I had been walking around for an hour trying to find a street musician — more precisely, a street musician playing a particular instrument — when I heard the buzzy strain of a clarinet. That wasn’t what I was looking for, but maybe it was a start.
Here in the crowded foot traffic of Bern’s Old Town, it wasn’t clear where the sound was coming from. I took a few steps in a couple of directions until I heard the muffled darts of a Middle Eastern drum accompanying the clarinet. I moved past Stauffacher, a bookstore that featured in its window not one but two books on the pop group Abba, past Magic X, an erotic megastore. At the end of the narrow alley was the clarinetist and a much taller man playing a small darbuka with a stick as thin as a baton.
I leaned against a wall, waiting for the song to end. I pulled out my laminated picture of the hang — an elusive musical instrument, introduced in 2000, which I’d come all the way to Switzerland to find. Under the picture I’d typed a caption: “Have you seen this musical instrument?” Every time I thought the musicians were winding down a tune, they segued into another. After 20 minutes, they’d gone from smiling at me (Hey, this guy really likes us!) to looking annoyed (This guy is creepy, right?). Finally I stopped them mid-tune. The pair looked at my picture, then at me. They wore the stony expressions of prison guards.
“Dutch,” the drummer said. They didn’t speak English.
The hang is a percussion instrument. It resembles a large wok with indentions on the sides and a bubble on top — all of which you strike with your hands to produce the notes. There’s an echo of the steel drum in the sound, but the hang is richer, more resonant. Thousands of people all over the world want one.
In my desperation I mimed playing it, as if that might clarify the situation, though it must have looked to them as if I was warding off bees. They shook their heads again and glanced at each other. I sulked away, but not before the drummer pointed with his toe toward the basket in front of them.
I fished out two francs.
As I walked away, they started up “Over the Rainbow.” The skies were blue, with the clouds far behind me — that was true — but my troubles weren’t exactly melting like lemon drops. Yes, I was here in beautiful Switzerland, on a musical crusade of sorts. I had, though, a sinking feeling that my troubles were just beginning.
Before I bought my plane ticket, my editor had said, “Wait — do you know it really exists?”
I’ve been playing the drums since seventh grade and collecting world percussion instruments my whole adult life. I have a dumbek from Pakistan, an angklung from Bali, a balafon from Mali, bao gongs from China, a kalimba from South Africa, a rain stick from Brazil, and tongue drums, a talking drum, an udu drum, bongos, a djembe. I have a drum set so elaborate that it’s like climbing into a helicopter cockpit to play it.
I also surf the Internet for drumming videos, and a couple of years ago I came across an instrument I’d never seen. A blond man in Rasta dreadlocks — the way Oliver Twist might have turned out if he’d moved to Jamaica — was playing the hang on a street. His hands over the instrument were like flowing water, and the melody was like a message from outer space. I was spellbound.
It was called “the hang” (pronounced “hong”), or “hand” in the Bernese German dialect, and was created by Felix Rohner and his partner, Sabina Schärer. The only way you could get one, I learned, was to write a letter — no e-mails — and make a case as to why you were worthy of owning this instrument. Most applications were denied. The lucky recipient then had to fly to Bern to pick up the hang in person — and pay about $3,000. But not right away; there was a waiting list of a year or longer.
With two sons still to send off to college, I was no more likely to pay that than I was to start driving a German tank, but my want was modest: I was seeking a single encounter.
Felix had co-written papers for the International Symposium on Musical Acoustics, and sometimes the name Uwe Hansen was attached. I called him to see if he could put me in touch with Felix.
These guys didn’t play around. Back in 1966, Uwe’s PhD dissertation in physics was titled “Dielectric Anomalies in the Cyclotron Absorption Spectrum of Lead Telluride.”
“He’s sort of a part-musician, part-scientist and part-theological philosopher,” Uwe said of Felix.
He forwarded an e-mail to Felix for me: “I would travel all the way to Bern for the chance to play a Hang even for five minutes,” I wrote.
In his e-mail reply, Felix wrote: “It seems you were touched by the virus of the Hang. This virus is rather strong, and people travel around the world to get touched again. ...”
