Musical Instruments from around the World – at Ray Man Music Shop, London, UK

Mrs Man For Blog
Mrs Man selecting some silk strings for my erhu, helped by her son (arm just visible).

Wandering through London’s Covent Garden in the mid 90s, I noticed a display of unusual stringed instruments hanging up in an open shop doorway. Inside there were drums of many types and strange looking percussion instruments. It was my first encounter with Ray Man’s music shop and long before I had begun to study ‘world music’. When I went back some years later with the notion of buying an erhu, I couldn’t find it. I asked around and was relieved to discover that the shop hadn’t closed down … it had moved to Camden.

Now, located close to London’s Chalk Farm tube station, Ray Man’s shop is a rare and unusual find. What’s so special about it? It is one of few shops in the UK where you can buy a guzheng, a gong and a güiro. Don’t know what they are? Just ask. Ray Man and his family are a fount of knowledge of instruments from many parts of the world and specialists in traditional Chinese instruments, Chinese music and Cantonese music in particular. They are friendly and helpful, giving you advice on choosing an instrument, how to tune it and how to learn to play it. Ray Man Music Shop is more than just a shop – it’s a valuable resource on musical instruments from China and beyond.

Ray Man's Instruments erhus
Stringed instruments from India, China, Vietnam and Laos. Two harmoniums in front.

There was nothing like it when Ray Man came to London from Hong Kong in 1955, arriving with little more than his musical talent. He began performing and teaching Chinese music and started a Cantonese Opera club. He soon became popular in Chinatown for his musical expertise and his amiable personality. He opened his first musical instrument shop in 1972 and has devoted his life to passing on his cultural heritage, running weekly classes and giving individual lessons.

Ray Man coconut fiddle
Ray Man playing a coconut fiddle.

Now in his eighties, Ray Man’s enthusiasm and interest in music is as lively as ever. He has to be persuaded to have a rest. His wife and sons now run the shop and although there’s no online shop, I did buy an Egyptian oud by telephone and it was carefully packaged and sent to Edinburgh, arriving in a box the size of a fridge!

At a future date, I shall bring you more of Ray Man’s story, including his memories of childhood in rural Hong Kong and his early days in London. In the meantime, if you want to take up a musical instrument but are not sure what, take a look in Ray Man’s music shop for some inspiration. Like many high street shops these days, Ray Man’s has to compete with the internet and its specialism is a niche market. But this is a unique treasure trove – so anyone who is involved in teaching children, or who wants to encourage their child’s (or indulge their own) musical curiosity should have a look at their selection of delightful instruments: thumb pianos, frog scrapers, gigantic seed pods, tiny bells, and thunder tubes to name a few. If you want to know about any Chinese instrument, from the smallest bamboo flute to the most gigantic gong or if you happen to be in Camden and want to buy a ukulele, Ray Man’s the man.

Ray Man's shop violins
Singing bowls, violins, strings and accessories.
Ray Man drums
Chinese drums, Indian drums (tabla) and bongos.
Ray Man's percussion
From tambourines, African pod shakers, maracas and opera gongs to agogo bells, kokirikos, cocoa seed pod and fruit shakers: a tempting feast of percussion instruments.

Ray Man Music Shop is located at: 54 Chalk Farm Road, Camden, London NW1 8AN

Ray Man Music Shop Facebook Page

Chinese Musical Instruments: Is that an Erhu?

The first time I heard the erhu played live, I couldn’t quite believe the sound I was hearing from across the street. I had been walking up Edinburgh’s Royal Mile when the Festival was in full swing, buskers and actors filling the place with music and loud voices. Above it all soared a beautiful, haunting melody – it sounded like a flute or a high-voiced singer but as I got nearer, I saw a young Chinese woman in a long dress playing an erhu – a Chinese two-stringed bowed instrument.

This happened about ten years ago and I had been told by a Chinese musician friend that since I play the cello it would be simple to learn to play the erhu. But, earlier that summer, I had tried one and struggled to get more than an ugly scraping sound out of it. Here it was, a few feet away from me, being played with such skill. I was transfixed by the sight and sound. I went up to buy a CD and left a note asking if she would be willing to teach me. She agreed and that is how I came to have erhu lessons with Yan Xi, in a gallery on Edinburgh’s Victoria Street, where her husband’s wonderful paintings of Edinburgh were for sale. In this You Tube clip the performer (Liu Hong) demonstrates the expressive range of the erhu.

