Finding common ground through music

This guest blog post is by Sam Maher, a West Australian instrumentalist and drummer who is best known for his unique playing style on the handpan. He spoke and performed on the TEDMED stage in 2016 and you can watch his talk here.


In 2013 I found myself caught in the midst of a torrential downpour in the city centre of Perth, Western Australia – stunned, I decided to run for it. As I bolted for shelter within the central train station I was completely unaware of the pivotal encounter that would soon take place and change the direction of my life forever. Catching my breath and wiping the rain from my brow I accepted the fact that I wouldn’t be leaving the station anytime soon and took a seat against the wall of a deli that had its roller shutters pulled down – Sunday trading was still a relatively new concept in Perth back then and the station was completely abandoned.

A couple of weeks before this I received an instrument in the mail direct from Germany which I spent close to a year obsessively searching for. It wasn’t easy to find – the instrument, still in its infancy, had only been successfully crafted by a handful of committed artists across the globe, and the hypnotic tones that it created when struck caused a ripple effect around the world, establishing hoards of dedicated admirers, all desperate to get their hands on one – myself included.

The original name of this instrument is the “hang” – created by Felix Rohner and Sabina Schemer in Switzerland in 1999 after many years of researching the construction of the traditional steel pans of Trinidad and Tobago. By combining these techniques to the ideas of other ethnic percussion instruments such as the Udu of Africa and the gamelan instruments of Indonesia the Hang was born. The idea of the instrument laid dormant for several years, confined to its birthplace in the Swiss mountains and inside the hearts of the very select few that were lucky enough to be accepted to own one. The instrument’s appeal grew when the internet began finding its way into households worldwide, and before too long the hang was a viral phenomenon. With the demand far outweighing the supply, independent innovators attempted to fill the gap by recreating their own versions of the hang, each giving it their own title. The controversy that followed is still in full force today and somewhere along the way in an attempt to void the feud it was decided that the generic term for the instrument would be the “handpan” unless the instrument was in fact an original hang made by Felix or Sabina.

Now – back to the train station.

I had my handpan with me that stormy afternoon, and the situation presented a perfect opportunity for me to experiment with it. So experiment I did. For close to an hour I sat with my eyes closed as I navigated my hands around the instrument’s cylindrical surface, striking each hammered circle with my finger tips and the bulging knuckles of my thumbs, hearing the smooth frequency that arose and observing how each carefully placed note related to one another as the metal vibrated in perfect harmony. When I opened my eyes I found myself seated next to an elderly aboriginal woman who appeared to be homeless. She looked at me with a tear in her eye as she asked if I could continue playing. Over the next half hour we were both swept up in a wave of emotion as I bore witness to the downpour of her life’s trials and tribulations; living as an Aboriginal woman inside a country that has chosen to strip her of rights, and rape and ignore her. The misery and power of that moment changed my life forever.

 

Music is unique in its ability in allowing us to experience the same emotions regardless of political views, race, sexuality, faith – it proves that we are the same, and brings us together. It allows us to express and understand our feelings freely, to come to terms with the difficulties, the triumphs and the collective challenges we face in our lives.

 

The handpan has proved itself as a powerful communication tool capable of transcending language, cutting straight to the emotional core of anyone who chooses to listen to it. In the the time that followed that chance encounter 4 years ago I have spent 14 months traversing the Americas, from Mexico City down to the Patagonian region of Argentina, learning the instrument on the go, surviving mostly from the money and acts of human kindness I earned from the streets. At the end of that trip a video surfaced of me improvising with the instrument in the subways of New York City which subsequently reached over 20 million people. I have now performed in over 22 countries around the world, and have come into contact with hundred of thousands of people completely different than myself, yet for a brief moment of time we were all the same. To be accepted and accept these otherworldly places, people and ideologies, so different to my own, through the language of music and the artistry of the handpan is something that will never fail to astound me.