He also wrote, “The Hang chapter is closed, and we turned the page.” His company, PANArt, had modified the hang, and now it was called the gubal.
“This sounds like a project of a pilgrimage,” he concluded. “We are not a place like that.”
The e-mail was signed by Felix and Sabina.
In my follow-up, in case I had come off as a stalker, I made clear that I’d also be writing about other music in Switzerland.
He wrote back that their goal was to stay humble. “We do our daily work like monks.”
I tried one last angle. Would he at least put me in touch with other hang players?
The maker of the hang didn’t respond to that question. He had, essentially, hung up on me.
But Switzerland had more hang players than any other country — I’d seen them in the videos. I’d simply find one myself. Somehow. And if I struck out completely, well, there was other material to be had: The country was crawling with yodelers.
After the clarinetist and drummer in the alley, I went to meet Thomas Burkhalter, a musicologist who runs a world-music Web site called Norient. He had interviewed Felix Rohner in 2001 about his new creation.
“He was very open, but then, he wanted to sell the hang, you know,” Thomas said.
Thomas, 41, started Norient in 2002 to showcase experimental music. “I traveled as a journalist — as a print and radio journalist — to places like Istanbul and Cairo,” he said, “and I was sometimes a bit annoyed that in Europe people always wanted to hear the cliche side of these places, you know? Like reggae in Jamaica, or if you were in Istanbul, you just want to hear Turkish music.”
When we talked about the traditional music of Switzerland — yodeling, accordions, alphorns — Thomas said its popularity had gotten a boost because of the recent rise of the conservative movement.
“In Switzerland we have a big struggle between the left and the right,” he said. “You have the conservative side, and that is against Europe, against foreigners, against everything, basically. And then you have the more left side, where we are the part that wants to show another feature of Switzerland — that is modern and open to the world.”
The alphorn and the accordion had been co-opted by the conservatives, he said, as if to say, Why would we ever need anything else? “So there’s the motivation to show, for these musicians, that they are not part of the right wing.”
As it happened, I was devoting the next day to getting better rooted in traditional Swiss music in a region few tourists visit. I wasn’t likely to find the hang there, but I’d get a good education in the instruments that had helped shape part of the country’s musical image for the rest of the world.
The Emmental is a countryside of rolling hills, chalet-style farmhouses, and cows and sheep dotting the plush landscape like snowflakes. East of Bern, it’s most famous for its cheese production, which plays a major role in the Swiss economy, but there’s another production that goes on here to create some of the country’s most recognizable music.
Our first stop was what my driver and interpreter, Christian Billau, called “the Rolls-Royce” of accordion makers: Hansruedi Reist’sworkshop. Hansruedi made a Schwyzerörgeli, a type of accordion marked by buttons, not keys, and notable for its slender size and elegant craftsmanship.
When we walked into the two-story factory, the air was so thick with the scent of lumber it was like walking into wood itself. Generally, the place would have been teeming with its employees, but many Swiss were on holiday, and there was just Hansruedi, his son and one other. As Hansruedi, 59, spoke, Christian translated the business’s origins:
Hansruedi’s father, Rudolf, was an uneducated mechanic out of work in 1966. The family wasn’t sure how they could continue putting food on the table, so he had to sell everything he owned — even his beloved accordion. His only idea to earn money was to build an accordion to sell. But how to make it distinctive from all the others in the marketplace?
Rudolf’s stroke of genius was to make the treble key arms, which control the air coming in and out, of metal instead of wood. The difference was significant. In humid conditions, the wooden parts made the sound inconsistent. Metal solved that.
That first instrument he sold to a good friend, “and the good friend was a truck driver,” Hansruedi said. “When he was making a break at the truck stop somewhere, he [brought out] his instrument and played in the restaurant. And the people came and asked, ‘Hey, what kind of instrument is this?’ And then he said, ‘Ah, it’s an instrument my buddy does.’ ” And that, Hansruedi said, was how “it keeps rolling” today.
In 1994 Hansruedi took over the business from his father, and now Hansruedi’s two sons work under him. Rudolf, at 88, still liked to come in each day.
As we toured the shop, where saw blades hung on the wall like family portraits, Hansruedi said the waiting list for a Schwyzerörgeli was at least a year. They produce roughly 140 annually, ranging from $3,000 to $13,000.
