A backyard woodshop full of teenagers smack in a rough-and-tumble neighborhood a metropolis surrounded by the world's largest rainforest. Perhaps not the first place many people would think to look for innovation in design. But some of the world's leading craftsmen of musical instruments are keeping an eye on the Amazonian Luthier Workshop School.
Luthiers are master artisans of handmade string instruments. The term originally meant "lute maker," meaning that luthiers can trace their tradition back at least to the Middle Ages. They swear by a trusty stable of raw materials. In our era of rampant deforestation, the ancestral list now seems top-heavy with increasingly rare and expensive species of wood like rosewood and mahogany.
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As part a supply channel of sustainable forestry products, the Amazonian luthier school receives from its dozens of species that have not traditionally been commercialized in any way - let alone employed by precision artisans like luthiers. Rational logging involves culling mature trees across a broad range of species instead of the traditional but destructive practice of felling nearly all individuals of a few high-value trees. Precious Woods Amazon, a Swiss-owned company that supplies wood to the luthier school, fells about 40 species of trees compared to fewer than a dozen customarily taken by conventional loggers. By expanding its species base, sustainable loggers can be more selective about which trees get the chainsaws. That helps maintain the forest more closely to its natural state.
Responsible loggers like Precious Woods can submit to a review process and gain international certification awarded under the auspices of an independent agency called the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). FSC certification can help loggers pry open some markets, especially among the evermore ecologically conscious consumers in the northern hemisphere. By agreeing to use only certified lumber, wood products manufacturers, even small alternative ones like the luthier school, can earn certification of something called the “chain of custody.”
For all its benefits, certification can present a daunting challenge - finding, or creating, a market for all that previously non-commercial species. Selling newfangled species "is really, really hard," admitted Pepper Stebbins, marketing and sales manager.
In the slow but steady luthier tradition, Rubens Gomes seems to be part of the solution. A veteran luthier who founded the school for disadvantaged kids two years ago, he experiments with "non-commercial" species to see if they can be substituted for popular but sometimes disappearing ones. So far he's tested 25 species not customarily employed by luthiers. He's found uses for seven. Breu Branco, a species common in the Amazon, for example, can take the place of cedar. "It may not be valuable on the market, but it can be used to make a fretboard," he said.
So as they fumble with their fret intervals, Gomes’ cadre of 60 apprentices ranging in age from 14-21 are also testing new materials for the luthier craft.
The Workshop sells the instruments produced as student projects, but foundation support eliminates the pressure to churn out product and generate revenue willy-nilly. Unencumbered by the profit motive, Gomes can focus on the social and environmental facets of his work. Besides luthier skills, students also study music theory and ecology. "The school has no final product except good citizens," he said. "The Workshop can test new materials because it is not obliged to turn out products. A company can't do that."
Leading instrument makers around the world are taking note. An executive at the Nashville-based Gibson Guitar Corporation placed multiple orders for student-produced instruments. The legendary Cuban luthier Raul Lage has promised to visit Manaus to tutor advanced students.
The workshop school represents the fulfillment of a life-long dream for Gomes. The story begins back when he a young music student. Too poor to afford top-notch instruments, he decided to make his own. Fellow students began seeking his services, and pretty soon he was busier making instruments than playing them. Eventually he took formal training in piano tuning and the luthier craft.
A committed political activist, Gomes began searching for a way to meld his professional interests with his social concerns. In 1994 he signed on to teach his skills to juvenile offenders in a government institution in the Amazonian state of Acre. A year later, Amazonas Federal University recruited him to found a course in the craft, but the ivory tower suited him poorly. In 1998 he moved to a poor, violence-plagued neighborhood in the 1.1 million city of Manaus and founded the workshop school in his backyard. Today the institution receives support from a laundry list of foundations and institutions that runs from the Ford Foundation to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and Imaflora, Brazil's sole certifier of sustainable forestry management operations. Gomes moved across the street, and expanded the school operations into his former living quarters.
The luthier school’s success has attracted attention beyond the world of musical instruments.
Officials from the backwoods town of Boa Vista de Ramos called upon Gomes to help woodworking artisans improve the quality of their work. With the support of the mayor, Imaflora and the Federal Agrotechnical School of Manaus, a vocational school that offers specialization in forestry management, Gomes introduced marquetry - the art of inlaid woodworking.
From an original group of 18 members from four families, the project has expanded to include seven groups and a total of 140 individuals. For now, they use Precious Woods scrap wood. But if all goes according to plan, the artisans will soon have their own certified source of lumber. The mayor donated some municipal forestland that will be logged by a local cooperative that will pursue certification.
Gomes has high hopes for the Boa Vista de Ramos project. "We can tap into the local, national and international markets. Amazonas could become a production center for small wooden objects," he said. "The Amazon brand is important but not determinate. You need high quality, too."
Like the luthier school, the Boa Vista de Ramos project can represent modest but real dent in the cycle of poverty that grips many Amazonian citizens. "It is inconceivable to live beside all this wealth and see people that are so poor," he said. "The solution for the Amazon is to use the resources that we have."
Visit the workshop’s website
Find Brazilian music on Amazon.com.