The erhu is made with a wooden soundbox like a small drum, usually hexagonal. The front is covered in python skin and the back with a piece of lattice work. The neck of the instrument is a long narrow piece of wood  – there is no fingerboard so the left hand fingers create different notes by placing them on the two strings.

The strings are positioned close together and their vibrating length secured by a piece of thread wound around the neck. Originally the strings were made of silk but in the 1950s, the custom of using metal strings was introduced, to increase the instrument’s volume and modernise it.

Erhu Pic 1 copy small

To play the erhu, the bow hair goes between the two strings and Yan Xi showed me how to play the outer string with one side of the hair and the inner string with the other side. You have to put rosin on both sides of the hair, of course and then use fingers and thumb to bring the bow hair towards each particular string. The erhu has an expressive quality similar to a human voice and that is what I have been aiming for, for years but have yet to master. I had only had half a dozen lessons when Yan Xi and her husband’s visas ran out and they returned to China.

Since then, I have been teaching myself and learning by copying some of the many erhu players I have met over the years including Mike Wang – musical director of Edinburgh Chinese Community Orchestra. I recently had a few lessons from another player from the orchestra in exchange for cello lessons. I’ve also had a few people tell me recently that it’s the most difficult Chinese instrument to play!

The erhu is one of a variety of similar ancient instruments found throughout China and many parts of the world, referred to generically as ‘spike fiddles’. The name ‘erhu’ derives from er meaning two (as in two stringed) and hu from hu-qin meaning barbarian instrument – a reference to related instruments originating from China’s north and western borders.* 

Since the instrument’s revamp and the introduction of ‘conservatoire’ music education in the 50s, playing techniques have advanced and the erhu has become a highly regarded example of Chinese culture. Although nowadays, Western instruments are increasingly popular in China, the erhu maintains its presence in the Chinese orchestra and its prominent role in Chinese opera as well as its ability to astonish audiences when played as a solo instrument. 

*For a detailed history and development of the instrument read the following available on JSTOR.

Stock, Jonathan. “A Historical Account of the Chinese Two-Stringed Fiddle Erhu.” The Galpin Society Journal 46 (1993): 83-113.

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City of Festivals

It’s Festival season in Edinburgh. The Jazz and Blues Festival is already in full swing (pun intended) and the city is gearing up for the influx of visitors from around the world for the Edinburgh International Festival and the Fringe which start in August. Posters are going up, brochures and flyers are appearing in cafes and even the weather is teasing us with blue skies and sunshine warm enough to let us sit outside.

Sunday was the day of the Festival Carnival Parade (part of the Jazz and Blues Festival) in which musicians and dancers of Edinburgh’s community of mixed ethnicities, as well as visiting performers of music, dance, puppetry and circus from across the globe, take part in a cultural showcase along Edinburgh’s famous Princes street. The afternoon culminates in music and dance entertainment in Princes Street Gardens. It’s a colourful celebration with a real party atmosphere. I was performing with musicians from Edinburgh’s Chinese Community Orchestra in the gardens but managed to take a few snaps to give you a flavour of our day. 

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Lion copy

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Mike garden2 copy

Chinese performers seated copy

martial arts dancer copy

Sleeping dragon copy

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English as a Second Language, Music as a First? Meet the Musician: Mike Wang

Edinburgh Chinese Community Orchestra’s Musical Director and Erhu Player: Mike Wang

“Good morning. We will start our music group practice today from 11.30 am. You are welcome to join us.”

Every Saturday morning during term time Mike Wang sends me a WhatsApp message. He travels from Stirling to Edinburgh once a week to run the Edinburgh Chinese Community Orchestra so he’s always hoping for a good turn out of our mixed group of musicians – people of all ages and of Chinese/Hong Kong/UK heritage. 