Before we left, I fished out my picture of the hang and asked if he had ever seen it. He studied it and shook his head no.
Back in the car, Christian said we were now about to meet the “Rolls-Royce of alphorn makers.” (Was this just a Swiss way of seeing things? Was there also a Rolls-Royce of the country’s vegetable peelers? Fondue pots?)
The alphorn is a key sound of traditional Swiss music, but you might know it more for the way it looks: Usually about 10 feet long, its silhouette conjures indoor plumbing pipes. One plays the alphorn like a bugle: no keys or buttons. All the variations of sound come from the musician, whose notes push down through the instrument like downhill skiers.
Bachmann’s Alphornmachereisits in a valley as green as a Scottish golf course. Inside, Walter Bachmann greeted us in the dimly lit workshop as his father, also named Hansruedi, sanded an instrument on the far end. And just as with Hansruedi Reist, Walter, 42, had a story to tell about the company’s origin.
His grandfather Ernst Schuepbach was 13 when he wanted to play the alphorn, but his family was too poor to buy one, so he set out to make his own, which he completed in 1925. He, too, sold his creation to a friend — for 2 francs. When he made his next sale, it went for 50.
Originally, Walter said, “The idea of this alphorn was this communication instrument because you can hear it [from] 10 kilometers, so ... you can communicate with different tones — about the weather, different things. Warnings.”
“The melody explained the mood,” he continued. “They played it, and the people on the opposite hill could imagine what the needs were.”
Unlike the accordion, though, the alphorn didn’t have an easy time finding acceptance because it was a poor farmer’s instrument, Walter said. Farmers came into the city during winter to play for spare coins.
The alphorn’s prospects would eventually find a sweeter note, but carrying the instrument could make you wish you played the flute. During World War II, Walter said, the “main transportation was the bike.” Fortunately, the alphorn was usually made up of two pieces that could be screwed together instead of a whole cut of wood. That didn’t make the instrument any lighter, but it might have cut down on cyclists clotheslining one another.
The alphorn got an unlikely boost by way of Pepe Lienhard, a Swiss bandleader who appeared on TV in 1977 performing the hit “Swiss Lady.” The song not only featured the alphorn, it was about the alphorn! (But when we’re playin’ our music, it’s like a dream coming true / My little Swiss lady — she’s a little bit crazy / But when we’re playin’ our music, I’d like to be an alphorn too)
Suddenly, an alphorn boom began, and even furniture makers with no musical background decided to get in on the newfound popularity. They produced alphorns more with machines than with their hands. “They made the quality go down, and the price went down,” Walter said.
These days, there are 30 professional alphorn makers in Switzerland, he said, but only three others, like Bachmann’s, make them all by hand. Their waiting list was even longer than Hansruedi Reist’s: two years. (If the country is ever in need of a motto, they might try “Visit Switzerland: The Waiting Capital of the World!”)
Walter went trolling through a collection of mouthpieces and fitted one onto the grand horn in front of us. He motioned for me to give it a try.
I put my lips to it and had the distinct feeling I was about to summon a dragon. I inhaled a huge breath, then made a long, sad, gurgling note that, had someone been listening over the hills, might have been translated like this: “Hi, Didier, it’s David. From The Post. So I don’t guess you or Yasmina play the hang, by chance? And I’m hearing good things about your cows this year!”
As we were leaving, I took out my hang picture. Bachmann hadn’t seen one in person, but he knew a little about Felix Rohner: “He’s quite extreme.”
Next, Christian, who is the head of an Emmental tourist office, drove us 12 miles to Switzerland’s foremost expert on the zither, if not the world’s. (I was sorry, though, to learn that his name wasn’t also Hansruedi.) On the way Christian talked about his own hopes for the Emmental, though they weren’t musical ones.
It pained him that visitors to Switzerland came to this region in such few numbers — not more than 3 percent, he said. “This is a lovely countryside of Switzerland, undiscovered countryside,” he said. He couldn’t help but think that people would love the chance to sleep on these beautiful farms, to hike here and see “the real culture of Switzerland and the real Swiss people.” Part of the challenge was that there were too few restaurants, too few inns to accommodate visitors. He had good relationships with the people of the Emmental, though. He was sure he could make it work. But, he said, change didn’t come easily here.
