Interview with Manu Delago: What I like the most is when I play to large groups of people and it gets absolutely quiet
Manu Delago’s handpan and Anoushka Shankar’s sitar – The Privileged Glimpse into a World of Bliss
Interview by Cristina Enescu
An Austrian from Tirol playing an instrument created in Switzerland, anybody? How about a mesmerizing concert of world famous sitar magician Anoushka Shankar alongside “one of her favourite musicians”, Manu Delago, playing the handpan unlike anybody I’ve seen before? Delago is the Austrian mentioned above, and the instrument he played at the George Enescu Festival 2017 was born in Switzerland.
Manu Delago is an interesting musician in his own right. Percussionist and pianist, composer and producer, with a classical percussion diploma from the Mozarteum in Innsbruck and another jazz drums one from the Guildhall School of Music & Drama in his pocket, he has collaborated with the likes of London Symphony Orchestra and Björk. Since discovering the handpan, he has created musical encounters between this instrument and the piano, violin and the clarinet. His handpan solo piece Mono Desire has been rated in the Top 30 music videos on Youtube.
As a tamer of the handpan, sharing the Romanian Atheneum stage with Anoushka Shankar (both musicians playing compositions of their own), this musician was a very interesting discovery. Him, just like this instrument, you cannot quite grasp: an Austrian with an Italian name, wearing at the Bucharest concert a sort of kurta (Indian shirt) and shalwar (calves tightened trousers)-type of clothes; when I talked to him after the mesmerizing concert he gave with Ravi Shankar’s daughter and half sister of Norah Jones, he spoke of the handpan seemingly like of a special instrument, but still one among others. Yet, the way he plays it feels like a meditation, blending superbly, like a symbiosis, with Anoushka Shankar’s sitar.
About her famous father, Ravi Shankar, who made the world discover and bow to India’s ancient musical tradition, his revered friend and collaborator, conductor Zubin Mehta, said: “As a musician, I’ve always felt like a little crumb in his presence”. Continuing the beautiful collaboration that the two giant Indian personalities had during Ravi’s life, Mehta has been also touring the world with Ravi’s daughter, Anoushka, bringing the world more of that captivating blend of classical music and the sitar. She has also continued the tradition and has engaged in various musical collaborations of her own.
From all points of view (sound, vibration, energy, body movements while playing), both of these musicians playing at the George Enescu Festival 2017 seemed to belong to the same world, one of beauty beyond time and space. I confess having been so mesmerized by the handpan’s sound ever since I discovered it, that I dwelled in its perceived ancient Oriental flavour without knowing about its origins, until I talked to Manu Delago. The handpan (or hang, in its original version created by the Swiss company PanArt, in a limited number each year, until 2013) was officially born in 2000. The Trinidad steel drums and the ghatam (one of the oldest percussion instruments in South India, a clay pot with a narrow mouth) have provided inspiration for this instrument.
Manu Delago’s handpan might be a fairly new instrument, born in the land of Swiss watches, but what was born from the interaction of his hands with this instrument (from caresses with his hands or a short brush, to poking with fingers or even fists), alongside the sitar on the stage of the Romanian Atheneum was simply one of the most precious musical experiences of this year’s (otherwise very rich in its wholeness) George Enescu Festival.
After thanking him for the exquisite gift he and Anoushka had given us, I asked Manu Delago how his love story with the handpan began.
Well I’ve always been a drummer, but I’ve also played the marimba (African style of percussion instrument, resembling the xylophone – C.E.), the piano too… When I saw a handpan for the first time, it felt like an instrument where all the things that I’ve done before where in one instrument and very close together, there is that beautiful melodic aspect of it but there are also rhythmic and sort of percussive aspects too. I started playing it more and more, and really got into it. It also gave me a great opportunity as a composer, as it was a new instrument. That whole package sparked my love for it and I’ve been playing it ever since.
What more is it than just the obvious, a percussion instrument?
I think when you play it gently it’s quite similar to a harp, it has this very gentle and beautiful side to it, that’ was new for me. The handpan is a very versatile instrument, and I try to get as much variety out of it as possible. I get bored quite easily, so I have to sort of push against the boundaries of the instrument as much as I can. Indeed, it does go through different emotions, colors, dynamics throughout a concert.
What do you think about the fact that our European ears are so often fooled by its sound into believing it is an ancient Oriental instrument?
It could be, but it doesn’t actually come from there, as I’ve told you, on the contrary in fact, there is no tradition, no culture behind it – which makes it very open, like a blank page. That is something I saw as an opportunity. It was also a challenge for me, as there were no teachers or schools for it, so I had to basically learn everything myself. I think it might be the new sound that attracts people, you don’t really know where to put it.
No Far Eastern roots, yet it blends so beautifully with the sitar in the hands of Anoushka Shankar. How did your collaboration start?
We met in London, where we both live. We did a little jam session, to see the two instruments together. That worked really well, then our collaboration got more and more intense, we started touring and then also writing music together, including her last album Lands of Gold, which we co-wrote. By now we’ve been playing more than 100 concerts together, with various orchestras and bands or as a duo.
Do you still focus on other instruments, or has the handpan taken hold of you?
It is definitely one of my main instruments, but I play drums a lot too. When I write music, I play all sort of instruments, guitar, electronics. I also compose orchestra music, so in a way there is a big musical world unrelated to the handpan that I work with. But, as a performer, I do use it a lot.
To me, your music felt like a meditation rather than an interpretation. Does it feel somehow the same to you?
Well I’m told about different emotions and images that people have during my performances, or that my music is very cinematic, that it takes people on different journeys in their minds. What I find very special is when I play to large groups of people and it gets absolutely quiet… That’s an amazing atmosphere.
What further steps do you see in your handpan musical way?
I try not to repeat myself, so I’ll definitely try out new paths with it. But the dynamics are always a challenge, this instrument is very quite in its nature, so I don’t think I’ll work a lot in big instruments groups with it. Although I do that too, for example next July I will play with a symphony orchestra in Australia. Sometimes there are interesting projects and I do them.
With Anoushka we are still touring with the Lands of Gold album, this year we are playing a concert at Philharmonie de Paris, one more in Australia, and then next year we go on an Australian and Asian tour.
By the way Asia, have you played the handpan there?
A little bit, yes. In India, for example, it’s a very special instrument for them and they are very attracted to it because it reminds them of the tabla which they have a big connection to (table players like this instrument a lot too), but not quite, as it can do more things because it’s melodic. When I go to China or Japan, they are also fascinated but for different reasons. Or maybe actually it’s more fascinating for me, cause people in Europe think it’s somehow an Asian instrument, or maybe Caribbean, but in Asia they’ve got no idea either ways, they guess it’s something else… Everyone guesses it’s from somewhere but no one guesses it’s from Switzerland. Either way, reactions of the audiences have been great everywhere in the world.
Do you have an instrument of choice when you need to unwind?
It depends where I am, what I have available. I also love the piano.. If you have a nice grand piano in a nice room, that’s like the queen of instruments.
If that’s the queen, what is the handpan then?
A little princess, maybe….
And so, the interview ends in the mist. The magic around Manu Delago’s handpan and the added magic of his collaboration with Anoushka Shankar have not been shattered by his words, I feel. As it should be, perhaps, because the joy of having listened to them and keeping up with their future projects is, in itself, a great gift.