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In search of the perfect handpan

The handpan is a new melodic percussive instrument invented less than 20 years ago.  It was invented in Bern, Switzerland and consists of 2 curved shells of steel, glued together and painstakingly tuned into a musical scale. Unlike the steel drum, the handpan is played by hand. Each note that is struck activates several overtones, giving handpans a mesmerising and rich sound.

Because the handpan is still rare, you can’t buy this instrument at your local music shop… You have to order a handpan directly from the maker. A quality handpan costs between £1,500 and £3,000.  Due to the high cost of these drums I wanted to find one and personally check its quality so we flew to several places to check them out in South East Asia.  After a month of searching I found THE ONE.

I met Thai, who we had been trading with for 11 years already, buying quality musical instruments made by his family.  Thai had to spend 5 years studying and perfecting his drum. I went to check them out and see how they were made.

These drums take many man hours to produce. Everything is done by hand. There are no shortcuts that can be made when producing a drum of this quality. The most time consuming part is tuning the drum shell – finely tuning the steel shell by striking it gently with a steel hammer. This is done while measuring the frequency of each tap. Tap, tap, tap, for hours on end until each note gives off the perfect frequency.  All in all it takes around 36 hours to tune one drum. That’s 4 hours per note for a 9 note drum! Patience is indeed a virtue.

Since the tuning of a Handpan is a very complex and complicated task, i will just point out the basics. You could write a book (and people have) on the specifics of tone colours and so on.

Anatomy of a handpan

All the Tonefields are shaped elliptical. When the Tonefield/ the Dimples/ the Ding gets a beat by the player, the two axis of the field start swinging and a sound is born. Because of the different length of the 2 ellipse-axis this sound is created by two overlapping, harmonic but different frequencies. Advanced players are using this knowledge, to “filter” frequencies. You can ‘press’ one finger on one of the axis to prevents the swinging of this axis. In this way, you get out much more different sounds from just one Tonefield.

Once this mammoth task has been completed and each note is tuned correctly  the drum moved on to the paint shop where it is coated in aluminium paint then baked in an industrial oven.

Now these amazing inventions are ready to play.  Check the gallery below and the video of Thai cousin playing the finished article.  These drums are available exclusively on Terrapin Trading. These are drum that truly make the grade. 5 years of study and graft have went into the project and it supports 30 jobs.  We pay Fair Trade prices for these drums so you get a superb quality drum, made by the original method, thai and 30 workers get paid properly for their work.  Each drum comes with a quality hand made case and playing diagram plus links to great videos on how to play, right from the start until you master this incredible instrument.


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The Art of Block Printing in Sanganar & Jaipur, Rajesthan, India

Terrapin Trading is always keen to keep traditional crafts alive and so while on another Indian opus looking for new products I learned of the famous block printing traditions in Rajesthan.

Basing myself in the Pink City in Jaipur and explored its labyrinthine streets, heaving with talented craftsmen making everything from you can imagine. During my early morning runs (before the sun gets too high and the heat hits) I was sometimes accompanied by elephants and camels although more usually dogs.

Block printing is practised in the Jaipur area and it the technique of printing patterns onto fabric by means of a dye and a hand carved block of wood which is pressed onto the material. This art has been practised here for 300 years and despite huge competition from modern printing techniques it still endures.

Before going to the centre of the industry in Sanganer I wanted to learn more about the technique and its history so we took a visit to the excellent Anhoki Museum of Block Printing where you learn all about the fabrics, the patterns and what they mean to each area. Its an excellent resource and we even got to watch a craftsman making a block for printing and to try our hand at the printing itself. You are able to buy a tshirt or piece of blank material in the shop so you can have a go yourself. After the museum I had a relaxing chai in the museums shady garden cafe.

The Sanganeri printing technique developed between the 16th & 17th century. During colonial times it became one of the major export items for the East India Company, and its trademark was the original dye used for printing designs. Sanganer was a far less sanitised experience than the polished presentation of the museum. Real in-the-field production!  I walked along a whole street of tiny little shops with craftsmen, chisel in hand, carving out blocks in the traditional way.

I was told that down by the river I could see the textiles produced by these blocks being washed and dried in the sun.  I had to pay my way in to this area by means of a little baksheesh to the foreman of the little outdoor dyeing factory.

Here, men and women were up to their knees dying the printed fabrics and hanging them up on huge bamboo drying lines.  This was a fascinating day.  I had been asking all the people i met how to get a hold of some antique blocks that i could buy and finally i struck gold!

chiselling a design

A man made a call to his brother in Jaipur and on my return to the pink city I was taken on a mystery tour on the back of a moto to the  basement of a residential area east of the Pink City.  I had been taken to a the store of a retired block printer and he was willing to sell me some of the beautiful blocks he had carved over the years.  You can see these and maybe even buy one here.

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