So you dig that sweet tank top your yoga teacher’s wearing? Take a gander at the logo and go get yourself one. Need a new yoga mat? These days they’re on display at big box stores. Not hard to find. But where the heck do you go to buy a harmonium? And then how do you learn to play the thing?
Keshav Music on the Lower East Side is the only brick-and-mortar harmonium seller in the United States, according to the store’s proprietor, Keshav Das. Harmoniums online start at around $400, says Das.
“People buy cheap harmoniums on the Internet or on Craig’s list or Amazon and they think they got a bargain. Then they get it and they realize it’s leaking air and it’s out of tune or the keys are sticking. And they bring it to me.” Good quality instruments start at around $650.
The harmoniums sold out of Das’s store are handcrafted and handpicked in India, then shipped by boat to the United States, where Das personally services and tunes each one before letting it out the door. He never has more than a couple pieces ready for sale at any given time—the cased instruments awaiting inspection and tuning are lined up on the floor of his shop. “As soon as they’re done, they’re packed up and shipped out. And then I pull another one down,” he says.
Das got started in the business of selling traditional Indian instruments by accident. He began playing music at age ten and he attributes his fascination with Indian music to his youthful admiration of George Harrison. In 1993 he’d been practicing yoga at Jivamukti, where he met Krishna Das, whom he
refers to affectionately as K.D. “He was just this quiet-spoken Jewish guy who didn’t really talk much, he just played. And I didn’t even know what his name was. I actually had a CD with music by him on it, and it wasn’t until I’d met him three or four times that I realized it was him.” He started performing with Krishna Das’s band—traveling to gigs and sleeping on a host’s couch after the show. Asked about the musician’s life on the road, he replies, “It was more about the satsang than anything else. We weren’t trashing hotel rooms.”
“Everywhere we went people said, ‘Oh, I want to buy a harmonium, but so-and-so bought one and it was a piece of junk. Where can I go?’ And I said, ‘You know, I really don’t know,’ because everybody I knew was buying harmoniums in India.”
Shortly before a trip to India, Keshav sat in with Krishna Das and Sting in a performance celebrating Jivamukti’s then new studio space. “After we were finished playing, we were in the backstage area and K.D. said, ‘Hey, my friend is going to India and if you want a pair of tablas or a sitar and you don’t want a piece of junk, talk to him. He knows his stuff.’” Keshav responded, “I do?” Nevertheless, he took orders and started selling instruments to individuals out of his home.
His personal relationship with each instrument in his store begs the question: Is he ever heavyhearted at parting with a piece? “There’s attachment,” he says without missing a beat. He’s pleased to see his instruments sold to musicians who will play them, but bristles when he suspects a fine, exquisitely crafted piece will just be hung as an ornament by a rock star’s L.A. swimming pool.
Das’s lengthy and rather impressive clientele list includes such names as Dave Stringer, Bill Laswell, and, of course, Krishna Das. But celebrity sales don’t account for the full 100-150 harmoniums he sells each year. So who else is playing these bellowed boxes?
Shyama Chapin leads kirtans and teaches harmonium lessons in the New York City area. Her students are mainly yoga teachers who want to learn to lead chants as part of their asana classes. Some have music backgrounds, but many don’t.
So how much devotion is required for a novice to learn to play? “What do they mean by learn? What do they want to learn? You can play, you can sing the first instant you sit down. All you have to do is hold two notes—or even one note—and create a drone.” And, of course, dedication determines progress: “It depends partly on background but it also depends on motivation. Some people are obsessed. For the obsessed, things move along really fast. I have other students who, although they love it and have motivation, don’t have time. Basically their practice is the lessons.”
One fun fact about this instrument that we associate with Indian devotional music: it’s French. It was introduced to the subcontinent by nineteenth-century missionaries who used it to sing Christian hymns while living and working in India. Put that in your bellows and squeeze it.
--Jennie Cohen, E-RYT 500, teaches classes, privates, and teacher trainings in New York City and internationally.
Click here for her Teaching schedule or visit her Facebook page.