New Expression Mandolin Orchestra rehearsals. Shhh...
  • New Expression Mandolin Orchestra rehearsals. Shhh...
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Directed by Chris Aquavella, 14 mandolin players and three guitarists pluck and strum the poignant notes of “La Frisonette.” Avoiding the black-and-white depictions of Robert Johnson and Leadbelly lining the walls, I imagine sitting in a 19th-century European café. Other signs of our times sporadically break the spell: near the country-blues posters, the bright colors and circular forms that were hippie favorites depict Jerry Garcia with a halo, wearing angelic robes. Aquavella reminds members of the New Expression Mandolin Orchestra to text him if they’re locked out of the building.

In 1974, Shelltown (in Southeast San Diego) native Walt Richards opened the New Expression Folk Instrument Study Center at Fairmount and University when his employer, Grayson Music, closed. He recalls thinking, “Gosh, I need a new expression for my business. Also, people come to learn music, and to them it’s a ‘new expression’; they’ve never done it before.... We started out as a co-op, with several teachers.”

Over the next 37 years, New Expression’s retail operation developed a following around its discerning selection of acoustic instruments and for its services (upon purchasing a Taylor in the mid-’90s, NE’s Ray Street personnel were the only ones I trusted to install the pick-up they swore was meant for the guitar). Although NE has endured several relocations, along with shifts in business status and name (“House of Strings,” “Acoustic Expressions,” “Old Time Music”), Richards, with a bevy of instructors and roots enthusiasts, has consistently provided bluegrass and acoustic classes and jam sessions. Along with maintaining San Diego’s sole bluegrass resource, Richards originated the acoustic “Slo Jam” gathering in San Carlos.

I ask him how NE’s new (as of February, 2011) 30th Street home compares with previous locations.

“The two stories are a pain in the ass, but it’s half the rent we were paying on University Avenue. The studios are roomier — there’s space for lots of groups and classes and for concerts. We’re planning more open houses and performances including students — the one we did in August was very successful. Their families, and neighborhood people, can come have a party and see what the students are doing. It builds community, which is a goal I had in mind many years ago — it was a vision from the beginning. Over the past few years, it’s really come into fruition.”

Beppe Gambetta appears at New Expression Music in North Park this Thursday, September 29.

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