One thing I didn’t expect when I came to live in Edinburgh in 1999, was that I would start learning music from the other side of the world which would some years later lead to a Masters in ethnomusicology. Yet soon after I moved in, I saw a notice in a local shop about an African drumming and dance class. I thought it sounded fun, went along and so began a metaphorical journey, letting music and dance take me around the globe. Since then I have joined in Brazilian samba drumming and dance, Indian sitar and tabla classes, a Chinese orchestra, a Kunqu class and an Indonesian gamelan – a small sample of the music and dance happening here in Scotland.
Last year, many of these diverse groups took part in a series of concerts in Edinburgh’s St Cecilia’s Hall. The series ‘Music Across Borders’ was devised and organised by Alec Cooper and Chen Qinhan with the aim of bringing together music-making from different countries, enabling musicians and audiences to meet and exchange ideas. There was music from Morocco, India, China, Spain, Japan, Brazil, West Africa, the Balkans and the Eastern Mediterranean. The fourth concert was planned to feature collaborations between musicians from each of the groups but unfortunately it had to be cancelled because of Covid-19. Instead there was an informal gathering of musicians outdoors playing together some of the music they had been preparing before lockdown.
To find out about this project which will resume once it is safe to rehearse together, have a look at the website:
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.
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.
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 Music Shop is located at: 54 Chalk Farm Road, Camden, London NW1 8AN