The Pantam Looks Like a Pita Oven, but Israelis Are Making Magical Music With It

The pantam was first displayed at a music fair in Frankfurt in 2001. It’s made from a strip of metal that undergoes a chemical process and is hammered out by hand, inspired by a Trinidadian steel drum.

Assaf Shemesh plays the pantam. 'Almost anyone can play it intuitively, you don’t have to be an exceptional musician or read notes to produce a melody.'
Moti Milrod

Musicians who play the pantam describe a gleaming, magical sound that hypnotizes the audience and releases musical inhibitions. I first came across it a decade ago. A drummer friend was carrying a pantam on his back to the Nahalat Binyamin pedestrian mall in Tel Aviv. Within three hours of playing the instrument on his lap with eyes closed under a mane of dreadlocks, he collected 500 shekels ($130) from passersby, who stopped in amazement at the subdued harp sounds produced by delicate tappings of his hands on the instrument.

To some it looks like a spaceship, to others like a saj oven for making pitas. The audience in the bustling artists’ market wanted to hear more, to ask questions and to touch pantam. In those days the instrument had only one manufacturer, PANArt, owned by Felix Rohner and Sabine Scharer of Switzerland. They insisted on meeting and teaching anyone who chose their instrument, which they called a Hang, and to sell it exclusively in their Bern workshop.

In recent years, since they stopped manufacturing the instrument, interest in it has only grown. There are websites and chat groups devoted to it, YouTube clips of performances are accumulating millions of views, musicians like Bjork, Anoushka Shankar and Shpongle have included a pantam in their music. “This is probably the first instrument that went viral,” said Scottish virtuoso percussionist Evelyn Glennie.

One of the most successful Israeli players is Liron Man. I knew him as the guitarist of the metal band Stamina, which was active in the early 2000s, and was so far underground that there’s no mention of it on Google. In the summer he lives in Vancouver. In the winter he plans to go live with a Buddhist community in Shanghai with his regular partner, a pantam manufactured by Israeli Yonatan Bar. He also recommends the pantams manufactured by Nobuya Yamaguchi of Ein Hod and Ortal Pelleg.

Two days after purchasing the pantam in Switzerland, Man, 30, performed for the first time with the instrument at a wedding reception. “That was an amazing day for me,” he recalls. “From that day to this, every time people see this instrument they first of all take an interest in its appearance and the sound it produces. I’ve seen people in the marketplace, I’ve seen people crying, I’ve seen people laughing.”

Since then you’ve been invited to perform in Italy, China, Turkey, Finland, Canada and Taiwan – all thanks to the pantam?

“This instrument has given me a stage that I didn’t always deserve, thanks to its beauty, its sound and what it gives to the listener. Its far more than an instrument and music. The experience is therapeutic and cultural. It’s something that we have to do as human beings, to see as many places as possible and to meet as many people as possible in order to believe in goodness.”

What’s so therapeutic about a pantam?

“For me any musical instrument is therapeutic. This instrument surprises you. It looks like a spaceship, sounds electronic and is acoustic. On the technical level it’s tuned with overtones, which causes the sound to be more full, tuned and precise. It gleams, it’s magical. The process that the metal undergoes gives it a very clean, clear sound. That’s what makes people think it has therapeutic capabilities.”

Ziv Yehezkei, a percussionist from Tekoa, bought a pantam in 2001. Since then he has been performing and giving workshops on the instrument. “Most people don’t understand the pantam,” he says. “They think it’s a nice instrument, very limited, with one scale, with pretty and magical sounds that can be played intuitively. But it’s an instrument that’s full of depth. And only if you really connect with it can you draw out the treasures hidden in it.

“And that’s already related to the person’s specific personality, in addition to a technical ability to play,” Yehezkel says. “I prefer not to know, and from there to express myself, to talk and to play, in that way I’m constantly learning new things about the instrument. Recently at a performance I started to sing into the pantam and realized I could produce a reverberating sound from it without touching it. I performed before a large audience, took out this instrument, started to sing and play and saw 200 people getting up, standing, in complete silence. The audience is glued to the playing and when I finish there is wild applause and shouts of genuine excitement.”

The pantam was first displayed at a music fair in Frankfurt in 2001. It’s made from a strip of metal that undergoes a chemical process and is hammered out by hand, inspired by a Trinidadian steel drum. During the first year of manufacture the pantam was sold for 200 euros ($220). Over the years the price soared and reached 2,400 euros. But Rohner and Scharer decided at the end of 2013 to discontinue its manufacture and to focus on another instrument, the gubal.

Today the original pantams go for as much as $13,000 at public auctions. “That was not the artist’s intention,” says Assaf Shemesh of Kalimba!!!, a store for ethnic instruments in Tel Aviv. He and his brother Yaniv are promoting the instrument in various ways. Among other things, they started a festival in Israel featuring only the pantam.

“After my baby was born four years ago,” says Shemesh, “this is one of the first instruments that entered the house. And when he grew up, it was one of the first instruments that my son played. Almost anyone can play it intuitively, you don’t have to be an exceptional musician or read notes to produce a melody. It requires a little practice, but for musicians it’s a simple instrument. You choose a scale and you can play local songs and invent music.”

After production in the pantam workshop was discontinued, dozens of private “makers” began to develop and sell their versions of the instrument. Eran Butbika recently began importing the colorful hapi drum, which looks like a metal-colored turtle with holes, an American design and patent made in India. “I was in India in Hampi, a place in the south with basalt rocks,” he says, “and there was a guy who went up to the mountain every evening to jam with his instrument. I came with my guitar and he gave me his hapi, and that’s how the love story began.

“A hapi can be amplified and you can perform on large stages and record, it comes in different scales, major and minor. These are pentatonic instruments so you can’t make a mistake. You don’t have to worry about technique. It’s an amazing first instrument,” he says.

Eliav Maman, from the Israeli website My Hang, which was created in 2012 to sell the instrument, is pleased that PANArt has stopped manufacturing it. “When they stopped making [the pantam], there was a major boom and the prices increased. It’s an instrument that you can’t find today. Many merchants have stopped selling it, because everyone wanted to keep his pantam close to him. I have a few pantams and people from all over the country are interested in them but not everyone has enough money.”

Why do they want one of their own?

“It’s an amazing instrument. It’s elegant, it can be carried anywhere, it produces relaxing sounds. Every pantam has a scale and every indentation is a note on this scale, and it makes no difference where you strike it, the sound is harmonic. The Pantam’s sounds are very subdued, strange to the ear and connected to nature. It’s hard for people to ignore them, and it also has the shape of a spaceship, it catches the eye and it’s cool and strange to see how from a few fingers and taps harmonic melodies emerge.”