A short history of a new instrument

Since 2011 my main musical instrument has been the cupola. The essay below is a short response to the question I get nearly every time I perform publically: what is this instrument, where does it come from and what do I call it?

In America in the 1930’s, a new instrument was invented, which pushed Western music to new heights. Originally meant for accompaniment, the instrument quickly gained a central role in popular music ensembles, and in the 1950’s the instrument held a key position in spreading the social revolution around the Western world. Its metallic, harsh, screaming sound, combined with wild drumming, channeled the underlying sexual tensions of the youth into a revolting, rioting tidal wave which flipped the elder generation’s values and sexual morals upside-down.

The electric guitar became the most important instrument of the 20th century. Its character echoes electrification of the world, the uprising of the youth, and the liberals and their primitive longing for freedom, pleasure, and domination. Despite its widespread availability, the mythical nature of the electric guitar is stronger than any other contemporary instrument. At the end of the millennium, the brightest dreams were the ones that shone from the eyes of numerous ten-year-olds as they posed in front of their mirrors with their electric guitars, imagining their future as a rockstar.

In the 1930’s, also another instrument began to take form — one that never got as much attention as the electric guitar, but gained the status of a national instrument in Trinidad. Similar to the electric guitar, the roots of the steelpan are in rebellion and longing. The use of traditional African percussion instruments had been restricted in the end of the 19th century due to rioting. Yet, the beat persisted under the surface and people’s need for music transformed tin jars, pots and pans into musical instruments. In the early days of the instrument, some groups tried to ban steel bands because of their loud noise and criminal reputation, but the police were unwilling to intervene — in fact, they were busy practicing with their own steel bands.

By the end of the millennium the rebelliousness of the two instruments had faded. They were born before the Second World War and reflected a different worldview than the synthesizers and drum machines of the 1980’s. In the 1990’s music was becoming increasingly electronic and most of it was performed by disembodied, ghostly recordings of living and virtual musicians. Computers, globalization, and the Internet challenged the boundaries of culture and economics, and the conventional understanding of knowledge and art burst into flames.

Every era needs its own instruments. At the turn of the millennia, the Swiss steelpan manufacturer PANArt created a new hybrid instrument that mesmerized its audiences. The parents of the instrument, Felix Rohner and Sabina Schärer named their creation a Hang, which means hand in Berndeutsch (a German dialect spoken in Switzerland). The Hang brought together the percussion traditions of Trinidad, India and Asia in an unforeseen, yet natural manner. Their creation could be easily mistaken for an exotic folk instrument from a forgotten corner of the world. But in today’s globalized world, a new folk instrument could not be carried by any other folk than the nomads of the internet. Aided by numerous YouTube clips, the Hang spread rapidly around the world and its presence was colored by unique philosophy, where New Age ideas began to melt together with local traditions. In Switzerland you could hear someone yodeling with Hang. In Barcelona the soft sound of the instrument was mixed together with experimental electronic music. In Finland the instrument was befriended by a thousand-year-old bowed lyre, or jouhikko. All these radically varying musical acts were connected by a similar striving to renew the prevailing culture.

Despite the ever-growing demand, PANArt has not aimed for the mass production of their instrument. Quality and craftsmanship defines their work better than the 20th century mass ideology, which generally implies that any production must follow the demand. Due to the limited availability of the instrument, new builders have tried to enter the market, and at the same time the question of the instrument’s name has emerged. Hang is not only the instrument’s original name, but also a trademark owned by PANArt, so it could not be used as a common name for the whole instrument family. Many of the builders solved the problem by inventing new product names for their creations. Kyle Cox and Jim Dusin of Pantheon Steel named their instrument Halo, but also suggested the whole instrument family could be called handpans. The name sparked fierce debate amongst the players and the builders. Others agreed that handpan was a practical and descriptive common name for the instrument, while others argued that the name put too much stress on its steelpan roots and that it could even be considered offensive towards the Trinidadians. Felix Rohner has personally given a clear statement, that the Hang is not a handpan nor does he make handpans. Also, the Russian builder Victor Levinson has stated publicly that his instruments, dubbed as ”the SPB” by the player community, are definitely not handpans. It appears that handpan best suits instruments and builders that emphasize the instrument’s background in the steelpan.

Without Trinidad, there would be no Hang, but when observed closely, the instrument differs from the steelpans as much as a harp differs from a guitar. The shape of the instruments are opposites of each other. Steelpans don’t possess a sound chamber, while a crucial element of the sound of a Hang is its tuned cavity. Also, the playing method differs clearly: steelpan is generally played with mallets and Hang with hands. This is also the background of handpan as a label for the whole instrument family and the name seems to be especially supported in America.

While handpan might be an adequate name in the Anglophonic world, it doesn’t translate well to other languages. Unsatisfied with the existing names, I have begun to call the instrument a cupola. The word originates from the Greek word for a cup(kupellon). I find it poetic that the Latin word for cymbal and bell, cymbalum, is also derived from another Greek word meaning either a cup or a bowl (kumbalon). Hence, I see a good reason for calling the instrument a cupola, which refers not only to its shape, material, and percussive nature, but also its European origins.

Unlike electric guitars or steelpans, the cupola does not demolish laws or release sexual fluxes barred by rigid moral codes. Its rebelliousness is quieter, it blooms slower, and its sound bites deeper. Its music does not build on old explanations of the universe, but instead creates new ones. Its message is simple but deep, which can’t be expressed or understood by any other means than by playing, quieting down, and listening.

Our culture is changing radically in economy, values, and globalization. Many of our core beliefs about culture, economy, or the never-ending progress of humanity have been confronted with new critical thinking. It may well be the cupola — a new instrument built with traditional handheld tools — that echoes the new thoughts and emerging culture, which finally jams the exploiting capitalist machinery indifferent to all life…

Jimi Hendrix said once in an interview, that he wishes the cottonfield slaves had electric guitars; according to him, a lot of mess would have been sorted out much earlier and more efficiently. Slavery and unrighteousness is always sustained by the prevailing culture, and for changing it, new ideas and new music is needed — and every now and then, a new instrument.

Lauri Wuolio

(The text was originally written in Finnish. Translation edited by Jeremy Arndt.)

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