Women of Steel

Women of Steel

My friend David Charrier recently came to me with this question: Why do you think there aren’t more female handpan players?

Thank you for asking, David. Thank you for valuing my opinion, and also for accepting my pitch that a woman should write about women. Whatever one’s opinions, we do need more authentic voices on this subject. More and more amazing female performers, makers and bright lights are entering our handpan world, yet there is only one other article on women. It wraps up us ‘girls’ (um…) as less percussive, playing only for friends and family or for ‘sound healing’ and not interested in performing on stage. One thing I feel I can say confidently on behalf of all women is that we feel an uncomfortable twitch whenever general claims are made about us, however kindly intended.

There’s little else that I can confidently say on behalf of all women. And I don’t want to. Stereotyping is something we have fought long and hard to overcome. We’re still fighting.

With that in mind, as a handpan player, journalist and kick-ass woman, I duly did my research. I was honoured to attend the very first Women’s Handpan Gathering last year (thanks to Sam Archer and team). I hosted my own little sisterfest this New Year – 14 fantastic women handpan players for a week at my home in Italy. I went to beautifully involving festivals (HONA, SingaDing). I went to others that were not so balanced. I’ve talked to female handpan owners, makers, artists and dear friends. I had a long chat with Adam Foote [stop press: a man] who asked the very same thing on the Handpan Instruments Facebook page and inspired this debate in the first place.

Here’s a spoiler for you: there is no simple or unique answer.

Replies, in the words of the women themselves, ranged from “It doesn’t bother me, I’m used to hanging out with the guys” and “We’re not on the handpan groups / we don’t tend to shout as loud”: to “Women have to be twice as impressive in the music scene to be taken seriously”; “I would love to headline a gig, I just haven’t been asked”; “My album/video/post received no response”; “I got more comments about my appearance than my playing, so I stopped posting”; “I lack confidence”; “I was bashed by male egos”; “I’m turned off/intimidated by the hundreds of videos of guys playing fast and showy”; “I know there are women out there, but it feels more like a brotherhood”; “There was a male clique at the festival all trying to out-loud and out-do each other and that left me feeling ostracised”; “I’m not able to afford a handpan because of the pay-gap”; “The instruments are designed for longer arms”; “I can’t travel to festivals with my pan because the flightcases are too heavy”; “Our community is just part of bigger patriarchal society problems.”

This is only a slice of responses as wide-ranging as the universe: some positive, some a cause of frustration and some quite heart-breaking.

To answer fairly and fully, we would need statistics from every maker and festival organiser and to find and ask all women… a Herculean task. Even if I had the chance, time and airmiles to talk to every single woman handpan player, I can practically guarantee that there would be a thousand different, equally valid answers. Why? Because we’re all different and our experiences are all different. Thank Cerridwen* for that.

To the few cavemen who tell us that we’re biologically designed to be homemakers, not leading musicians, let me repeat: We women are all different. We’re young, we’re old; we’re gay, we’re straight, we’re shy, we’re outgoing; we’re gentle, we’re brash; we’re unconfident, we’re fearless; we’re content, we’re ambitious; we’re chaotic, we’re disciplined; we’re masculine, we’re feminine; we’re beginners, we’re professionals; we’re percussive, we’re melodic; we’re private, we’re public. We are drummers, pianists, teachers, medics, artists, marine biologists and engineers. We are a million shades of everything and our colours change all the time. Shocking, I know. Have a cup of tea, calm down and read a book on evolution.

Someone who has sought to deepen his understanding is Adam Foote. As a percussionist, long-time advocate of equal rights and one-time social worker in mental health, Adam was bothered by the imbalance he saw online. We spoke via Skype this week – he’s gentle, respectful and open-minded, like most in our community. “I joined Facebook last year and stumbled upon a video of a female player, she was really good and I wondered why there weren’t more,” he reflected. “I really wasn’t expecting such a big or impassioned response to my posts. It was sad to see some sexist and flippant remarks, but overall I was thrilled that many women, including those I’d never spoken to before, came forward with their diverse opinions. I think, unwittingly, I opened Pandora’s box!”

