Dubai: This Expat Is Bringing Focus Back On The Viral 'Handpans'


(MENAFN- Khaleej Times) Published: Tue 2 Apr 2024, 8:26 PM

In the world of music, handpan is something of a newcomer. The musical instrument first captured popular imagination when Swiss artistes Felix Rohner and Sabina Schärer created the hang, an instrument resembling the African steelpan that became so popular in the 2000s that the demand exceeded the supply. The handpan, a modern variation, is made of metal shells with several depressions that determine its notes. While some use it as a percussion instrument, its wider appeal lies in the meditative sounds that are incredibly calming.

For these very reasons, it is not common to think of a 24-year-old slowly and steadily cementing his place in the UAE's music scene as a handpan player. And yet, this is exactly what Iranian expat Erfan Tousi is attempting to do.


The handpan represents everything that Erfan is in real life - calm and collected. It is also, in some ways, a manifestation of what he loves the most: nature.“My fondest memories from childhood, as I remember it, are going to the park for a picnic. Every time I wanted to play alone, I would reach out for my legos. In just over two hours, my lego would be ready,” says Erfan, who hails from Tehran.“But my love for music did not begin with the handpan. I had been attending classes to learn the guitar for six months.”

Like most boys his age, the lure of nature meant that he would often go camping with his friends. It was on one such trip to Hormuz Island that the then 20-year-old first discovered a man playing the handpan. It was nothing short of a magical experience. It may have been love at first sight, but Erfan was still not convinced about buying the instrument just as yet.


Not until one of his own friends did so, which led him, in turn, to take the plunge. Once he had purchased his own handpan was when Erfan realised how naturally he was connected to the musical instrument. For three months in Tehran, Erfan received training in how the handpan works. After this, it was all about finding his own music.“Because it is such a new musical instrument, you can never really learn it from someone else. They can teach you the basics. But you have to learn it on your own.”

Photo Courtesy: Erfan Tousi (Instagram: @handpan)

Back home, Erfan would play the handpan in the lush greens of the mountains, sitting and perfecting his notes as breeze blew across. It is said that 432 Hz is the frequency of natural vibrations. A reason why listening to music that is tuned to this frequency is often a calming experience.“The handpan's frequency is usually 432 Hz. This is why it touches your soul,” says Erfan who dropped out of university education to follow his dreams.

He must have been 22 when Erfan came to live in Dubai two years ago. The move was primarily made to explore life in a different country. As we speak, he says that he is the sort of a person who gets bored all too easily with the same experiences. He fears this sameness and stillness of life. Which is where friends, who he's known for quite some time, come to his rescue. When he first moved to Dubai, it was these friends and the handpan that kept him company.

In the handpan, he invested time, energy, emotion, and began to sell the pieces to local music enthusiasts. He got the pieces made from suppliers and sold them at Dh1,500, though he says the European versions can go up to Dh2,000.“In fact, on my Instagram page (handpan), I would talk about different handpans. But then, my friends began to encourage me to play the handpan myself. They said I was good. The more time I spent with handpans, the more I would play one, see how each note would reflect an emotion that I was experiencing at the time,” says Erfan, adding that the early handpans had only eight notes, while the newer ones have 21 notes.

Emotion is key here, for Erfan says what he ordinarily plays during concerts and other public performances is a story of his life. And that story, he says, is rooted in sadness. While nothing in this 24-year-old's disposition suggests why he should be sad, Erfan insists this emotion informs his music.

Probe further and he is unafraid to be vulnerable.“This is the first time I am living alone. And while it is great, managing your life becomes difficult at times. My emotions come out on the handpan.”

Photo by Muhammad Sajjad

It is interesting that for someone whose music is born out of sadness, Erfan's music is calming, hopeful and meditative (he says that he sometimes uses the handpan for some sound healing sessions as well). But as captivating as it might be, the performer in him is quick to spot who in the audience is truly engaging with his music and who isn't.“I remember playing at Theatre of Digital Art and the audience there kept gazing at me for 20 minutes straight. I knew they were moved. But yes, there are also times, when people take out their mobile phones and begin scrolling or look elsewhere,” says Erfan whose first public performance with handpan took place in Dubai in 2022.

Today, Erfan finds his serenity in the quiet deserts of the UAE where he can be seen playing the handpan in many of his Instagram videos. While he does a day job in the financial sector and gives private tuitions to 10 aspiring handpan players, he says the days are so long that he can do“four or five more jobs”. While all those jobs would be his attempt to find his place in the world, in the handpan, he has already found his calling. Does the family back in Iran approve? Erfan says they more than approve though his parents and 14-year-old sister have never seen him perform in person. To them, it is not just about music; it's about one of their own finding his feat.

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