The Hang is an idiophone based on the Caribbean steelpan instrument. Felix Rohner and Sabrina Schäre designed it in 2000 in Switzerland. Its origins date back to the 1970s. Then, the original Trinidad steel drum generated a fresh vogue across Europe. It caught Rohner’s attention since he had already been playing the steelpan for two decades.
Felix began manufacturing steel pans in 1976 in Switzerland. He supplied in large numbers to the country’s steel bands during the 1980s and 1990s. Reto Weber, a hand percussionist, approached Felix and Sabina in the late 1990s with an idea. He pretended to transform the steel pan into a “sounding pot in steel with certain notes to play with the hands”. The intention was to combine the sound of a South Indian Ghatam with that of a steel pan. Thus, Felix and Sabina gave birth to the “Mother Hang”. The term “Hang” derives from the Bernese German for “hand”.
The instruments became known as Hang drums, a term still widely used, despite PANart’s strong opposition to it. Select distributors delivered the first generation Hang all over the world. When people discovered footage of the instrument on YouTube in 2005, its popularity exploded. When PANart developed the second generation and then the third generation Hang, procuring one became increasingly difficult. Then, the company began requiring prospective buyers to submit a handwritten letter outlining their reasons for acquiring the instrument. Buyers would wait months, if not years, for an invitation to purchase a Hang in person in Bern, Switzerland.
Construction and execution of the Hang
The instrument is made up of two half-shells of deep drawn, nitrided steel sheets glued together at the rim. This leaves the inside empty and resembling a convex lens. The top (“Ding”) side is hammered with a central ‘note’ and seven or eight ‘tone fields’ surrounding it. The bottom (“Gu”) is a plain surface with a rolling hole in the center that may be struck to produce a tuned sound.
The Hang makes use of some of the same basic physical principles of a steelpan but functions as a Helmholtz resonator. Performers play the instrument resting it on their laps. They commonly use hands and fingers instead of mallets. This lighter means of playing produces an overtone-rich sound, arguably softer and warmer than the bright sound of a mallet-based traditional steelpan.
Depending on the execution, the top side of the Hang can sound like a harp, bells, or harmonically tuned steelpans. The notes sit in a cross pattern in the tone circle from low to high, such that the player can ascend or descend the scale by alternating between using the left and right hands. There is usually a basic tone, an overtone tuned one octave above the fundamental, and another overtone a perfect fifth above the octave.