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The Radical Differences Between the Traditional Steelpan Communities and the Handpan Communities

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Picture the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of a ''steelpan player'': sandy beach, tropical atmosphere in the Caribbean, and most importantly, a Black West Indian person comes to mind.

Now picture the first thing that comes to your mind when you think about a ''handpan player'':

A Grungy, hippy person of European descent or origin comes directly to mind! I have seen many handpan players, and not one of them was Black, much less from the Caribbean, but many of them were grungy hippies!





Since KaribPAN lauched our official website and began blogging to promote our socially conscious, ethical practices in conducting the business of Pan, there has been somewhat of a backlash among certain segments of the handpan community. It is apparent that there are segments of the handpan community that take exception to the fact that traditional Trini/Caribbean steelpan makers/tuners such as KaribPAN have added the handpan to our traditional steelpan repertoire. 

In keeping with our socially conscious philosophy which involves EDUCATION targeted to the steelpan community as a whole (handpan community included), we will continue blogging in order to educate the members of the community in order that they may become fully aware of the history of the steelpan, in case they never knew it. For those who do know the history and are trying to separate the handpan from its direct lineage to that (steelpan) history, our blog posts provide a nice balance to those individuals' deceitful, dishonest endeavors. Endeavors that only serve to foster negativity on a wide scale among the handpan community , which they in turn channel towards the traditional steelpan community either consciously or subconsciously. 

In writing about the radically different communities that exist among traditional steelpan enthusiasts and handpans enthusiasts, I would like to make it perfectly clear that on the whole, these two communities rarely interesect. I spoke about some of the reasons why in the last post entitled, ''The Handpan Mafia'', which is causing quite a stir among certain online handpan enthusiasts. On the rare occasion that that the traditional steelpan and handpan communities do intersect, such as in the case of KaribPAN, or any other of the few traditional steelpan/handpan makers like us, there is a wide divergence of sentiment regarding numerous things, many of these divergences being based on cultural differences. 

I would be remiss if I failed to mention race in this ugly dynamic which is at play usually whenever the subject of traditional steelpan pops up in the handpan community, so let me start from the beginning in order that the readers may be properly edified. 

The pictures above which were obtained from doing google image searches on the keywords, ''steelpan player'' and ''handpan player'', speak volumes about this issue. 

The ugly truth that gets constantly ignored is that the handpan, being a member of the traditional steelpan family, is an instrument that is rooted in the slavery/colonization of black West Indians by Europeans. Especially, the slavery and colonization of the black West Indians in Trinidad & Tobago. For better or for worse, this history cannot and SHOULD not be ignored or erased, it should be EMBRACED in order that we DO NOT FORGET and DO NOT REPEAT IT.

Those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it as they say. This is especially true as it becomes more evident that the Handpan Mafia represents an Apartheid, colonial government of sorts in the world of steelpan. Although it is a parallel world that rarely intersects with the traditional steelpan world in terms of interaction between the two communities, the neo-colonial actions of the Handpan Mafia directly serve to depress traditional steelpan prices, while driving up their handpan prices through the ceiling. So the Handpan Mafia's activities in driving prices up on the handpan market adversely affect the steelpan market in various ways.

It has long reached a point where the price of traditional steelpans is significantly lower than the price of the average handpan despite the fact that a lot more work and energy goes into making a traditional steel pan than is expended on the production of a handpan.

Additionally, these colonial governors, if I may call them that, are literally flying under the radar of the majority of the traditional steelpan community as many, especially those in Trinidad & Tobago and the wider Caribbean are not even aware of the handpan's existence in its modern day, present incarnation! These colonial governors/Handpan Mafia characters have a vested interest in making sure that the tradtional steelpan makers and tuners, especially those based in T&T and the wider Caribbean, remain ignorant of the handpan's current incarnation for the simple fact that THEY DO NOT DESIRE COMPETITION FROM THE ORIGINATORS.

I remember when I was a tender, young lad growing up in the West Indies and learning pan in a formal, structured setting with other school-age children on my island,. Before any of the nearly 200 or so of us steelpan babies could even PLAY an instrument, we had to take 2 weeks of classroom lessons on the history of the steelpan. We were also given written tests to ensure that we understood these lessons, tests which we had to pass in order to move on to the actual playing aspect, which is understandably secondary. We learned about the Tamboo Bamboo bands, who where the bamboo stick beating, street-wise characters who would beat bamboo sticks on the ground while marching through town, and are credited as the forerunners to the modern steelbands. These Tamboo Bamboo bands existed during a time of severe colonial repression and persecution, as did the early steelbands, which had reputations as being comprised of ''unsavory characters'' and social misfits. Early pannists were classed as such by the colonial establishment and ruling class and branded as outlaws and criminalized by society. 

Steelpan is an instrument born out of slavery and oppresion of Black Trinis, but has since gained the distinction of being the national instrument of T&T. Essentially, the steelpan has come a long way in its short life time. 

