I had a real Nakasi (那卡西) experience at a music store in Taipei yesterday. The day market had already broken down for the day. I danced around fruit crates and veggie display, making a snack stop at the veggie bun shop across the street. A sign that says “Accordion” is erected indicating the name of the store. Excess signage is a stylistic necessity. One sign catalogs the musical items for sale: saxophone, keyboard, accordion, guitar (Hawaiian), flute, etc. Another sign lists other non-material products such as repair services and lessons. Hung vertically on the veranda is a nylon-string classical guitar enwreathed by un-lit Christmas lights. Accordion shares a storefront with a Chinese herbal shop. I asked the man sitting at a table inside the herbal shop to see if Accordion is open. In Taiwanese, he indicated that I should ring the bell.
I looked and spotted another sign, “to inquire about musical instruments and lessons, ring the bell.” I rang the bell, connected to a home sound system with mismatched speakers mounted above the closed counter space. A male voice answered. I stated my interest for a guitar. He asked, “nylon or steel string?” I said, “steel string. Actually I’m looking for an electric guitar, preferably a used one.” A middle-aged man with a buzz cut opened the window at the counter.
He wanted to know if I’m a serious buyer. “I always get customers who come here wanting to try out my used instruments, but they never make any purchases. They always go for the new instruments now made in China. What I have here is the good stuff—Taiwanese-made instruments. If you want the cheap stuff, you could order the Chinese-made guitar combo that comes with an amp and gig bag for NT$3700. I’ve got those in the warehouse as well.”
I assured him that I’m interested in his second-hand instruments. “I normally bring my guitar to places I visit. But I left it at home this time. Since I will be here in Taipei for more than a month this time, I’d really like to have a guitar around me.”
“Where are you from? Nan-bu (The South of Taiwan)?”
“No, I just came back from America. My father works right down the street at San Xing Dental Clinic.”
He fretted as he dug out a few old guitars that looked to have been manufactured in the 1960s or 1970s. “Some customers try these out. I’m not even sure if I want to part with these guitars.” He picked up a short-scale guitar yellow on the front side. The backside of the instrument seems to have been spray-painted in blue. He took out a red, made-in-Japan guitar of the Fender Music Master style; and a maroon Gibson SG copy with a bigsby whammy bar and a faint “Kay” manufacturer sticker. I couldn’t figure out which company made the other instruments. These guitars seem well-made, but dusty. The strings are rusty. The frets are worn away. Their necks are short-scale than what I’m used to. He noted this as a desirable quality.
"These are good guitars. But they're not fen-da."
The shop owner took out a small Orange amp. “This is a good amp. It was made in Korea.” He plugged in the SG copy. He tuned the guitar by ear playing a major scale, instead of matching the pitches between strings. What an unusual way of tuning it, I thought. I took the instrument, after tuning it for a second time. I started playing some surf rock (The Ventures) and Japanese/Taiwanese enka. He went inside and took out more instruments.
I played more. He seemed thrilled. “That one is called ‘Pipeline.’ We used to play that tune all the time when we were selling medicine, playing in front of temples.”
“Cool! Why ‘Pipeline’?” I asked.
“Ru-nau. For the crowd. You know, it’s The Ventures!” He said while smiling. “I know all those songs that you just played. You know, that song ‘Tears and Wine,’ in Japanese, ‘Sake wa …’. I know that song.”
“What do you play?”
“I play piano.”
He scurried to the back of store to pick out a few more instruments. I heard a faint sound coming out of the speakers. The TV monitor now shows a young boy playing melodies on a violin. An older man accompanies him while playing on a lap steel guitar. Drums and bass sounds are filled in by a pre-programmed keyboard sample.
“Oh you play lapsteel too?”
“Yes, that’s Hawaiian guitar. La-pu-gi-ta. If you want to have a business, you better make sure that you know what you’re doing. What I offer is quality.”
I recognized some of the tunes from the Japanese enka and the so-called “world famous music” repertoire. He went back inside and fast-forwarded to another track on the video. Now it shows him playing an electric guitar. “In the beginning of the song, I was playing the me-ro-di (Japanese). But now I’m playing the ko-ru-do (“chord” in Japanese) to accompany to the main melody on the violin.” A similar keyboard rhythm sample is played in this performance.
“Oh, do you have a band? How long have you been playing?”
“Yes, I have a band. I was playing when there were still black and white televisions.”
He disappeared again. I started picking a few classic nakasi tunes. The video came on again. This time the camera focuses on a diva-esque middle-aged woman singing using a classic karaoke-tone reverb-heavy tone on the mic. A middle-aged man with glasses plays the accompaniment using a combined strings and piano sound on an electronic keyboard. That man is the shop owner. He said, “This was a recording session at TV station. I charge a lot for performances these days. I charged them NT$8000 a day for that session. You go there to record. It takes time to set up. And in case of NG, you have to play the same thing over and over again…”
“I need to start charging people for looking and trying out my instruments. Like your father, I can charge a co-pay of NT$200. That way, I won’t go bankrupted. What do you think? Which guitar do you like? How much do you want to offer for them?”
“I like the yellow guitar because it has a nice tone.” I told him that I’m looking for a guitar with a sweet vintage tone. “But the problem is that this guitar won’t stay in tune.”
“You could have it for NT$2000. It should stay in tune once you start tuning it.” He assured me. He went behind the counter and took an electric tuner out of a box. Then it became clear to him that the guitar does not intonate correctly. I felt bad. He knew that he wasn’t able to offer what I was looking for.
“Forget it,” he seemed irritated. “It’s a waste of time. I don’t want to sell you anything. The kind of guitar you’re looking is at least NT$8000.” He asked me to go. I apologized profusely. I asked him for his surname hoping to reconnect with him. He seemed offended and gestured for me to leave.
What could I do to restore Mr. Accordion’s trust? Should I go back there to buy the yellow guitar? Should I maybe take some lessons from him? Ideas are welcome.
///// More pictures from the original post on my travelogue Sleeplessly Yours.