While the alphorn and the accordion were doing brisk business, fate hadn’t proved so kind to the zither, which might date back as far as the 1500s. Generally the zither is a flat, wooden structure with multiple strings you pluck or strum while either holding it on your lap or in front of you.
At the zither museum, I took out my picture of the hang right away to show Lorenz Mühlemann, who spoke English. Lorenz, 54, said he had heard it on the streets of Bern. “Sometimes it’s there, and sometimes it’s not,” he said.
I told him about my quest and trotted out my premise that the hang was one of Switzerland’s great musical contributions. His face tightened, as if he’d just suffered a long, hypodermic needle injection. “There are also other great things in Switzerland concerning music,” Lorenz said evenly. “For example, the zither.” And so began his tour.
Lorenz’s museum is made up of two rooms that showcase an astonishing range of zithers from earlier centuries, some with fresco-like art on the main body, or sound box, with the number of strings from four to 122.
Why isn’t the zither better known today? I asked.
He showed the needle face again. “Well, just because,” he said.
Running the museum was just one aspect of his labor of love. He gave concerts, wrote books, gave lessons, did repairs, researched and collected old zither sheet music. He got on the radio and TV about the zither. He had also made more than a dozen recordings himself.
And when he played a zither, its euphony cascaded through the room. Lorenz played exquisitely, intensely, and it was easy to think of him as a man simply born about 100 years too late. In another time, he could have been the Eric Clapton of the zither.
Had it been easy to get visitors to the museum? I asked.
“In Switzerland, nothing is easy,” Lorenz said, and released a tight smile.
Considering the zither’s long life, its struggle for attention has been relatively recent. “Before World War II,” he said, “it was absolutely cool to play this for the young people, and after World War II, it was absolutely uncool.” As jazz took off, the trumpet and saxophone became more popular, then, as rock-and-roll emerged, the electric guitar made the zither feel like ... the zither.
Lorenz picked up one from the 20th century and coaxed out a rather sad melody, but it seemed to fill him up again to strum it. When he was done, the echo of notes drifted through the room like mist. He sat very still.
“Nobody plays it anymore,” he said. “It’s absolutely forgotten.”
In Bern I was staying at the Hotel Innere Enge, also known as the Jazz Hotel. I had taken it as a positive sign that I was booked into the Ahmad Jamal room because Jamal, who was a major influence on Miles Davis and used to play at Washington’s Blues Alley every New Year’s Eve, is my favorite pianist.
Downstairs, Marian’s Jazzroom, which the hotel boasts as being one of the top jazz clubs in the world, was closed that evening, but peering through the window, you see a hologram of Dizzy Gillespie. On the way to the second floor is a wide-eyed bust of Louis Armstrong. And on the third floor is a set of vibes Lionel Hamptonused while touring Europe.
One of the chief advantages of staying at the delightful Innere Enge, it turned out, was its proximity to PANArt.
Even though Felix had been clear he didn’t want to meet with me, I decided that a single drop-in couldn’t hurt. I bargained with myself that I would go just this once, and whatever happened, that would be it. But by the time I got there, after all the stops in the Emmental, the lights were off. I pushed my nose to the glass and peered in.
What I could see, about four feet away, was a shelf of 16 gubals. The new design resembled Saturn. For several minutes I stood there and studied this wine rack of extraordinary music.
It was raining, which seemed appropriate enough. They were right there, yet I felt as if I were still 4,000 miles away.
If I had had an alphorn, the message I would have sent would have been shorter this time. And in the key of D.
On my third day, I walked over to a music store called Musik Müllerto talk to Tom Gunzburger, 42, the head of the drums and percussion section. Tom had had his own experience with Felix Rohner. In the beginning, Felix had let him sell the hang in the store.
“And then suddenly [Felix] says, ‘Stop.’ He doesn’t want to have to do something with shops. He just wants to sell by himself. That was it.”
