Marching to a Different Beat : Ethnic Music Shops Offer Sounds of the World


If music helps define a culture, and culture helps define a person, then it follows that music plays a role in our lives above and beyond mere entertainment.

But what do people do when they’re thousands of miles from home and living in a nation that thinks the only music worth hearing--and selling--is its own? If that country happens to be the United States (naw, it couldn’t be), they wouldn’t be at a total loss. At least, not if they were in Los Angeles.

While “world beat” is gaining popularity at chain stores, L.A. boasts a tremendous variety of record stores that specialize in music from specific countries, regions and heritages. Of course, everyone knows there’s an abundance of Latino music shops. Most people, however, aren’t aware of--nor take advantage of--the fact that there are Jewish, Thai and Irish music stores in Hollywood or an Indian record shop in Artesia or even Japanese and Caribbean stores near downtown Los Angeles.


Just like going out to eat in a specific ethnic restaurant, these stores can offer a flavor you just can’t get anywhere else. You don’t eat at the same restaurant every night, do you?

“I think people who don’t know the languages or aren’t familiar with the cultures can still get a lot out of this music,” says Simon Rutberg, manager of Hatikvah Music International, a Jewish record store in Hollywood that carries albums from nearly as many countries as Judaism can be found. “They’ll probably enjoy the music, and they may learn a thing or two.”

Fortunately for the owners of these ethnic stores, they don’t depend on mainstream music fans to keep their businesses running. Most of them depend on customers who are first-generation Americans or recent U.S. newcomers. For these customers, the ethnic record store can either teach them something about their heritage or reinforce their cultural identity.

“I enjoy American music, too, but this is the music that my friends and family listen to,” says Gao Zheng, 19, of Los Angeles, who was CD shopping at M.T.V. Wholesale, a Chinese and Korean record store in Chinatown.

Noach Vogel, 35, from San Jose, says he often shops at Hatikvah Music International for music to dance to--not physically, but spiritually.

“As an orthodox Jew, we believe that songs can help get you a step closer to God, they help bring you into greater spirituality,” says Vogel. “I need that, and I need this music for that reason.”


Most of these stores are tiny and are often located in the corner of a small shopping center. The interiors are generally plain and devoid of the intricate displays found at mainstream stores. But they have plenty to offer in the way of merchandise. Cassettes are most abundant, but most also carry CDs and some offer vinyl.

Don’t count on finding Michael Jackson, Green Day or Garth Brooks in these stores, though.

“Nope, definitely no Michael Jackson here,” said Rutberg, of his Jewish store.

Instead of mainstream American artists, Rutberg’s store offers names like Encirco Macias, Ofra Haza and David Broza--all hot stars in Jewish cultures. M.T.V. Wholesale, meanwhile, features Chinese hits by Andy Lau and Vivian Chowe, and Bunka-Do Imports in Little Tokyo had albums by Japanese sensations Dreams Come True and Hibari Misora.

“Hibari Misora is kind of the Japanese Elvis--she was popular for a long time and led a long, tragic life,” says Irene Tsukada Germain, who runs Bunka-Do with her mother, Kayoko Tsukada. “Japan has its stars too.”

While they do carry contemporary hits, these stores also often deal with historical and traditional recordings. Bunka-Do, for instance, carries a large selection of recordings of such traditional Japanese instruments as the taiko drum and the koto (a 13-stringed instrument), and Hatikvah has Ladino music from 500 years ago.

Richard Patrick Jones, owner of Irish Imports in Hollywood--where a few modern day groups like the Pogues and the Saw Doctors share bins with centuries-old Gaelic folk music--says that the traditional music he carries is most popular with middle-aged customers and older.


“As people get older, they become more interested in the culture they come from and go back to the traditional music they might have heard their parents play,” Jones says. “But then, of course, around St. Patrick’s Day, everyone all of a sudden becomes Irish.”


One of Jones’ best-sellers at Irish Imports is, as he calls it, “drinking music.” Sure enough, he carried several cassettes with titles similar to “20 Greatest Irish Drinking Songs,” which exemplifies one of the most interesting aspects of these ethnic record stores and what they can teach: Music in other cultures is used in many different settings, for many different reasons, in many different forms.

Bunka-Do has a large collection of recordings and laser discs from the science-fiction animation world, which has a huge market in Japan. M.T.V. Wholesale, meanwhile, has many karaoke discs. Melody Makers, an Indian store in Artesia, offers many religious recordings. Hatikvah also has religious albums, in addition to a lot of comedy albums.

They all have something unique to offer.

“Jewish people love our store, and that’s what counts,” Hatikvah manager Rutberg says. “Like anything else, record stores have got to appeal to the multitudes of heritage and culture out there. Tower Records and Sam Goody and all those other stores aren’t going to cut it.”


Shopping for Ethnic Music

Here’s a selected list of ethnic record stores around L.A.:

Bunka-Do Japanese Records

340 E. 1st St. (upstairs)

Little Tokyo

(213) 625-1122

Festival Foreign Records

2773 W. Pico Blvd.

Los Angeles

European, Chinese

(213) 737-3500

Hatikvah Music International

436 N. Fairfax Ave.


International Jewish

(213) 655-7083

Irish Import Shop

738 Vine St.


(213) 467-6714

Kulcha Beat Records

4732 W. Washington Blvd.

Los Angeles

Caribbean, African music

(213) 932-9229

M.T.V. Wholesale

837 N. Spring St.


Chinese, Philippine and Cambodian

(213) 680-3568

Meghedi Records

5658 Hollywood Blvd.


Armenian, Greek, Arabic, Iranian, Italian, Russian

Melody Makers

1833 S. Pioneer Blvd.


East Indian

(213) 924-7672

Siam Book Center

5178 Hollywood Blvd.



(213) 665-4236x