Monday, April 2, 2012

A Small Diversion: Luthiery in Cuba

Jorge, who made my instrument, and his compatriots
It's been nearly a month since my last post, in part because my last class didn't provide much in the way of the kind of thrilling lutherial action you've come to expect from my blog. I'd hate to disappoint my readers (aka Mom). But the main reason for my absence is that I just returned from an awe-inspiring trip to Cuba, which was a 50th birthday present from my dear Natalie. I'll try to restrain myself here because I could spend a month writing about the trip. Suffice it say it was the greatest experience I've ever had, bar none. I'll fill you in on the details later. But one part of my trip is a perfect fit here.

In the months before we left I did some research on musical instruments in Cuba because it's always my goal to learn more about the local instruments whenever I go to another country and, if I'm lucky, even buy one. But in the process of researching I quickly learned the most important things about instruments in Cuba. First, Cubans are incredible musicians and everyone, it seems, plays, and plays extraorinarily well. But more importantly, Cubans don't have access to the most basic necessities for musicians, like strings and picks, much less the material and equipment needed to make fine instruments. As a result, I met top line professional musicians whose instruments wouldn't pass muster in an elementary school music class here.

Jorge demonstrating his coal fired bending iron
To make a long story short, I came a cross a group called "Luthiers Without Borders" who make it their business to gather and deliver everything from guitar tops and frets to glue and routers to luthiers in Cuba and elsewhere. So, although I didn't have much time to find out exactly what was needed, I did manage to take some strings, glue, and sandpaper, all of which was received as though I was passing out bags of cash. But the interesting thing is that this process led me inside the world of a Cuban instrument maker, a place I never expected to be.

By the time I got to Cuba I had already made contact with a luthier who had worked with Luthiers Without Borders before. He had helped guide materials to people who needed them and helped coordinate deliveries of equipment and supplies. And, with the help of a very helpful guy named Denny from the Luthiers group, I was able to establish that I was interested in buying an instrument. That was an interesting process in and of itself. I won't go into the details because, again, it's so interesting I could go on and on. But the point is that Cuba is a communist country. Retail sales is not something they're big on, so it's not as though you just drop in "Jose's Guitar World" and pick up a handmade tres.

But I digress. I first met Jorge, the luthier in question, when we met at another person's house to look at the instrument. I was excited, and it sounded great but, honestly, I thought the workmanship was a little sub par.  That is until he took me to his workshop. Holy Toledo.

My Tres
It's beyond me how Jorge could make a cutting board, much less a guitar or tres, under those conditions. They don't have glue. They don't have tape. Their saws look as though they came from the 14th century. They have virtually no power tools and the ones they do have are broken and left idle because they don't have the parts to repair them. It was just amazing to me. But they persist. And although my instrument has a few cosmetic flaws we wouldn't allow, it sounds fantastic and plays great.

I'm hoping to go back soon with some experienced luthiers and more supplies. You could make a lot of musicians very happy with a couple of weeks and some basic materials.

So I'll skip talking about my guitar this week. I have every piece of equipment and the best supplies available. Makes me feel I should work a little bit harder.

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