Over time, Musik Müllerbegan to sell the knockoffs that slipped into the marketplace. (PANArt was late and, ultimately, unsuccessful in trying to patent its design.) There was the German-made caisa that Musik Müller displayed in the front window. One day, Felix happened to be walking by. “He saw that, and he came in and was very angry,” Tom said. “And said, ‘Well, with this instrument you destroy your shop.’ ”
“What the hell?” Tom said now, at the memory of that encounter. Sometime after, there was a repeat performance when the store started carrying another knockoff, produced in France, called the Spacedrum. “This is not a good copy,” Tom said Felix told him. “They all make s---.”
There was, of course, a waiting list for the Spacedrum, too.
For me, the Spacedrum was like encountering a Marilyn Monroe impersonator. A little stirring at first, sure, but to feel anything more is to give yourself permission to feel dishonest. And I hadn’t come all this way for a substitute.
I fished out my map of Bern and went looking for a spot where someone said they’d seen a hang player recently. It happened to be in front of the Einstein House, where Albert Einstein lived from 1903 to 1905, when he was developing his special theory of relativity. Inside, you see the parlor room where the great thinker might have scribbled notes on the space-time continuum.
When I came out, there was no hang player around, but a dulcimer player had set up. He was playing something familiar, but it took me a minute to place it: “Smoke on the Water,” by Deep Purple, with its simple, Neanderthalish guitar riff. On dulcimer, though, it sounded as if Deep Purple had been turned into a phalanx of fairies.
I walked across the street to the Bern Conservatory, where Markus Plattner, 62, the assistant director and an accomplished guitarist, had agreed to meet me. Markus’s office was airy and orderly, with a keyboard and acoustic guitar at easy reach from his desk. Long windows opened to a pleasant breeze.
Years ago, he told me, he and the director were invited to Felix’s house to see the hang. “We went there because we were generally interested in maybe having the hang at the school,” he said. “I remember, I felt a bit strange. We never got to talk to [Felix]. He didn’t actually talk. [Sabina] took care of the conversation.”
The conservatory did get a hang, but after a while, Markus said, Felix demanded to have it back without explanation.
At that point, the plinking sounds of round two of “Smoke on the Water” cascaded in. Markus stopped to listen and said, “What we’re hearing out there, the dulcimer, that’s very popular right now.” He said there was a new folk scene in Switzerland, with influences from jazz, pop and rock. Injected with a modern sensibility. That got him onto the subject, as it had for Thomas at Norient, about the identity of the country. Conservatives, he believed, were saying, “We don’t need all that modern stuff. We have our folk music, our yodeling, our Schwyzerörgeli.” But, he pointed out, “for artistic musicians, that doesn’t cover it all, does it?”
Before we said goodbye, I asked him if he’d play something on the guitar. He cradled it in his arms as if it were a toddler and began to pluck “The Nearness of You.” It was soulful and strained with a little melancholy, I thought. Or maybe that was just the mood I had fallen into. It was late afternoon, and I had only one full day left to find the hang.
Journalist Jessica Dacey had interviewed Felix and Sabina for a story on the Web site Swissinfo.ch two months earlier. She agreed to meet, and when we sat down that evening in a wine bar she said she was still surprised she had even gotten the interview.
In her story, she referred to the hang as “a kind of Holy Grail for tens of thousands of people around the world.”
In the piece, Felix says: “20,000 letters and everyone is talking about the same thing. They tell us the story of when they first encountered this sound.”
“They want to keep it a small production,” she said, as a guess as to why they wouldn’t talk with me. “They’re not interested in making money. For them it’s all about the artifice. In fact, they don’t even call it an instrument — they call it a sound sculpture.”
Jessica, 43, knew plenty about music: Her husband is a British recording artist who goes by the name Merz (in one of his videos, set in the woods, he plays with a drum ensemble that keeps the beat by hitting trees and rustling leaves — perhaps to invoke nontraditional forces. Or maybe the budget was just really low). She suggested that the musical experimentation in the country, and also the jazz influence and the very openness in Swiss culture, was a perfect combination for the unique qualities of the hang.
“It’s one of those things that kind of transcends culture,” she said.
