Play That Funky Music, White Boy

In many ways, Bariloche is like an enormous craft fair. Handmade chocolates, leather jackets, wool sweaters and an inexhaustible supply of mate gourds fill store windows and market stalls. But I don’t like chocolate and avoiding purchase of a hand-carved mate gourd is only one of several ways that I protest its hot, bitter crusade on several of my basic senses. This doesn’t mean that Bariloche’s community of artisans doesn’t have something to offer to me. In fact, there is something I am very interested in. Hand made guitars.

I have attempted to teach myself to play the guitar for a few years now. For the most part it is an exercise in humility. I have an uncanny knack for befriending extremely talented musicians whose work only highlights my own musical ineptitude. But I enjoy it nonetheless and am afflicted by an ever present lust for beautiful guitars—much in the same way a pimp might appreciate the value of a virgin or an Egyptian might appreciate a bucket of baseball sized rocks.

Like many other naive assumptions I had prior to coming to Argentina, I believed the country would be loaded to the gills with guitar stores given South America’s strong tradition of guitar focused musical styles. Yet in my search for guitar shops around Bariloche I realized this assumption was indeed misguided and yet another example of my ignorance. Fortunately, I found something better.

Raul Perez has a simple website. It contains a broken English biography, list of methods and an abbreviated photo gallery of his work as a luthier. The pictures showed beautiful and intricately designed handmade guitars, violins, lutes and several other instruments I did not recognize. The picture of Raul himself revealed a warm face, adorned with a bushy mustache and crowned with a black beret. When I met him outside his home Monday afternoon, he looked the same; a sort of real life Gepetto, save for the propensity to create psychotic puppets and have extended conversations with goldfish.

Raul greeted me amicably and led me through the yard, behind the house and into his shop. From the outside, the shop appears no more than a shack ready to collapse at any moment from the massive trunks of cut wood leaning against it; a humble package considering the incredible treasures it housed.

I was brought through the saw room, through a room full of curing wood and into the the shop’s holy of holies, where the instruments are actually assembled and where Raul spends most of his time. The roof of this part of the shop is perhaps only 8 feet tall, but nearly everywhere are guitars and ukuleles, lutes and violins in various stages of completion; hanging from jury rigged perches so that you had to duck and weave among them as you moved around. Tools upon tools were packed into tiny shelves. Bits of wood were jammed into every conceivable nook and cranny. It was as if I had walked into the Keebler Elf factory, trading jars of glue for frosting and strips of rosewood for trays of cookies.

As we had walked in, we engaged in the sort of linguistic boxing match I had grown accustomed to. We each threw phrase punches in English and Spanish. He was good. My jabs frequently missed his realm of comprehension and soon we were conversing in English, though I did say ‘si’ quite a bit to let him know I hadn’t given up.

Raul instantly set to showing me around the shop with the excited passion of a child showing another his toys. He explained the various tools and their uses, demonstrated the different tonal qualities of walnut, mahogany, ash and alerce, a wood found only in the Andes. Finally he picked up a dark rosewood and instructed me to smell it. I inhaled the deeply fragrant wood, he took a toke himself and described it as, “the only drug you’ll ever need.” It smelled good. “One whiff and you’re flying for the entire day.” But not that good.

Within five minutes I was placed in the very situation I had secretly wished for when I had first contacted Raul: to play one of his creations. He set up a stool and plucked a large steel string guitar with a heart shaped sound hole, bordered by mother of pearl inlays. It was a replica of a guitar that George Harrison had once played. I was terrified. Not only did I not want to hurt the guitar, but I was faced with the reality that I was going to have to display my completely amateur ability to a master luthier who frequently hosted professional musicians. I felt like a blind man that’s been given a Playboy, appreciative but acknowledging that it would never be used to its full potential. He encouraged me to play and turned his back, just as one might do if they saw a deer about to cross a busy highway.

A tentative pluck and an incredible sound came out. I instantly forgot about my own shortcomings as a player, desperate to hear more of what came out of that instrument. The notes leaped out of the heart shaped sound hole and bounded around the ceiling. The other instruments reverberated in the music soaked air, offering up their own low level harmonies and creating what must be the equivalent of an acoustic Disneyland.

Half an hour later I snapped from my reverie, slightly embarrassed I had played for so long. I started asking Raul how he came to create such amazing instruments and found myself the recipient of an enlightening lecture of his personal history.












He had lived in Bariloche for his entire life. His father, grandfather, aunts and uncles came from a long line of carpenters that had all experimented with making guitars and violins but he admitted, “they were never very good.” His own experience began when he was 13 years old and decided that he wanted to play a lute after seeing it in an image found in a faded book of Baroque art. “There were no stores or places where you could buy a lute in Bariloche, so I decided to make one.” Drawing from that simple picture and guidance from his family, Raul began making instruments. After 45 years and well over 300 instruments he tells me he is still learning, though it seems to me he pretty much has it down. For him you cannot rate experience on completed projects or years in the field, but by other, more pragmatic methods. At one point he shows me his hands. The left hand is missing fingertips on four of five fingers; the result of an accident with a band saw. He instructs me, “You can tell a real carpenter by how many fingers he is missing.” A cruel irony considering its affect on his ability to play his creations.

He showed me pictures of his various completed instruments: roncocos, ukuleles, cellos, lutes, guitars, violins and others. The pictures were kept in dozens of family-style photo albums, covered in saw dust and tucked away all over the shop. Finally I realized what truly made him a great luthier. He told me the history of every one of hundreds of instruments. “This one lived in Buenos Aires, then it moved to Spain, then to Norway.” I assumed that he meant the owners, but he clarified that he was referring to the instruments as separate entities. Guitars were no longer collections of wood types, inlay designs and tuning pegs; they had personalities. He anthropomorphized each instrument as if they were his children and he, the proud father.

As I realized this deep relationship to his craft, his actual son and grandson entered the workshop. They instantly KO’ed me with English and set to work on their own budding luthier careers. Although I will specify that the grandson did not so much work on a guitar as he did use the handle of a bench clamp as a makeshift steering wheel for some imagined, fantasy spaceship. The son however, did work on a real project; planing the basic form of what would someday be the neck of a guitar. I packed my things and wondered if Raul’s son would choose to follow in his father’s profession, seeking the same level amazing craftsmanship. The answer came soon enough. As I said my goodbyes, he reached out to shake my hand and I realized he was missing a thumb. I smiled and walked out into the yard.


~ by Hutch on February 19, 2011.

One Response to “Play That Funky Music, White Boy”

  1. Wow… now that is really something! Simply beautiful… and the workshop looks incredible. The man himself looks like a work of art. Not being even the tiniest bit musical, I can only imagine what a wonderland that was for you!

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