Luthier Makes Quiet Contribution To Brazil's Music

Vergilio Lima. i i

Vergilio Lima. Courtesy of the subject hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of the subject
Vergilio Lima.

Vergilio Lima.

Courtesy of the subject

Brazilian luthier Vergilio Lima isn't onstage getting the applause, but his fine, handcrafted instruments are. (You can see one of them, being played by the great mandolin player Hamilton de Holanda, in the video below.)

Down a narrow street in the mountain hamlet of Sabara, Lima's modest workshop is filled with fine-toothed saws, lathes and fragrant wood shavings. He sorts through his tools, displaying some he inherited from his father and grandfather, who used them to create bird cages.

"It was about music and handiwork," he says of his childhood influences. "My mother played classical piano, and my father adored birds. He loved to make his own cages to keep birds. It was a really rudimentary process, really artisanal — everything done by hand."

He says it's the same with his own work. "The main difference between an instrument made by an artisan and one made in a factory is that with the handmade instrument, the luthier has been there for every step — from the first cut of the wood, to the sound test of the finished instrument."

He is part of a cultural fusion that goes back to the Portuguese explorers who went to Brazil for gold and brought along violins, mandolins and guitars. Soon the instruments were adapted to music that reflected Europe and South America, as well as Africa, the home of slaves who were captured to work in the mines. The sound fuses not only geographical influences but also classical, popular and folk elements.

In his workshop, Lima cuts a piece of wood and marvels at its smell. He works primarily with jacaranda, known as Brazilian rosewood. It's prized for its strength and resonance — and has been so overharvested that now it's illegal to cut. Lima uses only recycled pieces salvaged from old buildings and railroad ties.

He pulls out a recently finished guitar with fine, curving lines and plays a few bars, demonstrating the rich, full sound. He stumbles ever so slightly, and says shyly that, as a performer, he could never play as well as he wanted before an audience.

"My skill was in crafting the instrument for others to play," he says. "What I do is hidden and quiet."

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