During the rehearsal, Mike talks fast in English one minute and Chinese the next. He’s talking about tempo, tuning, volume, who to follow and when, and practical arrangements for upcoming performances. The Cantonese and English speakers look confused when he speaks Mandarin and a multi-lingual translation follows until everyone works out what’s happening. Mike’s enthusiasm is faultless and, as soon as we finish one series of concerts, amongst the swapping of video clips, he sends us messages of congratulation, complete with hand-clapping emojis. And then he sends pages of Chinese music and You Tube clips in preparation for our next performance.

That’s Mike the musical director but I have been wondering about Mike the erhu-player. When and where did he learn and how had he become such a fine player? Over a plate of noodles from a local take-away and several cups of tea, he told me about his musical education and brought me up to date.

Mike grew up in Shanghai and started to play the erhu at the age of three.

“My parents sent me to a special music kindergarten, they wanted me to play the piano. But the piano teacher said my hands were too small, so I should play erhu instead. I started to play on a small instrument. I didn’t like it. My parents didn’t like it either. No-one likes it because at the beginning you are like a wood farmer.”

“Wood farmer?”

He mimes a sawing movement. “You sound like sawing wood! So everyday my parents put a small chair out in the next street and tell me to practise there outside. They could hear me – but it wasn’t too loud – and they could keep an eye on me whilst they watched TV. I hated it because I wanted to watch TV too.” But, he said tellingly, “the aim is very clear – to go from level one to ten and take examinations.”

So Mike continued his erhu practice as he progressed through school. Then when he reached level three, one of his tutors, Lin Wei suggested he join a student orchestra (which practised for five hours every Saturday).

“I think it is the best students’ orchestra in Shanghai. It is a big orchestra of Chinese and Western instruments including about thirty erhu players. I began to learn from my peers and not just my tutors and there was a bit of competition as I compared my playing with the other players and I copied their style. I began to play with more emotion, more feeling. I learnt technique step by step but the turning point came when my tutor told me I should sing the music first, not just play it.”

In any culture, singing the music can help instrumentalists develop a clear idea of melodic phrasing. In addition, the erhu is particularly renowned for its plaintive tone which can often resemble a human voice – perhaps this practice helped Mike to achieve that quality in his playing.

Determined to advance further, he started recording himself on a small cassette recorder: “it was not a good experience – if you record you will know the fact, the reality.” He also learnt from videos online, “it was like research … breaking the melody up and analysing it.” When he reached level ten he played a piece which became one of his favourites: Hong Hu – a theme from an opera and film from the 1950s.

After Level ten, he didn’t practise as much, as he was concentrating on his academic studies: going on to Fudan University in Shanghai to study physics. When he came to Stirling University, for postgraduate study in Finance, his parents suggested he take his erhu with him.

“Why not? It is a good way to make friends”

The story comes full circle as we find the adult Mike now in Scotland, not wanting to disturb his flatmates, sitting outside in the street practising his erhu. “Same as in my childhood – I take a chair outside to practise erhu and one day a Chinese lady came past when I am sitting outside MacDonald’s. When I finished playing, she told me that her brother works at a local restaurant and he plays dizi (bamboo flute).” From that  encounter Mike came to know the Glasgow Cantonese opera group and the Edinburgh group and now a whole network of musicians.

After being invited to perform at a few events, Mike received more invitations and now his diary soon fills up. His life is hectic at times, not just running his business – finding and organising English language teachers for agencies and companies around the world but also organising upcoming concerts for the Chinese Orchestra. He is in demand. His phone pings several times as we chat and now he needs to find some musicians for a ‘dragon dance’ on Tuesday. He might have to play instead. “Would you be available if they want a group to play?” On the train back home to Stirling, he’s already on WhatsApp trying to arrange rehearsals, checking everyone’s availability, for next month’s concerts.

I think the only time I see Mike slow down is when he is playing a solo in concert. His erhu playing is soulful. He closes his eyes as he plays a beautiful melody that has his audience spellbound. How can this tiny simple looking instrument with only two strings and a bamboo bow have such a range of expression? Then Mike’s fingers start flying and his bowing arm turns to a blur as he launches into ‘Racing Horse’, a piece that is as descriptive as music can be, as the bow whips the strings, the music accelerates and the erhu comes to life, whinnying and neighing!


Chance Encounters and Chinese Music in Scotland’s Capital

How did I, a Mancunian (no not Manchurian – I’m from Manchester) living in Edinburgh, come to be playing in a Chinese orchestra? I often get asked this question (not the Mancunian bit) and the answer is – just by chance.

