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
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.
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
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
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
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