Sometime in late November 2014, I arrived in New York City – broke and tired – my beard was overgrown, my body weight had diminished and I was cold. The first snow fell on thanksgiving day – it was the first time I had seen snow falling from the sky. For the last year, I had been travelling through South America with my girlfriend. I had a little money saved, but I was surviving mostly on what I was making busking on the streets and the chance encounters of human kindness that comes along with it. We got around by volunteering at farms, camping in the wild, riding local buses, eating local food and immersing ourselves into unknown cultures. It was the most expansive, unforgettable, important time of my life.
New York had come as a beautiful shock. We were back to the Western world, and I needed to make enough money to fly back to Australia. One afternoon, deep beneath Brooklyn I sat down with my new Handpan – a rare transcendental instrument conceived in the late 90’s in Switzerland under the name “hang,” meaning ‘hand’ in a Swiss dialect only found in Bern – I had been battling roaming musicians and artists for hours trying to find a decent space to play, and this one came by pure chance at the Bedford station beneath Williamsburg – a very good spot. Some time had passed when a man with a kind face and likeable presence stopped by to ask if he could take me somewhere to film me playing. He ran a blog which showcased NYC buskers. I explained that I wasn’t a local but would happily oblige. He took me to a station out near queens which had acoustics fit enough to challenge that of the world’s finest music halls, then continued to set up a plethora of microphones and filmed me performing until my hands bled.
I returned to West Australia in March and spent half of the year trying to claw my way back to reality – unsuccessfully. My old friends had either dispersed or disbanded, the bands I had previously played for succeeded on without me, my values and beliefs were challenged constantly and I stopped making music altogether. I soon disappeared into my record collection and grew bitter, lonely and despondent. Ashamed of lost opportunities. The previous 15 months of free-living and soul-wandering in the Americas felt more like a distant dream than a reality. I was lost.
On the 31st of October, almost a year after it was made, the NYC video surfaced on Youtube. It received a small but positive response for the next few months. Despite finding myself professionally submerged in the corporate world of medical devices I became elated by the video and slowly began to emerge from obscurity. Before too long I found myself drumming and touring with bands again, busking with the handpan occasionally and experimenting with soundscapes and beats in a small studio space I began renting.
One morning, mid-2016, I woke up to my phone having a seizure of notifications. I logged into my respective accounts to find that the NYC video was going viral on Facebook. My page went from 2000 followers to 46000 in one week and the video was ticking over a million views every couple of days. This flash success brought an abundance of attractive offers my way very quickly and left me with the daunting decision of whether I should leave my comfortable new life behind to pursue them, or not. Amongst the offers was a message from the management of the London Eye asking whether I would be interested in filming a video there. I added this to my growing list of ‘maybes’ and let it sit there until an ambitious spark eventually ignited inside of me.
I have been following La Blogotheque’s Take Away Shows religiously since the early days. I think the first video I saw was of Sufjan Stevens being pressured to play a quick song on the roof of a building he was in by an overly-enthusiastic Vincent Moon – Stevens looked slightly worried that this was all a cheeky ploy to push him off the edge. The end result was hauntingly beautiful. There is something about the way they capture not just the artist’s performance, but the mood and poetry of their surroundings whilst doing so. It was infectious for me. I remember saying at some point in my late teens “I think you know you are doing alright when you manage to film with La Blogotheque” – It has always been a dream of mine.
In September 2016 I found myself on tour around Australia drumming for Katy Steele. I had developed a healthy habit of watching TED talks in my down time. One of which was conducted by the enigmatic music journalist Narduar (the Human Serviette) where he discusses the power of simply asking. This talk left me inspirited. On a whim I decided to get in contact with Hugo Jouxtel, a director at La Blogotheque, to simply ask if he wanted to be involved with the London Eye project. I was initially drawn to Hugo’s work for some of the artists he had worked with – Kurt Vile, Daniel Johnston, Nicolas Godin, Father John Misty, Local Natives – and soon found myself gawking over his unique way of capturing the individual – there is always a sense of melancholia in it. I bit the bullet and sent the email – and to my surprise, Hugo said yes.
Now, let me digress for a brief moment.
The handpan is a difficult instrument to define. The original ‘hang’ was influenced by a combination of traditional instruments such as the steel drums of Trinidad and Tobago, the Gamelan instruments of Indonesia and African percussion instruments such as the Udu. The sound of the instrument is so captivating that it has spawned a viral community of admirers across the world which gets bigger and bigger with every month – some who play, some who build and others who simply wish to get their hands on one. Good makers have waiting lists that are years long. Bad makers exploit the desperate by inflating their prices for immediate sale. Community gatherings, mostly in Europe, are frequented by a growing list of pan fans and the instrument’s appeal seems to grow exponentially every year. This appeal is rooted in the instrument’s transcendental tones which seem to hypnotise and capture anyone who hears it. It is also a very user-friendly instrument. Each individual pan is tuned to a certain scale, meaning an unmusical mind can simply tap away and create a melody. It is fast becoming synonymous with the New-Age movement and can be easily pigeonholed as an instrument for hippies, yogis and sound healers – a stigma which I am consciously seeking to shake. This stigma has also created a rift between players of the steel pan community. The steel pan, which shares similar qualities and is essentially a protest instrument, requires great rhythmic and musical knowledge to make sing – this is not necessarily the case with the handpan.
Of the few thousands of people that play the instrument in the world, there are only a select few that I am interested in and look to for inspiration. At the top of that list is Manu Delago. I first stumbled across a video of him playing 3 years ago – a year before I received my first instrument. I remember becoming immediately enthralled by the way he played. First of all, it was completely different to all the other players I could find. He seemed to challenge the stereotype and stigma surrounding the instrument. He had distinct accuracy in his playing – a true sense of melody that only a classically trained musician could pull off, and a rhythm so infectious that it could only be achieved by a seasoned drummer. It was no surprise to me when I found out he performed regularly with the London Symphony Orchestra or went on to work with artists such as Bjork, the Cinematic Orchestra and Anoushka Shankar, not to mention his impressive solo feats. His drumming, triggering and pan work for Bjork’s Biophilia live project was seminal in my development as a musician, and his living room series has sculpted and defined the way I play the handpan today. If someone were to ask me who one of my biggest musical influence is, I would say hands down – Manu Delago.
So, it only made sense that in the spirit of Narduar I get in contact with Manu and simply ask if he would like to be a part of this take away show with La Blogotheque and the London Eye – and to my surprise, he said yes.
The power of simply asking proved itself once again.
Find more info about Sam Maher’s music here.
Manu Delago, who plays with Sam on “Whitechapel”, has a new album, Metromonk, out since January on TruThoughts. He has a bunch of shows coming in March in Australia, the US, the UK and Europe – find all the dates and info on his website.