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Dateline Havana: Luthiers Without Borders


Laura Prichard photo
Laura Prichard photo

Sometimes in the tropics, great musical distances can be traversed by just looking up.

The southwestern corner of the broad, sunny Plaza Vieja, now restored by the office of the historian of the City of Havana, pulses with sounds from the Cervecería Taberna de la Muralla, a microbrewery that features a different local folkloric band on the terrace each day. Groups play a range of touristic music to entertain those avoiding midday heat, and it’s not unusual to hear some combination of flute, bongos, guitar, and multi-part singing in Spanish. One afternoon featured Afro-Cuban rumbas, and the next offered a mix of Puerto Rican and Cuban popular songs enhanced by congas, a synthesizer, and trumpet/flute duo.

One of Havana’s principal squares, the Plaza Vieja has always been a musical focal point of the capital; it was constructed in the 1500s to create a space for bullfights and fiestas. During Mozart’s lifetime, while the nearby Convent of St. Francis of Assisi was being built and rebuilt, the British took over part of Havana (1762-63); since they used the convent church for Protestant services, Catholic habaneros have never worshiped in it, and the Plaza Vieja continued to evolve without a church on the square.

The Plaza slowly transformed as it was ringed with late 18th-century colonial houses and eventually European café music drew guests to the Art Nouveau Hotel Palacio Viena, opened in 1906 (now gutted for complete restoration). Unfortunately, Cuba’s “modernization” program of the 1930s-50s allowed for the installation of a huge cement underground parking lot among the historic cafés and hotels, but this has been removed, so music rings out over the square again.

Hidden behind an unmarked doorway right next to the busy brewery is a spiral staircase leading up to a high-ceilinged workshop. Behind closed doors, and without fanfare, skilled craftsmen work to restore Cuba’s historic violins, violas, and cellos. In partnership with the City Historian’s office, the European consortium Luthiers san Frontiers has been in residence in Havana since 2009. They first established a small workshop about six blocks north, near the St. Francis convent, and have recently relocated to a long tile-floored room right above the brewery (with some of the only modern air conditioning on the Plaza Vieja). The restorers and their apprentices continue a 400-year tradition of violin making right over the sounds of popular Cuban son.

Newly painted historical building (Laura Stanfield Prichard photo)
Newly painted historical building (Laura Stanfield Prichard photo)

Combining the skills of professional luthiers and local Cuban craftsmen, over 450 instruments have been restored so far. The woods come from Europe, and although some ebony (for fingerboards) is available within Cuba, it is too expensive to harvest it. Andreas Martinez gave us an introduction to the history and goals of the workshop. He emphasized that importation of the best materials from Europe is still very difficult, but that European hardwoods are crucial to great violin making, since the longer winters cause tree rings to be smaller than in the tropics, and thus create harder and more resonant woods. Since the best quality horsehair for bows comes from Siberia, a friend of the Salzburg Mozarteum arranged for one large skein of Siberian horsehair to be sent to Luthiers san frontiers in Havana and reserved especially for the use of the Mozarteum’s Lycuem Mozartiano players.

In addition to rebuilding and repairing cracked and damaged violins, violas, cellos, and basses, the workshop also repairs bows and teaches bowmaking. Most young Cuban players own Chinese instruments and bows, and the costs of materials alone have restricted the number of new instruments that can be created (only two new violins have been made so far, now residing in Havana and Cremona, Italy). Local musicians have been involved at every step of the restoration process, and teachers are allowed to bring classes of students to weekly workshop demonstrations.

Martinez talked about some promising new state support of entrepreneurial projects, and described ways in which the organization would benefit from a more self-sustaining model (to this point they have relied on gifts, grants, government support, and donations). He praised Luthiers san Frontiers for establishing “a unique example of this kind of workshop in Cuba,” and remarked, “I truly believe that the State is interested in allowing our independence.”

To complement its mission by helping to establish indigenous Cuban luthiers, the first of three cohorts of apprentice violin makers (including two members of Cuba’s National Symphony) have received training by visiting masters and technicians in the arts of woodworking, violin repair, and instrument reconstruction. The second cohort of seven students, drawn entirely from students living “in the provinces” outside the capital, has attended three out of four workshops and will complete their training this November.

Each apprentice is trained to evaluate and repair an entire instrument, and a typical job may take a many as eight weeks of devoted effort. Some instruments undergoing restoration belong to important Cuban players, and many masters have come from Europe to consult and coach Cuban craftsmen. Apprentices are offered free lodging and tuition during their course of study due to generous grants from the Luthiers organization and the EU’s cultural wing, but current funding extends only until March 2017.

Laura Stanfield Prichard photo
Laura Stanfield Prichard photo

As a leading restorer now in Havana, Martinez spoke about the importance of his training in Cremona, Italy and the necessity for young violin makers to have experience with the diverse French and Italian schools of lutherie. He described the workshop’s efforts as “very special and unique in the whole world,” since they are based centuries of experience and expertise. When I asked whether he had been attracted to this demanding profession through work as a musician or as a craftsman, he stressed the importance of combining musical knowledge with learning to build or to repair each instrument with consistent, high quality materials, and replied, “I come from the wood.”

A longtime advocate of new music, Prichard is a regular pre-opera speaker for the San Francisco Opera and Boston Baroque. She has taught courses on music and theater history at Northeastern University and UMass-Lowell.

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