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Hanging out with Steve Shehan

By Alison Hird

Franco-American percussionist and composer Steve Shehan has spent the last decade expanding the possibilities of the Hang - a wok-shaped instrument, akin to a steel drum but played with the hands. He's taken it off the streets and into concert halls as a bone fide part of the classical instrumentarium. RFI met the musical alchemist at his workshop south of Paris ahead of a concert with his latest band, the Sunshine Quartet.


The Hang was created by a Swiss couple - Felix Rohner and Sabina Schärer - in the late 90s. As such it's one of the newest and most exciting of musical instruments.

"I thought it was a major invention," says Shehan. "And how ironical, with no electronics, nothing, just on the eve of 2000, it was incredible."

Shehan was introduced to it in 1999 while touring with Paul Simon. "Suddenly this very strange, peculiar wok- flying saucer thing got into my hands, I tried it, thought it was interesting. The only thing was the tuning, the very first ones were tuned a bit like the steel drums, like Caribbean scale. It's nice but gets a bit boring."

So Shehan contacted the Swiss couple and encouraged them to develop Hangs with different scales. Hungarian, Puri... he now has a fine collection. And undertakes the challenging exercise of mixing them in his concerts.

"There are no marks [on Hangs] really, just these pressions and depressions, so you have to learn the geography of each one, [...] learn the positions of your hands by heart, that's the hard thing about it. But that's when it becomes really exciting."

Steve Shehan at home with his Hangs Alison Hird/RFI

Shehan has successfully adapted the Hang to composition. "Making it part of a whole instrumentarium was something that would really inspire me. It took me five or six years to work seriously on it, to adapt some techniques."

Techniques that have allowed him to work with bands like Hadouk, trumpeter Jon Hassell, Rokia Traoré.... His album Hang with You features some great collaborations with the likes of jazz trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf and actress Golshifteh Farahani. He sets the wise words of Touareg singer-poet Baly Othmani to powerful musical effect.

But Shehan says the Hang's loyal, quasi-cult following has not always taken kindly to his approach.

"A lot of people were shocked by the fact that with the Hang you can go through classical music, jazz or make melodies and chords."

He says the album is beginning "to move a bit now" but the purists didn't really understand it. "Maybe they thought it was pretentious, but that wasn't my goal. I was just having fun with the instrument and trying to see how far I could bring it."

In its short lifespan, the Hang's already become a hugely popular "traveller's" instrument:  light, melodic, great for busking on street corners. "In Spain I've see hundreds of guys like this," says Shehan. 

But in Russia the Hang has cult status.

"There are sects, hang followers, it's almost religious out there," he says. "You can pay just to see the instrument. In Siberia I saw people standing in queues to pay a bit of money just to go and touch it."  

While the Hang has a "mystical aura" about it, Shehan says attempts to give it Shamanic powers are unfounded and serve to stop the instrument evolving.

"There are people who think it's mystical the way it is, and they invent some pseudo mystical background that doesn't exist. It's bullshit. We have to be more honest, it's a new instrument, there's an open and wide road in front of us to search and develop. We have to invent the history of this instrument. There are a few people working on that: Vladiswar Nadishana, David Hykes, Manu Delago... They're trying to bring it to somewhere else." Like Shehan himself.

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