I happened to meet musician and composer, Kimho Ip, in a school where he was demonstrating Chinese musical instruments. I mentioned to him that I was learning to play the erhu (Chinese bowed stringed instrument) and before I could tell him that I was only a beginner, he had invited me to play in Edinburgh’s Chinese Community Orchestra.

I was delighted to be asked but slightly nervous as my playing was very basic. I’m not being modest – I could only play in the key of D. I had a look online but could find no mention of Edinburgh’s Chinese Community Orchestra. Of course, because – as I soon found out – it is not a formal organisation. Everything happens by word of mouth – usually Mrs Szeto’s! She is a pillar of the Chinese community in Edinburgh, who knows everyone and can organise anything. It was Mrs Szeto who had the idea to set up the Chinese women’s association in Edinburgh, back in the 90s, that evolved into a Cantonese opera group. Getting together in one another’s houses, chatting, cooking and eating together, helped these women find a renewed sense of community, as they reminisced about their lives in Hong Kong. It wasn’t long before they were singing and playing Cantonese music. And some began to take lessons on Chinese instruments.

In 1999, when Kimho came from Hong Kong to study for his PhD in composition at the University of Edinburgh, he too came under Mrs Szeto’s wing – or was it the other way round? Either way, he was able to follow his supervisor’s advice to explore his Hong Kong cultural heritage, through a connection with these Cantonese opera musicians. He gave lessons on the yangqin (hammered dulcimer) and Mrs Szeto invited some players from Stirling and Glasgow to help on other instruments. Soon they were ready to perform in public. One particular event, held in Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Garden, combined a musical performance with the serving of tea, in a setting arranged like a ‘Chinese Teahouse’. It was a great boost to the morale of the musicians to have the general public admiring their presentation of Chinese culture. This was the real beginning of Edinburgh Chinese Community Orchestra (ECCO).

When I joined them, in 2009, I became the only non-Chinese person in the orchestra and was only just getting the hang of Chinese notation (not to mention the erhu). Yet through that musical encounter, I was welcomed into the Chinese music community and have since met some of the friendliest people I know.

Chinese Orchestra photo small size
Kimho (far left) directing from the cello. He had encouraged some younger members of the Chinese community to join the rehearsal.

Apart from a core group, the personnel of ECCO has changed over the years. Kimho went on to work in Germany and is now back in Hong Kong as Associate Professor at Lignan University. There are several university students who have joined the orchestra for the duration of their various courses, boosting the musical ensemble with their instrumental skills and good company before moving on.

One musician in particular, a brilliant computer scientist, joined the orchestra because of a chance encounter with me! I had been playing cello in a concert at Edinburgh’s Queens Hall and afterwards, mingling with the audience in the bar, I saw a Chinese couple talking excitedly. He seemed to be miming playing an erhu. I crossed the bar to speak to them and I asked if by any chance he played the erhu. He looked shocked! 

“Yes … how did you know?”

“Because I saw you going like that …” (mime erhu playing)

still looking shocked

“and because I play the erhu.”

eyes widen further

“You play the erhu? Weren’t you playing the cello?”

“Yes, but I play the erhu as well. I play in a Chinese orchestra would you like to join?”

even more shocked

“There’s a Chinese orchestra in Edinburgh?”

Actually they were from Malaysia, a very friendly couple, and when I told them about ECCO, he was keen to join and came to a rehearsal – the following day. He turned out to be such a good all-round musician that he was soon co-opted as director. The couple returned to Malaysia when he completed his studies but have kept in touch ever since.

Luckily, ECCO has found another enthusiastic musical director – erhu player Mike from Shanghai. That came about because of another chance encounter but that’s another story …

Over the coming weeks, I will introduce you to some of the musicians, their instruments and their music. In the meantime, here’s some photos taken earlier this year (2019) by designer and photographer Cynthia Wan, children’s music tutor at the Chinese school.

Erhu players in performance. Photo by Cynthia Wan.

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Pipa players in performance. Photo by Cynthia Wan

Performing in the National Museum of Scotland. Photo by Cynthia Wan.

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New Year Performance, February 2019. Photo by Cynthia Wan

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