Interview with Sam Maher, Master of Handpan
Thanks for this interview Sam. I first discovered your video at the New York subway about 1 year ago. I was impressed. I didn’t know that instrument and wondered what you were actually doing. That amazing sound and your skill left me speechless. I completely ignored you could compose that kind of music with such a thing.
Q – How did your passion for this extraordinary instrument come about?
A – I had a very similar reaction when I first heard the handpan, I was instantly consumed by the resonance and percussive possibilities of the instrument – so, it quickly became an obsession. I finally got my hands on one about a year later.
I’m a drummer, so finding an instrument that combines both rhythm and melody was extremely alluring for me. I fantasized about the possibilities.
Once I received my first pan, I quickly realized the power it had to communicate with people from all walks of life. The resonance of the metal seemed to grab hold of people’s attention and tug out their emotions. It was an incredibly powerful experience in those early days, and soon enough I decided to take it around the world to see if this was a universal feeling. Turns out it was.
Q – I know that apart from being a talented composer you teach Handpan. What is one message you would give to those who want to approach this instrument?
A – My best advice for people when they pick up the handpan for the first time is to simply explore the instrument. I spent hours fumbling my way over it until a melody would appear. The best thing about it for the non-musician is that each pan is tuned to a scale, so regardless of your ability you could make sounds with it.
I always introduce people to basic drumming rudiments. At the end of the day it is a percussion instrument, so for me, approaching the handpan rhythmically is paramount. The melody comes to you as a result of the rhythm.
Q – How would you describe the music that you typically create?
A – I’m not sure yet to be honest. I feel like I am still discovering the possibilities of the handpan. The earlier days I followed the typical narrative – travelling the world, living off busking money, improvising etc – but my passion for DIY music culture, experimental music and production soon came back to me. Now I am finding ways to manipulate the handpan with electronics, and approaching it more from an electroacoustic angle. I also have a soft spot for pop structure and repetition – they are tried and tested musical theories that simply work.
My evolution and the music I am creating is still underway. Perhaps that’s why I haven’t recorded my debut works yet.
Q – What is your creative process like?
A – Generally, I find a scale that I want to work with. I typically play a chromatic set made up of 3 handpans, so I have access to every note on the western scale. It’s far more challenging and exciting for me than playing on the singular instrument. Then, I sit within that scale and just let myself go for however long until something rhythmically or melodically interesting emerges. From there I’ll either try and add structure and create a “piece” or I’ll setup my mics and start throwing the sounds through Ableton, experimenting with plug-ins and just seeing where it goes. If something clicks I’ll generally make a 1 minute video and throw it up onto my socials. For me it’s an interesting way to engage with my audience. To see what works, or what doesn’t.
One day I’ll look back at all of that data and piece together a release that I’ll be proud of.
Q – Your YouTube channel has reached thousands of subscribers and your videos are viewed by millions of people. How has this changed your life?
A – Massively. I’m not too savvy with YouTube and I tend not to upload videos there. Most of the content I make is for Instagram. I have plans in the works to make several highly produced videos for YouTube to build up that profile.
The impact of the videos that are floating around YouTube are huge. Particularly the NYC subway video, which was captured and uploaded by a blog that documents the musicians in the subways of New York City, called BUSKRS. That is sitting somewhere around 5 million views (30 million on Facebook).
I still get messages, bookings and opportunities daily from that one moment of time that was randomly captured all those years ago, when I was hairier and much more colorful. It’s still seems crazy to me. There are thousands of people all over the world that want to learn that improvised piece. I have been flown around the world from that moment. It has sustained me for the last 4 years.
My evolution with the instrument has far surpassed that moment captured in time. But sometimes it’s all that people focus on. That is a unique burden to have. Most people I talk to who have experienced the modern oddity of “going viral” have echoed that sentiment.
I feel that I am producing far more interesting and exciting work now than I ever have before – and the internet is still the biggest, most influential tool to get it out there to the people.
Q – How do you feel the Internet has impacted the music business?
A – The whole landscape of the music industry has changed to keep up with the ways we consume. The internet brought with it a wave of piracy and file sharing, which was a huge problem for labels. They solved this problem by developing streaming services, which have a whole range of problems in itself. The industry has had to adapt to the ways we consume music now, which is fast, and passive. It makes for some terrible art. But it also makes for amazing art
I mean, I could write a full essay on the pros and cons of the internet’s influence on the music business.
You see, there are a lot of positives too. It’s easier than ever to get your sound out there. You no longer have to rely on big business to be heard. You can simply improvise on a unique instrument, at the right time, in the right place, and become something. There are now pockets and avenues for even the weirdest artforms, thanks to the internet.
I could go on for hours – the simple answer is, greatly.
Q – Where have you performed?
A – All over.
Australia, New Zealand, UK, USA, Singapore, Jamaica, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, France, China, Malaysia, India, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, Mexico.
If I include the countries I busked in during those early days the list would go on and on. I’m very lucky.
Q – What is your favorite musical genre?
A – That’s a super hard one for me to answer. I consume a lot of music. I collect records. So, I’m always looking forward, and backwards. I tend to get obsessed with a certain genre, or era, or scene, then move on to the next.
At the moment I am digging a lot of electroacoustic music. There are some amazing contemporary artists doing exciting things that have influenced my direction with the handpan – like Kelly Moran, Park Jiha, Mary Lattimore. I don’t know. It’s just the phase I’m in now.
Several weeks ago I was diving heavily into 90’s post-punk
Q – Any artist or group you would like to perform or collaborate with?
A – I would love to get my samples in the hands of producers such as Four Tet, Nicolas Jaar or Visible Cloaks. All of whom inspire me massively.
My ultimate dream collaborators have already been taken by Manu Delago, another amazing handpan musician and composer. I had the pleasure of filming a short piece with him on the London Eye. It was a dream come true for me – I admire his work greatly.
Q – What’s next for you?
A – Well, now that the whole world is stuck in isolation I’ll be utilizing this time to begin tracking my debut release. After that, who know?
I thank you once again for conceding this interview. My passion for music began when I was a kid. At the age of 10 I took classical guitar lessons. But the musical genre in my strings is Rock. At 15 with my brother on drums, a very talented friend – who unfortunately is no longer with us – on guitar, and I on bass (rather poor player, I would say) formed a rock band. We didn’t go anywhere. We wrote many songs. Who knows, one day I will be able to make something of those lyrics and chords. Maybe I’ll call you.
Cover Photo: Sam Maher from his facebook page