Under the Radar shines a light on lesser-known cover artists. If you’re not listening to these folks, you should. Catch up on past installments here.
Last year, a study by Fender and YouGov of Americans between 16-34 revealed that 16 million people had taken up the guitar since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. Speaking to Insider about the study, Fender CEO Andy Mooney estimated that “as many as 72 million people are playing the guitar right now.” These are impressive statistics, and something to be celebrated. However, it’s hard not to wonder if the prominence of instruments like the guitar might be pushing other, less-well known instruments to the sidelines.
One person doing a lot to change this is London-based percussionist Rosie Bergonzi. Rosie has a YouTube channel dedicated to the handpan, a unique flying-saucer shaped instrument that can trace its roots back to the Trinidadian steel drum. The channel is a goldmine of information, featuring lessons, interactive livestreams, and an eclectic selection of covers arranged especially for the handpan.
“I first started playing the handpan in 2015,” Rosie tells Cover Me. “A few years before, I heard a busker playing in the street, and I thought it was the most amazing thing I’d ever heard–I was determined to have one! So after a lot for searching I found my own handpan and have kept up with it from there.”
The handpan itself was created in Switzerland in 2001 by steel drum makers Sabrina Scharer and Felix Rohner of Pan Art, based on a suggestion by hand percussionist Reto Weber. For its first twelve years of existence the instrument – originally known as the Hang drum – was extremely hard to come by, available only by sending a special request directly to Pan Art. However, once Pan Art ceased production of Hang drums in 2013, the instrument became widely available from other makers, soon becoming known as the handpan.
How does Rosie go about choosing songs to cover?
“I’ve found that the tunes have to be very melodic for an instrumental cover, so rap, for example, is really hard to make effective as it’s all about the words. It’s always surprising ones that work well, so I ask around a lot for song suggestions – any genre!”
And what about arranging the songs for the handpan?
“I get the chords down, normally while singing the tune. Then I work out the melody. The harder job is working out how to play the two at the same time. My handpans have limited amounts of notes (9-17) so getting the melody to sing clearly is an interesting challenge. My favorite part is working out the arrangement, sometimes playing with the speeds to make it feel really different to the original.”
To demonstrate this process, Rosie started a series called Covers Done Quick, where she selects a song a random and adapts it for the handpan in just one hour.
Let’s look at some of Rosie’s other handpan covers…
Lean on Me – Bill Withers
With your eyes closed, it would be easy to assume that you were listening to several different instruments play this great cover of Bill Withers’ 1972 classic. That’s the beauty of the handpan: it can handle multiple parts of an arrangement by itself, combining percussion with multiple melody lines.
Let it Go – from Frozen (2013)
“Let It Go” was everywhere in 2013 and for a while afterwards, so you may feel like you don’t need to hear it again. But you do! This inventive arrangement combines Rosie’s handpan with clarinet, played by Jessie Grimes. Jessie and Rosie each take a turn playing the main melody line while the other accompanies.
Three Little Birds – Bob Marley
It might seem like the handpan would fit awkwardly in a band context, but – as this cover proves – that’s not the case at all. In a trio consisting of bass (Thea Sayer) and flute (Daniel Swani), Rosie demonstrates the handpan’s ability to add color and texture behind the other musicians, as well as taking the lead.