Adam, who lives in rural Idaho, USA, is very aware that his perspective through the online lens is different from someone living in a big city or someone who goes to lots of festivals. He raises a good point. Inarguably, there are less women posting on social media, but the internet is not a reflection of the world in general. It is a vital medium for many of us remote, shy or poor handpan folk, but it can be a cold place, where people bully total strangers with no consequences. Are we women just choosing not to engage or post or even use online resources as much as men? It’s been nearly 20 years since the Hang was invented. Are times a-changing? Perhaps the question should be amended to:

Are there actually less female handpan players?

While we’ll never know the complete figures, it certainly looks like we’re catching up. About half of David’s subscribers on MasterTheHandpan.com, plus his Facebook student group, are women. Most workshops I’ve gone to recently are weighted in favour of women attendees. Nico Bachus, maker of the Owl Pan, says 2/3 of his customers are women. (Indeed, the most recent handpan purchases I know of have come from female friends). At Hang Loose, the first Hawaiian handpan festival last year, around 75% of attendees were women. I’m sure it depends on demographics, but perhaps there are now equal numbers of female-male handpan owners worldwide. Maybe – shock, horror – women even outweigh men.

However, this entire debate over numbers and causes, while useful in exposing some of the many obstacles that women face, is rather missing the point. We ladies have bigger fish to fry.

Honestly, does it matter if we are currently less or more in number? The real issue, as I see it, isn’t quantity. It’s not even quality: our unique experiences, both on and offline (although vital, it raises problems not solutions). The real issue here is productivity: what steps should, no, must be taken to ensure the handpan world becomes a positive place for each of us.

I’m reminded of the famous quote from Field of Dreams (but instead of a baseball diamond, ‘it’ = a supportive environment): “If you build it, She will come.”

What matters is that we create the right space for all women to join us and stay with us. What matters is that we build pans more suited to those of us with shorter arms and legs, and make flight cases (with comfortable straps please) for those who cannot easily carry 10+kg on our backs. What matters is that female artists, makers and teachers are equally promoted. What matters is that we’re included – from big concerts to small jams. What matters is how we are made to feel as part of this beautiful, exciting, unique, ever-changing and growing musical family. What matters is that all changes to a traditionally young-white-male-led community are warmly embraced, be it women, LGBTQIA+, people of colour, older people or those with disabilities.

This doesn’t mean we want to see want less men. We just want an absence of the kind of thoughtless or aggressive ones who give men (or worst still, our community) a bad name. And we want the good ones to listen to us. I don’t mean talk to 3 of us and think you’re an expert, I mean really listen.

Here’s an example. Take the fact that women are less present online: our first instinct shouldn’t be ‘Why?’ or ‘What can we do to get more women to post’ but ‘Why is this considered a problem that needs to be fixed?’ From my experience listening to other women, many of us lie somewhere between comfortable and happy out of the spotlight. Of course, we’re not all like that, but we don’t need pressure to participate, to record and to become something we’re not for the sake of our male counterparts or for entertainment. If we’re content simply to lurk, learn and be inspired quietly, then let us get on with it.

That said, there’s a huge chasm between not actively seeking the spotlight and feeling bashed into silence or having our potential knocked by those sexist or unconstructive few. This is never acceptable. What can we do about it? In an ideal world, Admins of handpan pages and forums need to be much more hands-on in quashing bullies. But we all need to come forward in support of those who are being belittled, those who are made to feel somehow ‘less’, or those who go quiet, not confident enough to defend themselves. It’s easy to spot this if you care. We all need to zap the toxic forms of testosterone and create a safe and welcoming space. We all need to boost, share and support. That applies across the board, no matter what sex you are.

To those women who are, regardless of their environment, driven and confident, who post regular videos and want to record albums, who are trailblazers, professional musicians, teachers, handpan builders and accessories makers: Hats off to you! What can we do to help you? Festival organisers take note: The vibe filters down from you, so create equal opportunities for us to headline concerts, lead workshops and generally shine. Companies: Sponsor and support us. Social media fans: Refer to the paragraph above.

