ray man

He runs London’s most exotic music store and has numbered Elton John, George Harrison, Noel Gallagher and Bjork amongst his customers - but there is much more to Raymond Man: musician, collector, teacher and enthusiast.
By Susannah Duval

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Ray Man

Ever considered taking up a chordophone? - that’s a stringed musical instrument to most of us. Perhaps you’d like to play the Yueh (a Chinese Mandolin), strum the Indian Sarangi or tune up an Arabic Oud. These are just a few of the hundreds of Chinese, Japanese, African, Middle Eastern and South American instruments to be found at Ray Man in Camden’s Chalk Farm Road.

The area has long hosted a wide variety of music from many cultures; the new and dynamic alongside traditional and folk music. So what better venue for Ray Man which, it is safe to say, stocks the largest collection of ethnic musical instruments in the country. Indeed, it is one of the world’s premier ethnic music shops, not least because it is curated by Raymond Man: musician, collector, teacher and enthusiast.

Raymond and his wife, Man Yee, have been based in the Camden shop for three years. Every available inch of shop space is packed with an incredible array of instruments; from Tibetan singing bowls, drums, gongs and xylophones to sitars, mandolins, flutes and the didjeridou.

The shop first opened in Covent Garden more than 25 years ago, when Raymond’s rapidly expanding collection of instruments - and increasing requests for his expertise - persuaded him to invest in a shop from which he could sell the instruments and teach Chinese music. Since then, he has supplied instruments and advice to such diverse and prestigious customers as Elton John, George Harrison, Noel Gallagher and Bjork, and performed for the BBC, film soundtracks and West End theatre productions.

Raymond has taught hundreds of students and still teaches and runs workshops in Chinese traditional music at all levels from the shop.

He talked to us of his dream for a London Chinese Cultural Centre - something he has been trying to fulfil for many years and yet not met with enough support. 20 years ago, he made a plea for such a centre in his acceptance speech at the Courvoisier Leadership Awards, held to honour outstanding achievement among the London Chinese. He is philosophical about his long-term relationship with Chinatown and the Chinese community in this country. Although highly respected, one gets the feeling he is an outsider in some respects; never prepared to compromise; always pushing for new ideas, always dedicated to his personal values; Raymond Man is a strange mixture of tradition and innovation.

At once enigmatic and yet approachable, meeting Raymond was a fascinating and uplifting experience. His humility is disarming and his enthusiasm infectious. He possesses an incredible calm and thoughtfulness and yet becomes increasingly animated and excited, gesticulating as he speaks about the music.

He has been single-mindedly (one could say obsessively) committed to Chinese traditional music - and to sharing it with others - for over forty years. Meanwhile, one feels it is Man Yee who engineers the business. She is very knowledgeable about the instruments - though she claims not to be a musician herself - and her efficiency and hospitality with customers as they ‘jam’ and chatter, lends an air of calm to the busy shop.

Although he is the curator of an impressive collection of instruments, Raymond comes across as having little interest in material things. Probably because of his impoverished upbringing in the rural New Territories of Hong Kong and his itinerant lifestyle after his arrival in Britain 40 years ago, you feel he cannot be tied down. It is the music that is his greatest possession and that has travelled with him since the beginning. When Raymond came to England in 1959 he brought only a blanket, a handkerchief and, of course, three musical instruments.

Typically, he describes his life with a simple allegory, he is a small boat in the sea; at times the boat is buffeted by the wind and stormy seas mean that he has to take shelter in the reeds. After a little time - and reflection - he is able to take up the oars and set out to sea again.

Born in 1937, he grew up during the war and recalls poignantly the time of the Japanese invasion when he was six and the cruelty and inhumanities of the war in addition to great poverty. “I hate war. I hate violence. Music is the only way ... it calm’s people down. So much energy flashing through your fingers....”

His childhood experiences of war and injustice must have been very traumatic, and yet he recounts small touching incidents, mostly relating to his love of music and his respect for humankind. He recalls his first musical influences as a child, listening to a blind peanut seller in a Hong Kong market playing the coconut fiddle and singing. Drawn to the strange sadness of the fiddle’s music, and the man’s melodious voice, he returned each day to hear the blind man playing. It was from this time, he determined to learn music, although it was years before he was able to play his first traditional instrument and not until he was 18 that he could afford to buy his own coconut fiddle. Why the coconut fiddle? “Because it was the cheapest”.

Raymond’s repertoire is now far more extensive. He demonstrates skilfully the vast collection of stringed, wooden, wind and percussion instruments he sells at Ray Man. During our visit, he effortlessly played us two beautiful traditional Chinese pieces. First with the simple, haunting notation of the two-stringed Chinese fiddle, the Er Hu, one of the most popular contemporary instruments with Chinese musicians today. And then the soothing and melodious sound of the Chinese Zither or Gu Zheng.

Raymond teaches a wide range of people at all levels: he believes teaching Chinese traditional music to westerners is often easier and that they can improve faster than their Chinese colleagues, approaching the music without preconceptions and with a greater humility. Describing how he feels about teaching, he expresses enjoyment and generosity. He sees the music as his purpose and reason in life and, therefore, he feels a duty to share it.

When discussing his overall philosophy about the music, Raymond sounds sometimes purist and other times conversely eclectic. Although he is strict about technique and the correct traditional interpretations of the music, he still encourages the expression of new ideas and fusion of styles in his workshops and collectives.

He is unusual in teaching and collaborating with people from outside the Chinese community - indeed some of his performances have included a majority of non-Chinese musicians. Furthermore he has been active in promoting music within the Chinese community in Britain to encourage more interest in the traditional music among younger people. In 1969, he formed the Cantonese Opera and wrote and performed in London. A huge financial risk, Raymond invested everything he had in the opera, which was popular but sadly not lucrative. He has performed many times since, with the opera and with countless groups and orchestras but, though he still collaborates, he describes the regular commitment to a company as like that to a family. It is important that the members have “their hearts together” otherwise practical and management problems undermine the music. He finds he enjoys the workshop environment with its commitment to the music, its energy and enthusiasm.

Raymond is still excited about teaching and promoting Chinese traditional music. He is still keen to see a Chinese Cultural Centre for London and has new ideas to start more informal drop-in workshops. It seems Raymond still has his eye on the horizon : “I don’t want to grow a flower” he says “I want to grow a tree ...an apple tree!

Ray Man organises events and workshops at Chalk Farm Road and provides musicians for events. To find out more about workshops, telephone 020 7692 6261
By Susannah Duval

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