Where Cellos are Made

by christinady

I’ve always been fascinated by the cello. It sounds so sad and sexy at the same time. And when I saw the movie Hillary and Jackie (about cellist Jacqueline Dupre and her sister)– I was hooked.

I’d watch shows of visiting cellists, I’d watch performances by orchestras. Last show I saw was Ballet Philippines’ Crisostomo Ibarra where my friend, cellist Anjo Inacay, played with a quintet as live score to the ballet.

So when Anjo asked if I wanted to go to the workshop of the only violin/cello maker in the Philippines, of course my answer was YES.

A violin/cello maker is called a luthier (from the instrument lute). The Philippines’ only luthier is Amador Tamayo. A quiet, funny, humble, endearing man who studied violin and cello-making in Germany. He is also Anjo’s first cello teacher. This is him working on Anjo’s cello (which happens to be 200 years old. WHOAH.)

We arrived at Sir Tamayo’s workshop in Bulacan shortly before 8 am. His place is a study in beautiful organized clutter. I hope I can design a movie scene featuring a cello workshop– I would totally pattern the design after his workspace.

In the middle of the room is a pile of  old violin and cello cases and discarded instruments. These are instruments brought to the workshop for repair, and subsequently forgotten. How sad.

Laid out to dry are several made-to-order violins in different stages of being completed:

Anjo and Sir discuss a lot of cello things during the morning– the nuances of a vibrato, the different finger positions, the pros and cons of certain wood and varnishes, the possibility of bringing in seedlings to plant trees for wood harvesting.

When I asked Sir if he’s the  only one who makes cellos in the Philippines, he says, “Hindi ako lang, lahat kami.” He has three apprentices who help him make the instruments.

As he shows me around his workshop, I get a brief history of violins and cellos. I wish I had taken down notes!

We go inside a climate-controlled room where he keeps his raw materials. I learned so much about cello making in one morning.

It all starts with good wood. Spruce for the body. Maple for the rest. Ebony for the neck. And these have to be imported, as these trees don’t grow here in the country.

The front is made of two pieces of wood, the back made of one. The sides are heated and wrapped around a mold. Here is the inside of a cello with the mold in it. When the wood has set, the mold in the center is then removed.

After everything’s attached, it’s time for varnishes: shellac, propolis and other things I cannot pronounce. Being a luthier is also being part chemist– he mixes is own varnish dependent on where the instrument will be played, among other things. Humidity and temperature affect the health of the cello.

I asked if he had watched the Red Violin (no), and asked if he mixes his blood with the varnish. His answer: “If I mix my blood there… naku e di high blood ang instrumento.” Hahaha.

We compare varnishes for instruments vs. varnishes for paintings. It’s a joy to be able to discuss the merits of damar, dust, drying with someone from another field. Haha. Here, a table of varnishes:

Various violins in the process of being put together:

And here, Anjo tries on the horse hair for fun. There is also a science to buying horse hair– never in the winter, and only from certain breeds. Interestingly though, luthier’s don’t make bows, there’s a different person just for that.

I ask if he ever signs his work, as artists do, and he shows me this:

He puts his name on the bridge of the violin and cello. His name is also inside the instruments that he makes:

Anjo later on plays Sir Tamayo’s cello#2 — it’s the second cello he’s ever made, in 1979, as his final exam for his apprenticeship, for which he got an A.

Before we leave, Sir plays the music from that scene in Titanic, where musicians play in the face of impending death by drowning. Haha. What a sense of humor.

(nonsense internet connection does not let me upload the videos of them playing cello. hay!)

What an amazing morning. I love meeting and being around talented passionate people. Great conversation, amazing music– these things feed me and open up my mind to new possibilities. Thank you Anjo, thank you Sir!