HOW IT ALL STARTED
Roots Production all began in the summer of ‘95 in a vineyard in the South of France. Master Percussionist and world traveler Axel Lecour and I had just finished touring the country with a steel band and the quiet of this little summer house surrounded by vineyards was welcome after being on the road for so long and with so many late nights.
As it turns out, during one of our improvised jam sessions with other Musicians on the road we came accros a little Thumb Piano (The Magical Kalimba) made in an oval shaped Sardine Can. It had a wonderful sound and was amazingly loud for such a small instrument. It was really comfortable to play and looked totally cool. We said to ourselves, “We’d very much like to make one ourselves!”
So we set about trying to make one of these little wonders. We spent the next week rummaging the local junk yards looking for our raw materials and trying to assemble all the parts as best we could. We used the wood from wine cases for the sounding board, bicycle spokes for the notes, and cut-up soft drink cans to make the buzzers. And so this was how Roots Production was born.
Over the past twenty years we have learned a lot about making these instruments and have perfected are technique and a craftmanship, but the idea that using recylced materials in their construction has persisted. Our instruments are simple yet sophisticated, low-tech yet luxurious, primative yet polished. Turning recycled materials into gold is the achelemy that is operating here and we are very proud and pleased with our product. We hope that you will be, too.
The Founder’s Story and Vision
When long-time friend, Jayvardhan Singh Bisht, asked me to do a story about his friend’s company, Roots Production, I thought to myself, “Well yes, I do owe Jay a favour, but good lord, a story? Yes, I’ve written a couple of fiction books which are to be published soon, and yes, I’m good with a pen, but a journalist?” The last time I wrote any kind of story about anything was for the B-Line in my high school. My journalistic methods and techniques are rusty at best! But when a happenstance call by me to owner and founder of the company, Andrew Masters, was made one night while trying to reach Jay (who, it turns out, had accidentally exchanged his SIMM card with Andrew) I realized that I was meant to meet Andrew and that I was meant to write this story. It was odd, Andrew was unruffled by my call. He was nothing short of cool. In fact, he knew who I was before I introduced myself. “This must be Mike,” he said. “Jay’s told me a lot about you.” Fascinated that this man should know me already, I quickly fired up the word processor, dusted off my journalistic knowledge, and prepared myself to answer the who, what, where, when, why, and how of Roots Production’s story, which I present to you as such.
Roots Production. It all begins with the first word of the company title, ‘Roots’. It’s a word, a name, a seed, and it has a profound and deep meaning. It’s the key to founder Andrew Masters’ vision. On the one hand it means the obvious, that part of your everyday, garden-variety plant found in the soil to nourish and support the rest of the plant. It also means the ‘cause or origin of something’. And lastly, it means to establish ‘deeply and firmly’. “Bingo,” I say to myself, “That’s it. This is the meaning Andrew was getting at in the email he sent to me.” It happens to be, in fact, the entire ethos of the company. But, before we delve into the meaning and how it relates to Andrew’s musical instruments and his artwork, we must consider Andrew himself, for the story of Roots Production is largely his story.
When Andrew was three his father (English) and his mother (French) left London with him to go set up a small hotel on Crane Beach, in Barbados, a little island located in the southern Caribbean just north of South America. The hotel has long since been sold by his family, a huge, expensive luxury resort there in place of it now. But back then “It was the garden of Eden,”
Andrew tells me, beautiful and untouched. My childhood “was spent bare feet on the beach, in the waves and the wind, watching the clouds go by as my mum and dad built the place,” he says. As I write this story I think it must have been grand to live in that hotel, to see and meet so many people coming and going from all over the world.
At that time Barbados, the only Caribbean island to never change hands during the colonial period, was gaining its independence from Britain, but the colonial atmosphere still lingered. For good or for bad, Andrew found himself being treated like the master’s son on a sugar plantation. As Barbados is ninety-nine percent black, Andrew had no children like himself with which to identify and as such, his childhood, thought idyllic, was a very lonely and isolating period in his life.
