, the magic of this instrument is so powerful that thousands of people continue to wait to receive a hang of their own.
Beyond a drum
The hang is sometimes referred to colloquially as the hang-drum. Its creators discourage this nomenclature, as they regard the hang as a ‘complex holistic entity rather than a mere drum.’ Typically, the hang is played resting on the player’s lap, or sometimes placed on a stand. It is usually played using the bare hands and fingers, resulting in a soft, warm sound. Shaker-like sounds can be coaxed from the hang by sliding the hand across its surface; it can also be made to ring like a singing bowl by rubbing the hand around its rim.
Call to communion
It takes a special spirit to play the hang. Proponents of the hang tradition (including Swarup, Ortal Pelleg, Manu Delago and others) tend to be the very manifestation of the instrument’s sound. In a permanent state of peace, Swarup feels most fulfilled when simply basking in the parks of Amsterdam, watching small children and young lovers drawn magnetically to the music he creates. Through the music of the hang, one is invited to blissful surrender, in a call to communion with a power higher than the individual self.
— Writer, photographer & creative director of digital agency Meetai, Rayna Jhaveri has travelled the world for her love of music. Write to her at email@example.com