Are we really playing PANs after all?

Once after a concert an old gentleman came to talk to me. He was impressed by the music and wanted to know what instrument I was playing. I told him it’s called a handpan. ”Ah, ok. I have listened to pan flute music all my life!” he answered happily and left.

I have written earlier about the naming of this instrument. My main reason for calling it cupola, is that it sounds better in my native tongue than handpan (gets stuck in the mouth like too greasy pizza). Another reason is that I don’t have a personal connection to the Trinidadian pan culture. While it is obvious that cupolas/handpans are descendants of the steelpan, I still see steelpans more as distant cousins of the handpan than direct offspring.

All this history could have been different, if the convex form of the instrument had taken flight in the early days of steelpan. For some reason the convex idea was dumped and the concave form became the standard. But half a decade later the convex shape returned in the experiments of PANArt and by then the instrument had gone through other mutations as well, obtaining completely new dna from Indian, Asian and African instrument traditions.

Lately I’ve noticed that many cupola makers call them pans: Blesspan, Lupan, Shellopan, Sunpan, Shaktipan, Soulpan, Terrapan to name a few… and I’m not even mentioning the builders who like to add ”Handpan” after their brand/company name.

Unlike couple of years back, there’s nothing controversial anymore about calling these instruments handpans. Still I find it interesting that so many emphasize the ”pan” connection. Yet many of these builders probably never built or played a traditional steelpan — or perhaps even listened to steelpan music.

Acknowledging history and roots is vital, but to create something new we have to sometimes break some ties. I don’t know whether in this case we should or not, but it’s certainly something to think about.

I’ll end this text by throwing two questions to all cupola players and builders out there:

Are we writing a new chapter to the history of steelpan culture, or are we creating something completely new?
Do we need to go back to study our ancestors to learn who we are, or can we find out that through the new art we are creating?

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this. And as always, if you want to support my work, the best way to do that is to buy my album on Bandcamp or iTunes! More about me at www.wuolio.fi.