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

Yo-Yo Ma Builds Bridges with Bach’s Cello Suites

This is a shortened version of the article published on July 19th.

YOYO MA
My cat transfixed by Yo-Yo Ma playing Bach!

The world famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma has released his third recording of the Bach cello suites but perhaps more importantly, he is performing them in a series of concerts to highlight the need for connection between people in our increasingly divided world. Yo-Yo Ma’s aim with ‘The Bach Project’ (which began in 2018) is to perform 36 concerts in six continents. Using the ‘universality’ of this music to communicate across boundaries, Yo-Yo Ma believes that the arts provide just one way of connecting with people and deepening our understanding of one another. The need for making such connections is urgent and he is using his skills and renown as a cellist to further the conversation. Each concert is followed by a day of action to bring attention to this issue and to talk about a way forward for the future of our world.

Particularly poignant was the performance beside the US/Mexican border. Yo-Yo Ma said “… in culture, we build bridges, not walls”.

There are six concerts still to go: in the US, Lebanon, South Korea, two in Australia and one in New Zealand.

Find out more at The Bach Project

Find out too about Yo-Yo Ma’s ongoing  Silk Road Project which began as a group of exceptional musicians from different cultures performing music together in a unique collaboration (Silk Road Ensemble) and has grown to encompass education projects with the aim of creating a world that values our global cultural riches and brings people together to share, collaborate and make connections.

 

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.

Read more articles like this by subscribing – scroll to the bottom of the page.

 

My Almost Silent Encounter with the Music of John Cage

One winter’s evening, I set off on a journey in heavy snow, across the Forth Bridge to Edinburgh. It was turning to blizzard conditions but I kept going, I wasn’t going to miss this chance – to hear a live performance of John Cage’s famous piece 4′ 33″. I made my way up the road towards the Queen’s Hall but as I reached the place, it looked closed. Surely I hadn’t got the day wrong? Then I saw the notice on the door. ‘Due to bad weather tonight’s performance has been cancelled.’ If you know the piece, you will realise why, even though I was disappointed, especially after making that trek, I was amused by the irony of it.

Here’s a photo of the score:

There aren’t (m)any pieces that require the performer to be ‘tacet’ (silent) for the whole piece! For the first performance, at Woodstock, N.Y. in 1952, pianist David Tudor indicated the beginning of each part by closing the piano lid and the endings by opening the piano lid. (!) He used a stopwatch to time the movements. Cage’s score states that it can be played by any instrumentalist(s) and that the movements may last any length of time.

Was he having a laugh? Well perhaps, but he was making a serious point too: that there is more to music than we might apparently hear. So in the ‘silence’ of the hall during those four minutes and thirty three seconds, there will be sounds to listen to and every performance will be different. (At that first performance, at Maverick Hall – an open barn-like structure set in the woods, there was the sound of the wind in the trees, of rain falling and by the third movement, the sound of the audience themselves getting restless). Once you start to notice the sounds around you, music is everywhere.

I have been so captivated by Cage’s notion of listening to the sounds of our environment as music, that I enjoy ‘Cageian’ moments all the time. Last month, I was at a local school’s ‘Summer Picnic Concert’ and as the choir sang ‘Lean on Me’, a seagull flew by, giving a screech in a different key as a boy crackled his crisp packet. Then a gentle breeze picked up, rustling the overhanging branches as the choir went on to sing ‘The Birks of Aberfeldy’ and at the end, a tiny bird chirped a little solo above the final chord. For me, it was a delightful finishing touch that made that performance unique.

And I’ll never forget a late night recital of Bach’s cello suites given by Miklos Perneyi during the Edinburgh International Festival at The Hub: the venue situated right next to the castle. Towards the end of a sublime performance, the sound of solo cello filling the hall was overwhelmed by a cacophony of explosive bangs as the fireworks went off at the Edinburgh Tattoo.

Once you start listening, every dripping tap, whirring fan, humming hoover and even hammering and drilling can take on a musical significance of its own. As I made my way back along the street, I noticed how the snowfall had muffled the city and I listened to the scrunch of my footsteps in fresh snow and the occasional shrieking of young voices. I hadn’t needed to travel anywhere to hear 4’33”. It’s a soundtrack that’s playing all the time and you can tune in any time you like. Just listen.

 

Read more like this by subscribing – scroll to the bottom of the page.

 

 

 

Yo-Yo Ma Builds Bridges with Bach

Since the great cellist Pau Casals brought them out of obscurity, with his famous recordings made between 1936 – 39, the Six Unaccompanied Cello Suites by Bach have become the pinnacle of the cello repertoire. Previously thought of as technical studies, the performance of each of these contrasting sets of preludes and dance movements makes great demands on the cellist. To bring out the character of each movement of each suite, the player must interweave melody and harmony, with dexterity in string crossing and a feeling for phrasing and rhythm. It can be physically demanding to make the music seem to sing and dance without effort. Casals studied the suites for twelve years before performing them in public, recognising them as works of great musical value, which exploit the possibilities of the instrument further than any of Bach’s contemporaries had done. “Bach was in advance of his time.” (Casals. 1956). Performance of Bach’s cello suites has fluctuated in style since Casals’ day, and from one cellist to another they can be played in quite different ways: ranging from a full-toned romantic style with vibrato, to a lighter-touched bowing style with no vibrato. Listening to the Bach cello suites can be an experience of contrasting emotions: exuberance, introspection and sheer joy. To me this music is perfection. I never tire of hearing its many interpretations. 

YOYO MA
Even my cat was transfixed by Yo-Yo Ma playing Bach!

Of course, interpretation of the Bach Suites may develop and change throughout a cellist’s lifetime and for international soloists this sometimes leads to a new recording. The world famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma has released his third recording but more importantly, he is performing the Bach in a series of concerts to highlight the need for connection between people in our increasingly divided world. Yo-Yo Ma’s aim with ‘The Bach Project’ (which began in 2018) is to perform 36 concerts in six continents. Using the ‘universality’ of this music to communicate across boundaries, Yo-Yo Ma believes that the arts provide just one way of connecting with people and deepening our understanding of one another. The need for making such connections is urgent and he is using his skills and renown as a cellist to further the conversation. Each concert is followed by a day of action to bring attention to this issue and to talk about a way forward for the future of our world.

Particularly poignant was the performance beside the US/Mexican border. Yo-Yo Ma said “… in culture, we build bridges, not walls”.

There are four concerts still to go: one in the USA, two in Australia and one in New Zealand.

Find out more at The Bach Project

Find out too about Yo-Yo Ma’s ongoing  Silk Road Project which began as a group of exceptional musicians from different cultures performing music together in a unique collaboration (Silk Road Ensemble) and has grown to encompass education projects with the aim of creating a world that values our global cultural riches and brings people together to share, collaborate and make connections.

Source: ‘Conversations with Casals’ by J.Ma Corredor. Translated by André Mangeot. Hutchinson. 1956.