Nic Dillon brings harmonium harmony to Midwest

Every instrument Nic Dillon purchases for resale goes through an extensive checklist of repairs. Two harmoniums sit on his work bench before he begins fine tuning and fixing.

By Brittney Nadler

Harmoniums can be difficult to find in the Midwest. That is, until nearly five years ago, when Nic Dillon began purchasing instruments from India and Africa to restore and resell. Now, Dillon sells his instruments through his business, Old Delhi Music, all from his residence in Urbana.

The former College of Engineering technician had a “pretty normal” music background; he played percussion in fifth grade, took piano lessons and learned guitar in high school. But it was when he took a class called “Music of Asia” at Illinois State University that he was first exposed to world instruments.

“Every week we learned about another country, but the Indian section was particularly interesting to me,” Dillon said. “I liked the music, which wasn’t always the case with the different stuff we were studying.”

The harmonium, his specialty instrument, was first introduced to him during the class. It looks like a combination of a piano and an accordion and is played with one hand pumping the accordion and the other pressing the keys. Yet, the music may sound out of tune to some, Dillon said.

On a western scale of music, there are 12 notes in an octave, but on an Indian scale, that same octave has 22 notes.

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“It’s just a different way of measuring things, but what you’re measuring is sound,” Dillon said. “You’re hearing things that might sound out of tune, but it’s because they’re playing on an interval that we’re not used to hearing.”

This all intrigued Dillon, and he eventually began buying instruments from India and playing them with his wife, Heather. During each performance, Dillon began to notice that at least one person would ask the couple about their unique instruments. Thus, the idea for Old Dehli Music was created.

“The business kind of came from an observation that people were interested in these instruments but didn’t know where to get them,” Nic said.

In 2010, Dillon took a tax return and utilized personal savings to purchase his first shipment to sell on eBay. Last year, Dillon sold just under 300 instruments ranging between $400 to $700, he said.

Harmoniums are his forte, but he also sells mrdangas, mridangams, djembes, dholaks and more. While these instruments aren’t extremely popular in America, Dillon said he can divide his customer base into three categories: ethnomusicologists, people of Indian descent, and those who follow Indian yoga practices.

The business didn’t immediately come to mind, he said. Throughout his 20s, Dillon said all he wanted to do was play music. In college, He and Heather were part of a band called the Casados, where Dillon played acoustic guitar and Heather played the harmonium, before breaking off into a duo. They then formed You and Yourn and toured across the country to play hundreds of shows, starting in 2006, Heather said.

“The first harmonium that I had, we just ordered it online and got this instrument and messed around with it,” Heather said.

When their first child, Ellery, was born right after 2010, their touring decreased.

“We haven’t done much of that in the past few years, but it was a fun experience to play at different places and tour around the country and meet a lot of people,” she said.

Dillon said he spends most of his time repairing the instruments he buys. Harmoniums are fragile instruments that require a lot of care, but when he received his first shipments, that wasn’t what he was expecting.

“My expectation as an American consumer was that I would be sent something that’s retail ready,” he said. “There’s a lot of work I do between India and someone buying an instrument from me to make it a good, solid instrument.”

Each instrument takes between two to four hours to prepare, and Dillon runs through an extensive checklist in his mind with each one. A common problem is when the instrument makes a buzzing sound, meaning the reeds need to be touched up. With the help of pliers and filing off edges of the reeds, the buzzing disappears. With two reeds per key and 39 total keys, the process can be tedious.

“I just thought what I would be doing is ordering some of these things, selling them on the side on eBay, and it would be a nice little side thing,” Dillon said. “I didn’t think it would actually be my full-time job five years later, but it’s fun.”

Michael Cohen, founder of the Dattatreya Kirtan Institute, has been one of Dillon’s clients since the beginning. He refers all of his students to him, he said.

“I have a lot of students, and when they have a bad harmonium, it’s like trying to ride a bike with a flat tire or two flat tires,” Cohen said. “It’s frustrating because there are a lot of bad harmoniums in the world.”

Cohen has purchased harmoniums from around the country, but never in the Midwest before meeting Dillon.

“What I think is exciting about Nic is he’s blazing a trail in his own Bhava brand of harmoniums, which sound great and play great and are at a really good price,” Cohen said. “It’s admirable what he’s done over the years, and it’s really exciting to see the contribution he’s making.”

Dillon began his own line of harmoniums called Bhava, which he is working directly with the manufacturer in order to implement his numerous ideas on how to improve the instrument. He would also like to make sound files for pianos, such as when a keyboard can suddenly emit the sounds of a trumpet or drums with the push of a button.

“There’s just some kind of magic in an instrument that you take these pieces of wood and metal and push air through them, and it makes a sound that’s beautiful to our ears,” Dillon said. “There’s no two that are perfectly alike, but I think my job is to bring them up to a standard where they’re the best they can be.”

Brittney can be reached at [email protected].