I encourage anyone reading this, whatever your sexual identity, not to second guess or speak for us women as if we’re some conveniently samey group. Instead, hear us as individuals. Approach all your female handpan friends, or that woman you see hovering tentatively by a hedge at a festival, and ask them how they feel. Better yet, ask yourself why there’s a woman by a hedge in the first place who is not being invited to jam with you. Perhaps she’s been waiting for this moment for a long time. Perhaps she will decline. That’s fine. Because, reasons. Just please don’t become part of a detrimental clique. Please don’t stop gently encouraging random women to talk about and play the handpan with you. It’s always nice to be asked.

That is something Adam did with his Facebook posts: seek to involve us properly.

That is something Colin Foulke did when he built a smaller, lighter handpan and donated it to the Women’s Gathering.

That is something David has done in asking me to ponder on all this.

In writing an article about women, I always knew that there were going to be more questions than answers. And that is how it should be, because otherwise we’re back to the destructiveness of sweeping statements. But my main concern is, are we asking the right questions? I really don’t think we are.

Wouldn’t it be more productive to ask positive things like:

  • Who is your favourite woman handpan player or group featuring women?
  • Have you heard Lior Shoov/Liron Mayuhas/Lewa/Gillian O’Donovan/Marlia Tompazou’s album?
  • Are you going to Kate Stone/Samanatha Archer/Pam Marinelli’s workshop?
  • Have you tried my super-comfortable custom case made by Elena Miroshnik at NamanaBags?
  • Did you know Mikkai Kumo (Lidiya Zhukova-Igolnikova) composes for handpan and classical ensemble, conducts masterclasses and is part of the all-female handpan group Sunset Orchestra?
  • Have you heard Judith Lerner’s beautiful song I’d always known?
  • Have you seen Imani White/Amy Naylor/Mia Lev/Mumi/Milly Hoddo/Laura Inserra/Eva Hassine/Archer & Tripp’s amazing new video?
  • Did you get to play Hannah Ariyana/Jenny Robinson/Emma (Mumi) Grassia/Esitxu (Esti) Mercury/Rebecca Dancyger/Delphine Billard’s handpans at the festival?

When we truly celebrate the diversity of women, the path for the future is surprisingly straightforward: Respect, listen and support at every possible opportunity. Afterall, the handpan wouldn’t exist without a certain remarkable lady. She contributed to the original Hang as much as Felix Rohner. She created 50% of our world.

Here’s one last question for you (and it does have an answer):

What is the First Lady of Steel’s name?

We should probably all know this. For those who don’t, it’s Sabina Schärer. If you can remember that, and be grateful for her, and for all who follow in her footsteps, it is a good start. Thank you for listening. Please keep going…

* Cerridwen was the Celtic goddess of music

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Juliet Staveley

Half-Iranian and a sprinkling of other things, Juliet Staveley lives in a crumbly villa in Italy together with six rescue cats and one rescue husband. After 15 years as a journalist in London, she switched to Tuscan life, to freelance copywriting and to fiction. She has received a handful of accolades and ISBN numbers for her short stories, poems and haikus. Currently, Juliet is working on her first full-length novel (a family piece set in Esfahan) and screenplay (based on the true story of Volterra Psychiatric Hospital), as well as running writers’ workshops, editing manuscripts and translating Italian texts into English.
Founder of Master The Handpan

Juliet Staveley

Half-Iranian and a sprinkling of other things, Juliet Staveley lives in a crumbly villa in Italy together with six rescue cats and one rescue husband. After 15 years as a journalist in London, she switched to Tuscan life, to freelance copywriting and to fiction. She has received a handful of accolades and ISBN numbers for her short stories, poems and haikus. Currently, Juliet is working on her first full-length novel (a family piece set in Esfahan) and screenplay (based on the true story of Volterra Psychiatric Hospital), as well as running writers’ workshops, editing manuscripts and translating Italian texts into English.
Fondateur de Master The Handpan

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