The entrance to Andy’s Music spans a Belmont street corner in a welcoming way. The shop sign is too big to ignore: rather than walk beneath it, you detour into the store. Momentum carries you through the cluttered foyer into a room covered with pipes, flutes, sitars, and harps. The store extends back further, though you won’t find that out until later. When you discover the basement – filled with percussion instruments from every part of the world – you’ll realize you’d need days to properly explore.
If you haven’t already guessed, Andy’s Music is not your “standard, one-size-fits-all” music store: it’s an experience. They feature instruments along with their world music counterparts. For a musician, it’s heaven; even for a non-musician, immersion is irresistible. The employees are storytellers who can relate each instrument’s evolution. Funsherpa talked with Alex, a longtime partner and professional multi-instrumentalist:
How did this store evolve?
At first Andy’s Music was a neighborhood kind of place that sold guitars, keyboards, and drums – more standard-issue music technology. Andy was into many different kinds of music, but never had the time to travel around the world learning about it firsthand. Slowly but surely he began to change his retail business to acoustic and exotic products.
Around the same time he started a rental business to capture what’s commonly called backline rental, where you rent drums, keyboards, guitars to traveling acts that come through town. The rental business was built into its own establishment, and they deal with a lot of the main venues in town. Very frequently a band that is traveling through say, House of Blues will need something. Backline rental fills the gap between what the venue has, what the band has, and what they need.
What is your best-selling instrument?
Gongs have been a big part of our sales in the past year and a half. I’ve sold tremendous amounts of gongs to all different parts of the world, but mainly the US.
How do you import handmade instruments from countries all over the globe?
Andy has partners who are very experienced musicians with a keen understanding of what quality looks and sounds like. The problem was investigating the right vendors to collect sellable musical instruments – not just kitsch-kitsch from all over the world – and maintaining those relationships so as to restock the inventory. My secret to success is feeling out what people already know about world music and offering enough inventory to broaden people’s perceptions – instruments that can carry them from any point in their learning path.
I’m always learning myself and am always interested in what my customers have to say about world music that has affected them. The more I know, the better I’m going to be at choosing the right stuff for the store. I want to make people interested in instruments in a musical way and make them want to play it. That’s the hands-on approach that makes this store much more interesting and – so far – successful.
How do you find people to teach each indigenous instrument?
There’s a lot to be said for finding a good teacher who is close to the actual native tradition that built and created the instrument. When I was learning to play the conga drum, the guy I found didn’t speak English but was an unbelievable musician. We didn’t need to speak English – I came there to play conga. I tuned my drums; he tuned his drums; and he would say, ‘Salsa!’ and begin to play very slowly. When he heard me pick it up, he’d speed up the tempo; then I would go faster, and he would go faster… Eventually I was playing so fast, I could barely think about my hands anymore. That kind of experience is invaluable, but it’s not going to be available to everyone.
There’s more community-based music making going on in America, which I think is a positive thing! Interest has been channeled into just hanging out and playing music – whether it be Irish music or hand-drumming or any kind of European folk music. You don’t have to be an expert at first – you can feel your way along. Drumming is just putting yourself in rhythm with a bunch of other players who may have many different levels of experience. Creating that kind of resonance is the next step to integrating world music, so that it becomes more understood and accepted in the first world.
What is the life of a professional musician like?
I got hired by these really good tabla players from India. I’ve studied raga, so I know a lot of raga forms. Raga music, to me, is a form of very meaningful improvisation, but they don’t consider it improvisation because they’ve learned the material and reproduce it without the page. If I can convince them that what they’re doing is improvisation, that can only affect their playing positively. But there’s a certain meat-and-potatoes practicality to learning songs: it’s a means of communication.
What is your favorite instrument in the shop?
Sitar is definitely one of my favorites. I was a classically-trained trumpet player as a child, so I studied a great deal about classical and jazz music. By the time I was in my mid-twenties, I was experimenting with all kinds of percussion instruments – conga, djembe – and then slowly but surely the more exotic, Arabic flavors of percussion. Now I’m basically a professional multi-instrumentalist that specializes in Indian music – the most compelling music for me to take apart and to learn about the universal structures of all music.
Can you trace characteristic variations in instruments based on the country of origin?
Many instruments have a very long and interesting musicological history; they go through stages where they were played by this group of people for these reasons, which affected the physicality of the instrument in this way, which led it to be introduced into this country several hundred years later. The other part of that story is how instruments like the Sitar have been put together hodge-podge over hundreds of years – developments in the music itself caused certain physical characteristics to be added to the instrument.
Even the word ‘sitar’ is hybrid – just like a lot of Northern Indian music – because Northern India switched from a poly-theistic Hindu culture to a monotheistic Islamic culture. That changed their music irreparably, and the sitar is very much a reflection of that rupture. We’re all trying to reach those same tones and resonances, but it’s fascinating how varied our approach is to achieve the same aesthetic sound.
Has this shop found its place within the community?
Our family of musicians and artifact-finders stretches across the country and is always growing. We have 4500 square feet and yes, we do get a little busy on Saturdays, but there’s plenty more room for people to come explore, to experience different kinds of musical instruments and sounds.
On another note, we are interested in creating a museum of musical instruments, a specifically cultural experience. The role we play – where people can come in and have a hands-on experience with music from thousands of miles away – that’s a goal in and of itself: to make music more accessible to people. A museum is the best way we’ve been able to frame it.
Andy’s just started to open up his warehouse for performances. You think it’s crazy here, but he’s got even crazier, incredible, museum-level pieces scattered all about the place. It makes sense to buy a building and house everything in one place. We’re working all that out in the next few months – it’s an exciting time.