Nowadays, the guitar dominates the world of popular instruments. For anyone looking to expand his or her horizons beyond the common guitar, they might find two unique instrument stores, Music Inn World Instruments and N.Y. Woodwind & Brass Music Corp., specialize in rare and exotic instruments from around the globe.
Located conveniently at 169 West 4th Street, Music Inn—one of Bob Dylan’s old haunts—maintains a homely ambiance. The exotic instruments hang from the ceiling and every available wall space, while still more instruments are scattered throughout the store in gigantic haphazard piles that don’t leave much room for walking.
Music Inn sells instruments from all over the world. There are vast quantities of African drums and Indian sitars—plucked string instruments with hollow necks and gourd chambers. About half of the store is devoted to intriguing African percussion instruments, such as the Nigerian shiko and the West African dundun, often made from cow skin. Other unique instruments include the African kora, a cross between a harp and a traditional string instrument, and the Zimbabwean mbira, a wooden board with metal keys. “If anyone is looking for anything even remotely exotic, this is definitely the place to come,” said Oliver Duncan, a shopkeeper at Music Inn.
It takes time to build up such an eclectic assortment of instruments. “Over time you become familiar with the different world instruments, and then it’s a matter of knowing the right people,” Duncan said. According to Duncan, Music Inn’s vast collection results from a gradual buildup of experience and worldwide contacts since its founding in 1958. The passage of 50 or so years has given the store a folksy appearance, complete with rough floorboard and a dusty register on the brink of collapse.
Many types of people frequent the Music Inn for various purposes. “We get a lot of enthusiasts, but there are also the natives who are looking for instruments from their country that they can’t get anywhere else,” Duncan said. The store receives tourists, aficionados and curious musicians.
“I like to visit and savor the scent of all the skins,” said Audrey, a Music Inn customer who declined to give her last name.
Outside of the Village, you’ll find a large conglomerate of instrument shops on 48th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues. Rudy’s Music Shop, Alex Accordions, Manny’s Music and four different Sam Ash stores all lie on the same block. But if you’re looking for exotic instruments, you’ll want to stop at N.Y. Woodwind & Brass Music Corp.
The store contains row after row of shiny brass instruments enclosed in glass cases. However, Woodwind & Brass also hosts two separate glass cases dedicated to exotic instruments. Unlike the homier Music Inn, Woodwind & Brass neatly arranges and labels all of its exotic instruments. One case contains Native American, Filipino, Chinese and Latin American flutes. The Native American flute consists of a wooden duct with a block whistle mechanism—you may have heard the flute’s mysterious timbre in New Age music recordings. Next to the flutes are conch cells, which can be used as wind instruments by blowing into a small hole in the spire.
Contained in the second glass case are even more peculiar foreign instruments. The store offers Egyptian instruments such as the mizmar reed and the ney, an ancient flute that is prominent in Persian, Turkish and Arabic music. The ney is made of a hollow cane with five or six finger holes and one thumb hole. Also offered are bagpipe reeds, susato Irish whistles, and Indonesian sulings, which are essentially long tubes of bamboo. The bagpipe is similar to a flute, but uses a bag as an air reservoir. Since the bag must be airtight, it’s usually made of strong material like goatskin, sheepskin, or cowskin.
Although the Woodwind and Brass Music Corp. offers many exotic instruments, it mainly focuses on brass instruments. “The exotic instruments are really something to look at, but I’ve never given a thought to actually buying one,” said Martha Williams, a customer who was buying a trumpet for her son
Music Inn places guitars and sitars on the same shelf. Although this arrangement is probably accidental in the often-disorganized Music Inn, it reminds one that most exotic instruments were popular and hip at some point in their native cultures’ histories. Perhaps the guitar too will be considered an “exotic instrument” in the future.
Music Inn World Instruments
169 West 4th Street (between Jones St and Cornelia St)
N.Y. Woodwind and Brass Music Corp.
168 West 48 Street (between 6 Avenue and 7 Avenue)