Play That Celestial Music

One chain of stores provides a nexus point for world music... and beyond

According to eastern tradition, the souls of great musicians reside in another world. This is the world of the Gandharvas - celestial musicians like Narada, who took music from the gods and brought it to Earth. In the Gandharvas' world, Mozart might be discussing symphonies with Leonard Bernstein, or Tchaikovsky could compose a song for the great cellist Pablo Casals to perform with the noted Indian singer Dilip Kumar Roy.

            In 1989, Sri Chinmoy - himself a musician - suggested that some of his European students open a chain of stores, selling musical instruments from around the world, uniting the world of music in a tangible way. As it happened, the idea was very well-timed. "World music" had recently become a popular genre, describing everything from the South African a capella group Ladysmith Black Mambazo to the east-west fusion of the Kronos Quartet. World music had even infiltrated pop music, in the songs of Talking Heads, Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel and other names on the charts. As the world was becoming smaller, the world of music seemed to be greatly expanding.

            The chain was named Gandharva Loka: the place of celestial music.

            Its owner, Panchajanya Burri, was a classically-trained guitarist, whose musical career had taken a back seat after the enormous success of the Madal Bal enterprise (also owned by students of Sri Chinmoy). Armed with both musical and sales experience, he seemed an ideal choice to open the first Gandharva Loka store in Zurich.

            Initially, it was staffed by Panchajanya and two other professional musicians. "When we started out, it was a very small market. People didn't even know what a didgeridoo was," recalls Panchajanya, referring to the unique, native Australian instrument best-known for the novelty songs of Rolf Harris. "Of course, as the market grows, the competition grows. But we have so far seen no competition that offers the same variety of instruments in different locations." 

            Gandharva Loka certainly reveals a wider world of music than most shops. Large Chinese and Korean gongs are displayed in the showrooms, alongside Indian strings: sitars, veenas, dilrubas and sarods. Turkish and Chilean wood flutes line the shelves, opposite the Irish tin whistles and Nepalese horse bells. One moment, the plucked, metallic resonance of an Indonesian kalimba can be heard from the showroom; the next, the sweet, hollow sound of an Italian pan-flute. If a group of musicians really wants to enjoy themselves, they can play a melody on stringed instruments (say, a Vietnamese dan tranh and a Mongolian morin khuur), accompanied by Peruvian maracas and Indian drums (perhaps a mridangam, or a set of tablas).

            Panchajanya still travels the world, seeking out musical instruments. "People said I should write a book about it," he says, "but I forgot all the stories." 

            A few stay in his mind, however. He recalls visiting the Ivory Coast once, driving around in a jeep to visit native villages in search of authentic bongo drums. "You have to talk with fingers. [They have] no English at all. You eat strange stuff. They offer you some tea and something else. You don't know what it is. Out of hospitality you have always to follow the rules."

            While heading to a village, he was stopped at the road by a family of baboons. "They didn't want to move. It was like they wanted me to pay a toll. So I had to give them all the fruits I had in the car. They ate them, totally peaceful, and then they left.

            "At the end [of the day] I was in another place, having some refreshments. Suddenly I realised that I'd left open the windows in the car - and all the monkeys were in the car. They crawled into the car and they took everything they could find. They snatched my wallet [and] took everything in it. Of course, [the car] smelt like anything."

            There are now six Gandharva Loka stores, in Austria, Germany, Switzerland... and Louisville, Kentucky. Richard Burchard, a music professor at Louisville's Bellarmine University, was inspired to start a franchise after visiting one of the European stores.

            How do they find the musicians to run the stores? Perhaps surprisingly, that is not an issue. "We found out that non-musicians are better salespersons than musicians because they have much less knowledge," says Panchajanya. "They don't pretend to know anything, and the customers teach them everything. After one or two years you know so much that you can serve anyone who comes into the store."

            This includes the musical royalty. Grammy Award-winning Swiss musician Andreas Vollenweider, a world music pioneer, is a regular customer at the Zurich outlet. Sting, famous for his interest in world music, visited Gandharva Loka during a trip to Salzburg, as did noted German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter.

             "Sometimes, big-shot musicians come in and we don't know them," says Panchajanya. "They don't even say who they are, but afterwards we find out because there is a concert in the same city . We see the picture of this guy who's doing the concert, and he was in the store just one day earlier."

           But what do these people buy? Once again, this is not deemed as important as we might assume. "People go into the store, and even if they don't buy anything, they get so much joy, so much inner thrill, that you feel they take something with them, even if they don't buy anything."

            Fortunately, enough Gandharva Loka customers leave with more than just a good feeling. The business is doing well, but Panchajanya sees room for major expansion. A hundred stores within the next 20 years, in fact. While his immediate plan is to establish eight more European stores by 2007, he also hopes to have stores in New York and Australia before long. For now, customers around the world use a mail order catalogue.

            A decade ago, Gandharva Loka branched out in an unusual way: school concerts. Panchajanya and some of the musicians in his staff toured under the epithet of Fascinating Sounds, introducing schoolchildren to some of the more exotic instruments in their collection. "The teachers said to us that we transformed the whole class," he says. "Usually they are restless, fighting. But when we played they were so silent. Then we invited them to play with us. That was the height, the pinnacle for them."

             Of the array of instruments in the Gandharva Loka catalogue, Panchajanya refuses to name a favourite. "It depends on the context," he says, "whether for meditation, or to be dynamic, or joyful. I can't name only one instrument. That wouldn't be fair to the others. I can say that each instrument has its quality, and if properly used, it can inspire."