I finally played the mysterious instrument I've been researching for years

People stay on waiting lists for years to pay thousands of dollars for one of these rare instruments.

Once upon a time (2014, to be specific), my roommate posted a video on his wall. This video:


In the video, a woman played a mysterious, ethereal-sounding instrument, some sort of melodic drum. I was captivated. It was a dreamy sound I'd never heard before, yet something about it was so familiar.

Even weirder, I could find almost nothing about this instrument, not even its name (Spacedrum is the brand). I finally stumbled upon a blog that looked like it'd been made in the '90s – white text on a bright blue background, the horror – and learned that it was a handpan. This ancient-looking instrument was actually quite new, invented by Swiss artisans in the 21st century.

I decided to dig deep and write an article for The Atlantic on the subject, the first article on handpans that had ever been written, at least as far as I could find.

The Swiss artisans were reclusive. They flatly turned me down when I asked to interview them. But piece by piece, I managed to get a hold of some other handpan makers who'd been inspired by the original ones, and I uncovered an industry as mysterious as the instrument it produced.

hang drum hand pan spacedrum panart I thought about these rare, dreamlike melodies for a long time, but I never knew I'd get the chance to play the instrument that makes them. (Photo: Ilana E. Strauss)

All the handpan makers produced these instruments in small batches. Demand for handpans was off the charts, but the makers wouldn't industrialize and mass-produce the instruments. They also wouldn't charge sky-high prices that only the rich could afford. So they resorted to waiting lists and lotteries, keeping instrument supply so low that the whole market would stump classical economists.

Despite all this discovery, I'd still never seen a handpan played in person. I figured the instruments were so rare that I might never stumble upon one.

That is, until this summer, while I was covering the Israeli Rainbow Gathering, a hippie festival. While sitting around a campfire, I once again heard that oddly familiar sound. I turned and, to my surprise, I saw a man with long hair and purple harem pants playing a handpan only a few yards away.

I came over like a wolf approaching a rabbit, scared to make any sudden movements and scare off this piece of my past. But the man was happy I was interested. I sat and listened for a while.

"Want to try?" he asked me.

The handpan (this one was a Zenko, a steel tongue drum made in France) was like nothing I'd ever played before. The device was simple, with only eight or so notes. But they weren't laid out neatly – rather, notes sat around a circle, in no order I could make out.

"You've got to feel it," the man said.

I'm no musician. I've dabbled in piano, guitar, viola and drums, all to no avail. I play harmonica a bit, but I've never felt particularly confident; I've always assumed I just didn't have the musician gene.

But playing the handpan was different. Beautiful sounds arose out of my clumsy drumming. After a while, I was even able to produce melodies.

He was right. It was all about feeling it, not about trying to play a particular melody or stick to a particular beat. I'd experiment by creating echoes and playing melodies over old vibrations. It wasn't that everything sounded good, but the instrument was certainly forgiving.

Later on, while I was passing through another area of the Rainbow Gathering, I came across another strange instrument, a huge thing covered in strings that a musician hit with a baton (a harpsichord? a zither?). The player told me it was the precursor to the piano. I tried playing it, and, to my surprise, it sounded like music.

"Are you a musician?" the man asked me. Somehow, playing the handpan seemed had clicked music into my brain.

After returning from the Rainbow Gathering, I did some research and found that one of the few music stores on Earth that lets people try out handpans, Zalimba Music, happened to be in Tel Aviv, the Israeli city I was staying in. I went over and filmed myself playing a Zenko so you could see what I'm making all this fuss about.

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