Gourds are a strange fruit.
It is nearly impossible to visit a country fair or curiosity shop off the highway without finding some evidence of dried gourds, hollowed into a birdhouse or painted as folk art.
For Paul Bergstrom of Blairsville-based Mountain Melodies Manufacturing, the gourd is a perfect instrument to make simple and beautiful music that anyone can enjoy.
Mountain Melodies Manufacturing was one of the countless vendors Sunday displaying wares at the Gold Rush Days hosted by the Dahlonega Jaycees in downtown Dahlonega. His stall walls were lined with rows and rows of a unique instrument called a kalimba. The kalimba, an ancient instrument native to Africa, is a hollow or solid bodied instrument that has distinct keys that are strummed or plucked with the fingers for a vibrant, bell-like sound.
Over the last decade Bergstrom and his wife, Sue, have traveled the nation selling wooden and gourd kalimbas, a craft they have spent years perfecting.
According to Bergstrom, for the majority of his life he didn’t really think of music past what came through his radio or the CDs on his shelves. But after 30 years of designing medical instruments, Bergstrom sold his business and was left with a gap in his life that needed filling.
“He was just getting in my hair and needed something else to to do,” said Sue Bergstrom, explaining that one day she asked him frankly what it was that he wanted to do with his life, to which he immediately replied music.
Some days later the couple found themselves at a fair in Berryville, Ark., and there Paul found a stand full of the unique gourd instruments. He said that after meeting the shop owner something clicked for him, and he knew he was in the right place.
“I looked at her and she looked at me, and I got that warm feeling up the back of my neck and knew something was happening,” said Bergstrom.
The owner happily invited him over and showed him how simple it was to play the kalimba, then shocked him by plainly asking him the same question that his wife had asked only nights before, “So what are you going to do with the rest of your life?”
He says that she explained to him that she was trying to sell her business and that she already knew that he would be the one to buy it and carry on her mission of providing simple musical instruments to people of all ages.
“At that point my knees were shaking, and my wife was standing next to me saying ‘this is really freaky,’” said Bergstrom.
Within a week he had bought the business and was learning how to handcraft the instruments.
In the eight years since that day he has turned Mountain Melodies Manufacturing into a thriving niche business that manufactures roughly 18,000 instruments a year.
Bergstrom said that since he bought the business, the company has developed 14 additional instrument models, venturing into new territories, experimenting with electric hand pianos and electric amplifiers for instruments and music made from gourds.
Bergstrom reflects that had he not bought the business, he would likely be doing the same things that his retired friends do, and he can’t stand that thought.
“Their idea of fun is going to the Dairy Queen with their wife. Mine is going to Kentucky or to a music festival somewhere,” Bergstrom said.
But beyond money, he says that seeing kids that come into his shop play the instruments is really what makes it worth it for him.
He interacts with kids that show an interest in his instruments with a grandfatherly affection, joking and teasing them while showing them how to play simple melodies with the hand piano.
Sunday, after a young blonde girl and her parents stopped and bought a pink painted hand piano, Bergstrom took the instrument from the girl, strummed its keys and said, “I got up really early in the morning to make this because I knew you were coming here to buy it, so find a special place in your room to keep it.”
“So yeah, that’s what staying mentally and physically active does for me,” Bergstrom said. “It gives me a reason to get up in the morning, go out in the shop and get wood shavings up my nose.”