At the age of Nine, Andrew’s parents sent him to boarding school in England, and as he recounts, it was “the most traumatic experience of my life.” Apparently nothing had prepared him for traditional, post-war British culture, which was so different from that on the island. Furthermore, Andrew had a learning problem like so many children have these days, being dyslexic and hyperactive (which he later learned was due to attention deficit disorder). And so feeling as if he didn’t know where he was from, he spent his holidays twice a year back in Barbados, from the ages of nine to fifteen. But, as a result of this alienation, Andrew developed an anti-authoritarian view of the world. He could not tolerate being told what to do and had a very real problem with structure and organization as is the case with many ADD children.
Nevertheless, Andrew continued with his education and after a couple of years studying in Switzerland, he, like many teenagers, discovered sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. And by this time his parents were still on the island of his youth but his father was very ill. Though financially stable through family support, Andrew had to go at it alone, living by himself at the age of eighteen, fully equipped with his own apartment and motorbike by then but lacking very much in direction and emotional support. With isolation came sadness, and no matter where Andrew went, he always felt the music and the sunlight of the islands in the background.
Eventually Andrew’s parents sold the hotel and he moved to the United States. But his sadness only increased there, and getting older, he quickly found himself heading down a very dangerous and destructive path. Despite Andrew’s confusion however, he somehow managed to enrol himself into NYU Film School. This was during the late eighties when New York was the most bankrupt, dirty and dangerous city in the States. But Andrew loved it. He soaked in the knowledge from NYU. He learned new and different things. He went to museums. It was the first time he felt alive. He was beginning to find a home.
Then one day, about five years later, Andrew, due to his lack of organization (he had visas from all over the world), came to know that the Americans had suddenly refused him his student visa and had told him he had go back home. “Where will I go?” he asked himself. “Am I to be uprooted again? For God’s sake, where is home?” He knew he couldn’t go back to England. Heaven forbid that. So he decided to go to France. He spoke a bit of French and with his new degree in film he decided he could set up a small film company there to make documentary films.
In Paris the pot began to stir. Andrew began having dreams about drumming and drums and so he enrolled himself in a Conga class. He realized quickly that his problem with ADD was all about space and time and that music could cure his mind. This he believes, is what should be taught in schools to make happy, balanced children.
Through learning to keep a simple rhythm, he was finally beginning to solidify himself, to take root somewhere, to find his identity.
And so, to make a long story short, at the age of twenty-four or twenty-five Andrew went to India to make a documentary film, a film that he never finished. He spent days in the dark editing room not making much progress, but the music stuck. In fact, that summer he flew back to Paris and began playing in a steel band. He says he wasn’t very good, but that the structure it gave him developed in him a sense of power, a sense of self. That summer he started building his first Sanza, also known as a Kalimba or Thumb Piano, the very same instrument which he would later on in his life begin selling through his newfound company, Roots Production. And, as it turns out, Andrew is also a prolific painter and teacher. For the past twenty years he has been teaching handicapped people and children how to make music, having developed his own technique for doing so. Andrew has had a very full life indeed.
This, I believe, takes us full circle, and back we go to the main idea of this story, the meaning behind Roots Production. Roots, you see, is about finding one’s place in the world. Having travelled to so many places, Andrew sees the world as one big community, a giant village, so to speak, and he doesn’t feel at home unless he’s connected to all of it. “Everywhere I look in our world today people are looking for themselves,” he says. “I spent my whole childhood with black people who had their identity taken away from them. In my life I saw the Rasta movement happen before my eyes where the word roots was used over and over again.” With this kind of a background, I can’t help but see the necessity, and in fact, the urgency of Andrew’s search for himself, of finding his place in the world. “Roots Production is about connecting people,” he goes on to say. What he means to say, I think, is we look inside ourselves to find meaning, to find our identity, and also outside into our world, into our community, for the same thing. We’re social beings, after all. It only makes sense that our identities are rooted within each other. And so, when seen from this perspective, Andrew’s vision appears brilliant, meaningful, and strong. I think to myself the sky is the limit for this kind of a company.