The evening sky was turning pink and violet, and she needed to head off. The streets were quiet, and all the way back to my hotel it occurred to me that my being booked in the Ahmad Jamal room had been all wrong. I was in search of a percussion instrument; I should have asked for the Louis Bellson room. Bellson pioneered the use of two bass drums at once, and Duke Ellington called him “the world’s greatest musician.” The Louis Bellson room had drumsticks on the wall, a mounted snare drum!
I felt more behind the beat than ever.
A musician who lived in Liestal, a 50-minute train ride north, had expressed an openness to meeting, but the way my luck was going, I figured I’d reach the town and spend the next hours waiting in vain.
On my last day in Switzerland, though, Andreas Gerber, 57, pulled up on his bicycle exactly when we said we’d meet. Andreas, who has the wiry build of someone who has been too busy his whole life to eat, took me up to the loft of a building that also housed a movie theater, and opened the door.
The cavernous room was like Santa’s workshop if Santa Claus were a Nigerian percussion master. There were steel drums and a whole wall of African bells. There were shakers and gongs and pouches of decorative mallets posted on wooden beams, berimbaus and a balafon. There was a piano and string instruments, and more hand drums than I could count. And in front of all of that, Andreas had set out two hangs — not unlike the way a date might set the table for a romantic dinner — next to each other on stands, shimmering like blue diamonds.
Here is what followed:
We played the same hang together, and we played the hangs separately. Improvising melodies. He jumped on the piano as I played, and he picked up the guitar and grabbed shakers and the melodica and lorded over the rantang. Sometimes he sang as we played — in English, in German, in no language at all.
For me, playing the hang was like a first kiss, in that it was both wonderful and maybe not exactly what I had imagined. Or maybe it was like driving an exquisite foreign sports car for the first time: I didn’t always know where to put my hands. I went too fast. I felt unworthy. (Wait, did I just describe my first kiss again?)
Andreas would have a story for each of his five hangs (here was the one his wife sang most beautifully with; here was the one he loaned to a friend whose friend was dying and wanted to play it while he still could ...), and he would have me play each one.
He told me of his travels and studying music in Brazil, Korea, Africa, India, Bali, California.
His father had been a preacher, and he was raised in a fundamentalist Christian environment. Church music pervaded the house. But there was no denying Andreas “Satisfaction” when his two older brothers made him aware of the Rolling Stones. “That was a turning point,” he said. “It gave me electrifying feeling for my body.”
It led him, eventually, into the study of TaKeTiNa, which emphasizes the healthy effects rhythm has on the mind, body and soul. He has been teaching that and improvisation for decades. But even for a world traveler and musician, the discovery of the hang cast a spell.
“It’s the most beautiful sound I ever heard,” he said.
Over the years he kept going back to Felix for more. No two hangs are exactly the same, and Andreas kept falling in love with another and expanding the family like a musical polygamist. He wanted to use them in groups, with choirs, whatever musical context interested him. But, he says, Felix became disapproving of this approach, and eventually their relationship became more tense.
“He started more and more saying the hang is not a drum, not a percussion instrument,” Andreas said. “ ‘The hang brings you back to yourself. The role of this instrument in the world is to bring people back to their self, their center.’ Which is a beautiful thing. ... I respect this vision, but here’s my ‘but’: I find it not okay to say that people who do something else with it mistreat it, are doing wrong.”
We kept playing.
Andreas understood that when this story came out, Felix might end their relationship. This would be particularly difficult, he explained, since Felix and Sabina were the only people he knew who could tune a hang.
But, he said, “I’m a free man.”
We both knew when we had played our last notes together.
By the time I stepped outside again, I was amazed to realize that, as much as I had loved playing the hang, I no longer harbored the fantasy of owning one. I had something better now: the memories of meeting all these good people over these four days and hearing their stories — and their wonderful playing. And memories wouldn’t need tuning.
Maybe Felix was right: Maybe I had had the virus. Now I seemed to be cured.
At the station, as the train rounded the bend to take me back to Bern, I reached out to shake Andreas’s hand, but he pulled me into an embrace. We broke into laughter — over the fact that I’d come so far for this encounter, that we were two people who took such immense pleasure in the beating of a drum.
The endless roads you could travel to find harmony.
David Rowell is the deputy editor of the Magazine. To comment on this story, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit washingtonpost.com/magazine.