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Can Sweet Sounds Come from Common Wood?

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Can Sweet Sounds Come from Common Wood?

Can Sweet Sounds Come from Common Wood?

Can Sweet Sounds Come from Common Wood?

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

The Pernambuco tree grows in Brazil and is the exotic wood of choice for making first-class violin bows. Brazil is proposing to closely regulate any trade in this endangered tree. But its proposed regulation, which will be considered by an international body in The Hague in June, may make it difficult for symphony orchestras to travel internationally with their instruments.


Musicians will pay large sums of money for a great violin, viola or cello, but some say the bow is just as important to the instrument's sound. The finest bows are all made from a single species of wood, one the Brazilian government says is endangered and should no longer be exported.

From member station WHYY, Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE: At a workshop in Philadelphia, bowmaker Elizabeth Vander Veer Shaak runs a blade along a narrow stick of dark wood.

(Soundbite of blade scraping wood)

ROSE: When she's done carving the bow, Shaak will use the flame of an alcohol lamp to bend it. Then she'll string it with horsehair. A single bow can take 40 hours or more to make. In the end, Shaak says, it's only as good as the wood it's made from, and the best wood is Pernambuco.

Ms. ELIZABETH VANDER VEER SHAAK (Custom-Made Bow Maker, Mount Airy Violins & Bows, Philadelphia): I mean, just see how thin it is. And I press it and it bounces right back up, and this is a long, thin piece of wood. There's nothing out there that will do that. Pernambuco's the only wood that has the strength and the sensitivity to transfer that music into such a focused, clear, gorgeous sound.

(Soundbite of violin and piano music)

ROSE: The finest bows sell for tens of thousands of dollars. It can last hundreds of years as long as they're restrung properly, but there is still demand for new bows. The trouble is, the Pernambuco tree grows in only one place, the eastern coast of Brazil. Brazilian scientists say its habitat is shrinking because of agriculture and urbanization.

Tania Sampaio Pereira studies indigenous trees at the Rio de Janeiro Botanic Garden.

Dr. TANIA SAMPAIO PEREIRA (Conservationist, Rio de Janeiro Botanic Garden): The population are very endangered, because they are just in fragment along the coast of Brazil.

ROSE: This June, representatives from 170 countries will meet in The Hague to consider a proposal by the Brazilian government that would make Pernambuco an endangered species. That listing would place new restrictions on international transportation of raw wood and even on already existing objects that are made from it.

Ms. HEATHER Noonan (Vice President for Advocacy, American Symphony Orchestra League): And it's the second piece traveling with what their calling parts and derivatives from the Pernambuco tree that produces a challenge for musicians traveling with their instruments.

ROSE: Heather Noonan is vice president for advocacy at the American Symphony Orchestra League. She says the Brazilian proposal would require traveling musicians to carry legal paperwork with their bows at all times. In theory, Noonan says bows without the right documentation could be confiscated - a nightmare for touring orchestras and musicians.

Ms. NOONAN: The thing that we would fear the most is that musicians -particularly those on an international tour going from one country to another to another - will encounter different requirements every time they cross a border and might not be prepared to produce the documents needed for carrying their bows with them.

ROSE: Brazilian officials did not return calls for comment, but the government's written proposal said the restriction is necessary to protect the slow-growing tree. It's already illegal to harvest Pernambuco for international trade, says Tania Sampaio Pereira of the Rio Botanic Garden, but she says the law is poorly enforced.

Dr. PEREIRA: The plant is being harvested as a contraband and being sported as a contraband in the country, and this is very serious because the law is not working.

ROSE: Pereira and other Brazilians believe the wood is being sold on the black market to bow makers. Governments' proposal says reliable figures are lacking, but it concludes, nevertheless, that Pernambuco is, quote, "mainly used to make musical instrument bows," and that Europe and the United States are the biggest consumers.

No one is arguing against the conservation of Pernambuco, but some bow makers insist they're not the biggest users of the wood. Yung Chin chairs the International Pernambuco Conservation Initiative. He says the tree is also under pressure in Brazil.

Mr. YUNG CHIN (Bow Maker; Chair, International Pernambuco Conservation Initiative): It is used heavily inside the country for fence posts. It's used for house construction. It's used for railroad tracks. But it only comes out now really a little bit for bow making.

ROSE: Chin says there are only a few hundred bow makers working in the U.S. and Europe, and that most only make 10 to 20 bows a year. Chin says bow makers are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to plant new seedlings in Brazil in hopes of someday creating a sustainable supply of the wood.

Mr. CHIN: My concern is, what does that show people in the future or groups in the future who are trying to do it the right thing and still you get put under some very potentially extreme measures?

ROSE: Before the Brazilian proposal to list Pernambuco as an endangered species can take effect, it needs approval from two-thirds of the countries attending next month's meeting in The Hague. Whatever the outcome, it's not likely to cripple the current generation of bow makers. Many, including Elizabeth Vander Veer Shaak, have already bought enough Pernambuco for the rest of their careers.

Ms. SHAAK: I will have wood left over, and I'll be selling that to other makers if they have trouble finding wood so that at least this can continue for another generation or so.

ROSE: The question is what happens after that? For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose.

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