Learning to play pan in the West Indies as a young boy remains one of those indelible times in my life. Learning to love the pan, as well as learning to have a deep appreciation for the history out which it developed was a major turning point in my life as a child. In fact, it was so major, that I currently to this very day support myself and my family entirely from the money I earn as a Pan Ambassador, and I have done so for the better part of the past decade. So the steelpan has always lifted me up, and never let me down. 

Every steelband I played in after that from the USA to Europe, I found the panyard vibe was always similiar, with a constant air of camaraderie, and support. 

In the panyard, West Indians, Europeans, East Indians, everyone is brought together to play in harmony together because of the steelpan. The steelpan has the power to bring people from accross all sections of society and backgrounds to play the international language of music together as ONE orchestral, symphonic voice. 

One would be hard pressed to find this ethnic and economic diversity among the handpan community in any remotely similar fashion. The handpan has consistently been marketed by the Handpan Mafia as an instrument made by elitists, for elitists in terms of the over-inflated cost they charge for their instruments. This over inflated cost is out of the reach of much of the target market, thus only accesible to the few with enough money to pay to actually afford one of these overpriced, over-hyped instruments. 

Not to imply that the handpan is not a fantastic instrument, however, economics 101 dictates that you can charge as much as the market will bear as a producer. Fortunately for the Handpan Mafia, their target market is increasingly buying into the elitism being sold to them for whatever reason and they actually buy into the hype and make themselves easy, willing pickings for exploitation by the Handpan Mafia. Not that I am sorry about the elitists getting  willingly expoited in the process, but overall, this elitism has negative implications for the overall market as I have already explained in earlier posts. 

Concerning the various handpan communities, the culture is completely different. The main reason why this is the case is because of the solitary nature of the average handpan player. As a German pan maker/tuner friend of mine is fond of saying, ''Handpan is an individual thing, Steelpan is a social thing''. These sentiments of his cannnot emphasize my point any more clearly! Even he as a German realizes this, and he is definitely in a priviliged position as he makes and tunes steelpans as well as handpans, so he has numerous opportunities to see the dynamics that are at play when the traditional steelpan communities and handpan communities intersect.

The fact that many of the handpans being made today are purpose built for solo players who intend to play on a single scale on a single instrument, the handpan is not generally amenable to other chromatic instruments in a band type of setting. Thus, the nature of the common handpan player is a type of ''lone wolf'' who intends to play as a soloist. The majority of handpan players also own their own instruments.

On the contrary, the nature of a traditional pannist coming from a traditional steelband background, is to play in harmony with other musicians in the band., many of whom do not even own their own instruments! This makes for a bonafide, down to earth community as strong bonds and relationships are built in the panyard due to the great level of egalitarianism that is present. 






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  • Victor on

    hm.. it seems i understand what you put you off about my words.

    hm.. it seems i understand what you put you off about my words.i used a wrong expression: nobody is “waiting” for my instruments, except a few people. but people wanting to have, sorry if i made a wrong expression. i dont have a waiting list! instead i get daily request for up to 3-5 new people coming in my mail box for the last 5 years! mails that unfortunately will be left unaswered by most chance. hope this explains the situation better for you.

  • victor on

    seriously, man… why anything that does not confort with you point of view needs to exactly be trolling?

    i have faith and strong believe in what i am saying.

    as for the custumers, that is sad truth, unfortunately. with all my life i would be able to give max 1 instrument from 50 people wanting one, or maybe even more!

    but i told you this not to praise myself, you perverted it everything!

    i told it to you so you understand that i have no intention to market anything, i would rather come to you as “incognito” but you would never pay attantion to my words in either way, sadly.

    please undersand, this is not about me. that is one of the reason i asked you to come into private conversation with me.

    i want to have clear and emotionless(negative) conversation with you, a discussion. where each side has it’s own arguments. that could be very interesting.

    i think it a high time to drop the past and look into the future. i am sorry you got such “warm” welcome in the “handpand” world. but you should have comed in a different manner.

    there is no mafia, there is not conspiration. i know a lot of makers, most of them in their face. all of these great guys are trying to keep their prices low and quality high!

    they charge from 1000-1200 dollars/euros for 9-10 note instruments, where only high quality materials used cost 200 a set!

    there are off course some greedy bastards who try to get the market share and abuse the sutation, but fortunately they are the minority!

    most of them are really good people, with their hearts in the right place and off course we all have a great respect for the history of the steelpan, and thankfull for your invention.

    to be honest i dont really understand your motivations and frustrations, but i dont find it all funny anymore. and i dont wish to persue “trolling” as you put it.

    instead i want a conversation, facts, arguments, technical data etc.

    are you on with me? please? this could be very interesting.
    let’s leave the past out, ok?

  • Victor on

    really? what do you mean by trolling?

    i am arguing with you! you know what that means?

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