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The Man with the Music Boxes.

bird cage

We rattle through the desert, not saying much, heading way out into the middle of nowhere, which in this fledgling country, is most places. We pass camels on the dusty landscape, and Bedouin eking out their existence in what have become permanent homes, made of corrugated iron and copious amounts of children and washing. Soon, even those pass, and we turn into the hills, into the oasis that is the artists colony.

Paths decorated with glass and pottery wind round, curving away, and cats sun themselves on walls festooned with tropical flowers. There is noise, laughter, colour everywhere.

But we came to see the Man with the Mechanical Music.

The signs to his museum are there, but the paths are cracked and untrodden and we have to ask for directions a few times, but we are determined, and we find his door. Fans blow hot air around, and we enter through the low door into a dark room of packed with tools, antique children’s tin toys and hand made wind up boxes. “Don’t Postpone Joy” say signs in several languages. We have stepped into another world, but there he is, behind his counter.

He comes out to greet us, his English fluent and thickly American, his large hands liver-spotted with age. He has the small, sky blue eyes of the fanatic. He is a large, imposing man, with a fondness for the kind of puns and jokes that black and white movies favour, though he likes to be the only one telling them, I immediately notice. He enjoys having an audience, and we pay our 30 shekels to enter the museum.

A small door in the corner admits us, and two or three cramped stairs lead us down, but then the room opens out, and we are there. Surrounded by shining inlaid wood, gleaming silver cogs and glass panels revealing complicated inner mechanisms, huge stacks of metal discs lie in immense piles, looking unloved and fragile. Our hosts greets it all like an old friend, and starts to show us the first box, winding it up. As it plays a song long forgotten by most mortal ears, he sings along in a wordless baritone, waving his hands as though conducting an imaginary orchestra. His enthusiasm is enchanting, and I feel caught up in his love for these forgotten toys. My companion is, frankly, bored.

Through a window, I can see a small boy herding his goats through the dusty landscape, and I’m struck by the sparseness out there, compared to the richness in here. The music boxes that this man collects are the discarded playthings of the incredibly wealthy, and are opulent in the extreme, displaying the finest materials and workmanship. They range from simple jewel boxes that play one tune, to larger wooden pieces that play several songs, with some housing a percussion section as well as the traditional barrel and pins. Hundreds of years old, some of the mechanical instruments were brought from the plantations of the American South, and play traditional songs from the owners homelands, Ireland and Scotland, songs no longer sung there that were popular at the time. They are things of incredible ingenuity and beauty, each part of them made lovingly and decorated with carvings or inlay.

Younger pieces, such as early ancestors of the gramophone and the classic pianola are much closer to things I might recognise from my own home, though still made with the same love and attention to detail (and the same expense, I am sure) though they play a multitude of songs, recorded on the metal discs we see piled up, or on paper rolls in the case of the pianola. What catches my eye and my imagination is a brass cage, with a flea-bitten stuffed bird inside, the faded feathers telling a tale of long forgotten glory. The man smiles and winds it up for me, the bird springing to life and piping a tune, his little beak opening and closing and his wings fluttering. He sounds just like a live bird, it’s hard to imagine that he’s made of mechanical parts, and I can see in my minds eye a graceful, wealthy lady receiving him as a gift from a lover and displaying him proudly to her guests as quite a local wonder.

Out little tour almost over, and my friend displaying all signs of impatience, I feel nostalgic for a lost world. I don’t know what all this decadence is doing out here, in the desert of a country with pro-Communist leanings, and the people, with their own hopes and desires, who loved these toys so much are all lost to us. As the man winds up his last display, a hurdy-gurdy, painted with beautiful scenes of an imaginary French Court on the sides, I think of the long dead, half starved monkey who would have scampered about with his little fez out to collect change, and the man winding the handle in the hot Spanish sun by the ocean. The people who made these things with such attention to detail and such incredible skill are long gone, along with the world that gave birth to their individual beauty, replaced by a mass market generic modernity (which admittedly is beautiful in it’s own way).

As we step out into the blinding sun, and my friend sighs with relief, I look back at the sign at the door: Don’t postpone joy.

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