As far as Andrew’s experience in India, he says, “Going to India changed my whole outlook on life in terms of philosophies, different gurus, everything. It was truly a wonderful experience.” Now, as a writer I don’t think I have the skill to encapsulate Andrew’s philosophical outlook of India onto paper, but I think it has something to do with the fact that he grew up with a large, Indian community which had immigrated to the Caribbean. He also has views about Africa, a country five thousand kilometres away from Barbados but ever present in his childhood and in the Rastafarian Movement. He saw how Bob Marley touched and influenced the whole of the third world in which he lived. Andrew is truly a global citizen, and the Kalimba, being an instrument found in this part of the world, seems to be his backbone.
“We are starting off with these little Thumb Pianos as our first product..” Andrew says. “They plant a seed in that most intimate space of people, their hearts. This is where our roots will begin to grow. And once we have planted a seed in peoples’ hearts, we would like to make a whole range of musical instruments, and then other things, clothes, t-shirts, lamps, furniture, and of course, my artwork.” Andrew, as I’ve said, is a skilled painter, exhibiting and selling his works in galleries near to where he lives in France. “And there may also be an educational side, a healing side, classes and workshops eventually,” he adds. The scope of Andrew’s vision is truly grand, but at the same time curiously attainable. He already has set up an ancillary office (headed by Jay) in India where he plans to develop a market for his instruments, which have just become available through his website.
“These little instruments touch the child in us all,” he says. “They calm you, create a sacred, safe space around you and protect you from all that is bad. You do not have to be a musician to play, although pro musicians go crazy for them as well, because they sound better than anything out there.”
“How can you be so sure of yourself?” I asked Andrew. He replied simply, “Because we know exactly which kind of sound we want to create, which emotion to touch, which chakras. We have many models for all kinds of occasions and people”.
Though I have just starting working for Andrew, I already own three Kalimbas, expressly delivered by Andrew himself. They sound beautiful, like the wind chimes my mother used to keep in her garden when I was young. Now, I have to admit, I really didn’t believe Jay when he told me they were quite simple to play. I said to myself, “I’m not a musician. This is going to be too difficult!” But after playing them I realized that anybody can pick one up and in a matter of minutes develop his or her own, unique, sweet sound and melody. It’s remarkable, really. The sound from these instruments touches the soul in some way that just makes you feel good inside. I showed these Kalimbas to my friends the day after they arrived and I had to give one away they liked them so much (and yes, it was the largest one!). But how could I refuse? They wanted it to entertain themselves and their baby daughter.
These Kalimbas come in all shapes and sizes. They’re made out of recycled materials, various woods such as plywood from Cuba, even out of things like handsome cigar containers, recycled sardine cans, soft drink cans, gas tanks, etc., all of which have been precisely chosen because of the perfect sound they make. “Taking care of the environment is very important to Roots Production,” Andrew tells me, “And we aim to do our part.” They are painted in beautiful, rich colors, in Andrew’s quintessential, artistic style.
In conclusion, Andrew is truly a gifted artist and person, with a stunning and unique vision for his Kalimba and artwork. “By selling these Kalimbas and my artwork to people throughout the global community I can do my part to help others who are in search of themselves like I was,” he tells me. “By seeing my process,” he continues, “They can find theirs.” And it’s true. With an engaging, dynamic, and almost mystical sound, these Kalimbas are bound to create in people a musical stimulus for self-exploration, a way for them to find their ‘roots’ in the world as it were, to find peace with themselves. Even in Andrew’s paintings one finds that self-same desire to find meaning within oneself. “If I can do it, why can’t others?” Andrew tells me. “Roots Production isn’t just a brand, Mike,” he tells me, “It’s a way of perceiving one’s place in the world.” And so, I sit here at my desk finishing up this article, I think to myself, “If there was ever a person to spread these Kalimbas throughout the world, for musicians and non-musicians alike, it is Andrew.” I for one am really glad that he’s doing it. So cheers and best of luck to you, Andrew, and of course, God bless.