Jamaican handpan business part of musical obsession

A new company in Winsloe is bringing the sweet sounds of Jamaica to Prince Edward Island and customers around the world.

'I can't really stop building instruments'

Pepeto Pinto creates traditional Jamaican steel instruments called handpans in Winsloe, P.E.I. 2:25

A new company in Winsloe is bringing the sweet sounds of Jamaica to Prince Edward Island and customers around the world.

Owner Pepeto Pinto creates handpans, small steel instruments that look like a bit like flying saucers. They're similar to a steel drum, but played with the hands instead of sticks.

Pinto learned the art of building steel drums in Jamaica, but it was not until he immigrated to Canada that he discovered handpans.

"I fell in love with it," said Pinto

"I wanted to know everything about it. How did they actually get a steel pan — and they shaped it like a sphere — and it has similar notes. And how they got to play it with their hands, rather than with a mallet. So I was blown away."

From one Island to another

Pepeto Pinto followed Nathalie Arsenault back to Canada. (CBC)

The discovery of handpans in Montreal was part of long musical journey for Pinto, who started with playing the steel drum in school, and then apprenticing under a master steel drum manufacturer.

"I can't really stop building instruments," said Pepito.

"It's just a part of me."

He was both making and playing the drums, and it was as a player that he met his wife, Prince Edward Islander Nathalie Arsenault. She was in Jamaica on an internship with CUSO. Arsenault, a fiddle player, was looking for someone to jam with.

"I sort of went to an audition for his band, which I didn't really know at the time," said Arsenault.

"We played music together - he was on the steel drum, I was on the fiddle."

Eight years ago Pinto followed Arsenault back to Canada, moving first to Montreal. A year ago, now with two young children, they moved to P.E.I.

A few months later they launched the handpan business, called Solos, based out of the family's home in Winsloe.

A long learning process

Pepeto Pinto gently works on a handpan with a mallet. (Nancy Russell/CBC)

Pinto had already been building handpans in Montreal, but it took some time to understand the process.

"I took three years to understand fully the instrument and how to build it," said Pinto.

"Although it was an inspiration of the steel drum, it still had some unique differences."

But the time invested seems to be paying off. Pinto is selling instruments all over the world, and has a waiting list of orders.

Arsenault said that is typical of most handpan manufacturers around the world.

"There's several factors why there's such a demand," said Arsenault.

"It's a pretty accessible instrument. It's also extremely mesmerizing. It almost becomes a meditation for people."

There are also not many people making them.

'It's an art'

"Pepeto has been building these types of instruments for 15 years now and it still took him a really long time to figure out how to make the handpan," she said.

Producing a handpan can take anywhere from a few days to a month.

"It's an art — an art sculpture," explained Pinto.

The musical instruments range in price from $1,200 to $6,000.

Arsenault said the couple has received support for the community, including from the provincial government through Innovation P.E.I.

"It's very different than when we were in Montreal, for example, where we were doing this but not as many people noticed or even would care because there are so many other initiatives happening," she said.

"Here, you just feel that community support."


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