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

Oranges and Lemons

St Clement Danes

Oranges and Lemons, say the Bells of St Clement’s

I could hear the bells of St Clement Danes, from two streets away, as I rushed across town towards it. One of two London churches that claim to be the St Clement’s mentioned in the nursery rhyme, this one is on the Strand, not far from the Royal Courts of Justice. As I turned the corner into the famous street, I was almost overwhelmed by the full volume of the bells’ glorious pealing. Was it a special occasion? It was for those taking part: the Ladies’ Guild of Change Ringers, including my old school friend, Chris. 

She had travelled from Lancashire, to join the ringing of four ‘quarter peals’ on these finely tuned bells. As the final quarter peal came to an end, I dashed up the narrow spiral steps of the bell-tower, forgetting my fear of heights. Part way up, feeling dizzy, I held on to the adjacent stone walls and kept climbing.

Up there, was a room with commemorative plaques all around the walls, long loops of rope hanging down round a central space. I looked up to see … a high ceiling with holes where the ropes passed through. I was disappointed. I had expected to see bells. But of course that would have been deafening for the bell ringers. Chris, who is of quite small build, showed me how she stood to pull the ropes with both hands held aloft. I imagined the gigantic bells in the tower above that ceiling. Does she ever get arm-ache? “Not really” Chris explained, “because once you are ringing, the momentum of the bell swinging carries it round.”

Listening to the constantly changing sequence of notes, (known as change ringing) I had tried to work out the pattern but couldn’t detect any semblance of order. When I asked Chris how she knows when to ring, she showed me on her phone: pages and pages of row after row of numbers. It was like the book of logarithms we used to have at school.

“Each bell has a number. You don’t have to remember all the numbers though, you just have to memorise where your number comes in the sequence.”

Chris went on to explain that the bells were rung in a different sequence every time – for a full peal that’s until you have rung every possible order. It works out at five thousand and forty for a full peal. No wonder it takes so long to ring … several hours! The quarter peal has a quarter of that: one thousand two hundred and sixty different sequences.

“We have a conductor to help us if needed but it’s really your responsibility to keep yourself right. If anyone does ring out of sequence, that’s not a proper peal. So we all help each other.”

I had noticed on one of the plaques, that the bells of St Clement Danes had been damaged in the Blitz and recast in the Whitechapel Bell foundry in 1955. This foundry that had cast Big Ben and had been manufacturing bells since 1570, is now in danger of being made into a hotel. Had she signed the petition? Of course she had.

I asked Chris about Oranges and Lemons. I had been listening out for it. Did they ring it? Had I missed it?

“No, there’s a different set of bells, called a carillon, that rings that. It’s rung at six o’clock by an automated system.”

I went back at six and was delighted to hear the familiar melody sounding above the riot of rush hour traffic, a clip clopping horse-drawn cab, a helicopter overhead, motor bikes roaring, car horns blaring and a bit of shouting in the street!