From his experience busking in New York City subways to the rugged streets of Bolivian towns, Sam Maher and his magical handpan is a breath of fresh air.
Tell us about your musical journey?
Ever since I can remember I have been highly receptive to music. I first took up playing drums when I was 10 or 11. My sister had a massive crush on the local drum teacher in the small town I lived in and she had convinced my folks to buy her a trashy old kit. When the teacher moved away it just collected dust in a spare room. I would sneak in there, chuck my headphones on and try to emulate whatever beats and rhythms I could hear. I spent the next 12 years drumming in bands, mostly revolving around the healthy garage and psychedelic scene which was emerging in Perth, Western Australia.
In 2013 I decided I was going to drop everything and travel through Central and South America. I was looking for a melodic percussion instrument to take with me to try and make some money on the road, which lead me to the discovery of the Handpan – I immediately became obsessed. After months of trying to find one I got into contact with a German maker with years of experience tuning Steel Pans who agreed to build me my first pan. Soon after I received I hit the road for 15 months, traversing from Mexico City down to the Patagonian region of Argentina, learning the instrument on the go and surviving mostly from the money I made on the streets. At the end of 2015 a video surfaced of me improvising with the unique instrument in the subways of New York City which subsequently reached over 18 million people. The rest has fell into place from there.
Describe the reactions you get from onlookers when you’re playing the handpan?
It depends on where I am and in what environment I am performing in – generally speaking there is strange mix of perplexity and awe-inspired looks written on peoples faces. The sound that comes from the handpan conjures a resonance that hypnotises both player and listener.
My music has often been fed back to me as transcendental, reflective and deeply moving, and has proved to cut straight to the emotional core of onlookers – particularly those who live on the streets or have experienced past traumas. If I don’t manage to capture a person in any of the ways mentioned above then the reaction is usually at the other end of the spectrum – completely ignored – there isn’t much in-between.
Can you share your most memorable busking experience with us?
It’s hard to pinpoint an exact experience because I had an abundance of them busking through the Americas throughout 2014-2015. I would say that the most inspired, unique and memorable place I busked was Bolivia – A ruggedly beautiful country which is largely undeveloped, speaking some 39 languages amongst a mostly indigenous population with a long history of oppression and poverty. As a white western boy I had never felt so vulnerable – even guilty at times.
Busking through these streets was unique in the way it connected me to people I would have never been able to as a normal tourist. To be accepted by this otherworldly place and its people, so different to my own, through the power of music and my instrument was an experience I will never forget.
At Tmrw.Tday, we aim to promote conscious living. For you, what does it mean to live consciously?
We live in the age of hyper-connectivity and convenience – we are self-obsessed, indifferent and selfish as a result of it. In these times there is nothing more important than living consciously. I’m sure this means different things to different people but for me living consciously is about a general awareness of your actions and their repercussions.
I live consciously through the choice of living a vegetarian lifestyle, being culturally sensitive and aware of global events, not buying into every sentence spat out by my social media feeds, making my own decisions, trusting science, experiencing new things, consistently bettering myself, learning, living, eating, breathing, sleeping, but not being afraid to indulge at the right time, trying to live in the present, staying sane, loving the people in your life, banishing the ones that aren’t worth the effort and appreciating the world in all of its wondrous glory.
Do you believe music has the power to inspire change? If so, how?
100% yes – music is unique in its ability in allowing us to experience the same emotions regardless of political views, race, sexuality, faith – it proves that we are the same, and brings us together. It allows us to express and understand our feelings freely, to come to terms with the difficulties, the triumphs and the collective challenges we face in our lives.
With all these powerful attributes there is no surprise that music has a long documented history of inspiring change. It happens every day – the punk rockers swarming our dive bars, the hippies dancing shoeless in the sand, the protesters waiting by the gates, the kid learning to play the drums in their parents basements, the tribes singing out to their gods, the old man on his porch and the hundreds of thousands of people swaying in time at the peace concert. It is hands down THE most powerful tool we have to inspire change.
How has travelling influenced you?
The unrelenting force of new experiences and encounters you have whilst travelling plays an extremely important role in shaping you, not only as a person, but as an artist. For me, the constant exposure of new people, places, cultures and political situations allows me to absorb a much wider range of influences in music, whether this be rhythmically, melodically or simply in a change in my creative process. There is a plethora of life out there ready to be taken in, re-configured and regurgitated back out in a new form.
My influences are drastically changing week by week depending on where I am and what i’m exposed to. When I was travelling through the America’s I gained a lot from listening to Latino rhythms, Andean flute music, Amazonian tribal chants and Chilean punk. When I appeared in New York I was sucked back into the underground, taking influence from guitar bands and electronic experimentalists. etc etc. Its a never ending turnstile.
Can you share with us your fondest travel memory?
This is completely unrelated to anything musical but when I was volunteering at a wildlife refuge on the fringes of the Ecuadorian Amazon I fell in love with a wild squirrel monkey. She would hang around the refuge for the ease of finding food in an otherwise competitive part of the jungle. She was obviously friendly with most of the rehabilitating animals and was small enough to squeeze into different encampments. You would often spot her taunting the Jaguars, or hanging out with the spider monkeys.
One day a heavy rain started falling as I was finishing up my morning rounds feeding all the animals. As I was walking back to the homestead I could hear her tiny squeal coming from the treetops. When I looked up I found her shaking with fear, soaking wet and staring at me with helpless eyes.
I opened up my rain jacket and gestured for her to come inside, and to my surprise she did. She clutched to my waist until the rain stopped and then ran back up to the treetops to be with her clan.
For the next 2 weeks every time she spotted me walking around the refuge she would jump down from the treetops and sit on my shoulders where she would remain for the rest of the day. We became best buds.
I named her foot-foot – It was a sad sad day when I left her and that place behind.
What are hoping to get out of your time at Tmrw.Tday?
I’m going to be taking full advantage of everything the festival has to offer. I’m there to immerse myself, meet new people, share new experience, learn new things and hopefully inspire something in people when it comes my time to perform. I couldn’t be more excited.