Alistair’s Music, on Cuba St, is run by Alistair Cuthill and his wife Catriona.
I’ve known Alistair and Catriona for well over a decade. I used to play in a band with Alistair; including some ad hoc line ups. If they wanted a Scottish band we could do that; if they wanted an Irish band we could do that. If they wanted some bush ballads, Greek or Italian-styled polkas or bloody 500 Miles! we could do that. We’d give it all a go…
We played all over the country – weddings, St Patrick’s Day gigs, the opening of a mall or food court, RSAs and Working Man’s Clubs, wedding anniversaries – once, bizarrely, we played on the back of a truck, in natural light only, nearing nightfall, to some campers who were in the middle of a race and had for some reason booked entertainment to sleep through as they tried to rest. We played until we couldn’t see our instruments or each other. And then, because we had been booked until a certain time, the battery-powered torches came out and we played some more.
It’s always nice to pop in and see Alistair and Catriona and it’s something I don’t get to do enough these days – always busy, mostly spent thinking I’m busy. But I do try to check in with them – and check out the shop – every now and then.
Any time I make it in there we have a great old chat. We talk about some local gigs, about international albums and tours, about the state of music. We talk about some gigs to come – about playing again after time off – and in between times I’ll have a look at the instruments in the shop, have a tinker, watch as customers pop in and out and are greeted and treated to excellent service; people buying violin strings and practice books; people buying ukuleles and tambourines; people having guitars re-strung and tuned; people just dropping in for a chat and to see what was new…looking at bass-sitars and bass ukuleles; at ukes in the shape of a Flying-V guitar; at “backpacker” guitars and ukes; thin as a coffee-table book.
Long before it was Alistair’s Music it was Capital Music, a store where Alistair worked. I thought he owned the place. Apparently I was not the only one. I used to buy musical equipment from Alistair before I knew who he was, before I shared car trips to the ski-fields to play gigs, before I shared motel accommodation in Taupo after gigs and shared stages in Hastings, Palmerston North, Levin, Upper Hutt…
Cuthill started playing fiddle in Loch Lomond, the Scottish town where he grew up. His father was a keen player. From there he studied marine engineering and made his first trip to New Zealand in 1972, installing parts of what would become our Rangatira inter-island ferry. He bought with him a background in Celtic and country music and decided to make a go of the New Zealand folk scene.
From there it was to performances with Russian ensembles and Celtic groups in and around Wellington. To work recording for film soundtracks and television adverts. And it was, almost reluctantly, that Alistair fell in to a career as a retailer, realistic that the income from performing would need to be supplemented.
Travel through Europe in the 1970s added to Alistair’s life experiences and musical repertoire. He cycled around Germany, playing gigs in pubs, sometimes for the price of a meal and a drink; sometimes – if lucky – for accommodation.
And then, back in Wellington, he worked as a bagpipe maker at McPhees Celtic Centre in Wellington. Cuthill has never, to this day, played the bagpipes. He reckons his background as an engineer, coupled with an enthusiasm for music assisted him as he took on the role.
Then it was to Capital Music and when that store closed, he and Catriona – also a musician – opened Alistair’s Music; their music store.
Catriona told me “the plan, to begin with, was to create this little shop where we could both teach students and sell some interesting and exotic instruments. We would create a lifestyle where we enjoyed being at work and could teach and play gigs too. The idea, originally, was to be in business for three to four years, hopefully turn a wee profit and then head overseas to do some playing and traveling”.
But that two to three years turned in to two to three more and then another two to three from there. And on. And on. And still going…
Catriona says, “we are fortunate to have some of the world’s greatest musicians come and find us here when they tour. They find us, it’s obviously good word-of-mouth, but people let them know that we might have some interesting instruments. So not only do we get to see these great musicians, we get to be the audience for tiny, private concerts”.
I once told Alistair that I had never been in to his store without seeing at least one regular customer come in and be greeted like an old friend – and all first-timers being made to feel welcome as if they had shopped there weekly for years – he smiled and said “yes, you’re probably right”.
It was nice to pop back in there again– to be greeted and treated like an old friend (of course, in many ways, I am – or at least I hope I am). But again I watched people walking in for the first time – a young girl nervously asking for a single violin string, some browsing guitar enthusiasts, a guy interested in the Cajon (I was able to offer my recommendation, for what it is worth, having bought one from Alistair just over a year ago. They make an excellent desk-stool too).
It’s not overstating it to say that I left the store with a real buzz; I felt really good about myself – and as ridiculous as some of you may think this sounds – about music. Music is in good hands when there are people out there who care about it – care about the shape and shaping of it, as Alistair and Catriona do.
So, that’s my favourite musical instrument store. And also just one of my favourite shops to just pop in to from time to time.
I like Catriona’s idea that it is like a spice shop. She reckons they “have the basic stuff you need that will make music sound great, the salt and pepper to add to the meal. But, to extend the metaphor we also have the exotic spices, the strange stuff that you cannot find in any mainstream store – you visit the spice shop instead of popping in to the supermarket”.