Brazil is justly famous for the quality and range of its music. And all those musicians require a lot of instruments, many of which are made by hand. The craftsmen who make them are known as luthiers, which comes from the French word for lute. They can be found everywhere, from the biggest cities to the mountain hamlet of Sabara. And that's where Annie Murphy went for this story.

(Soundbite of music)

ANNIE MURPHY: That's Hamilton de Holanda, one of Brazil's best mandolin players. His instrument came from Vergilio Lima's modest workshop, filled with fine-toothed saws, lathes, and the smell of wood shavings, down a narrow street here in one of Brazil's oldest villages.

Portuguese explorers wound up here because of gold. With them, they brought instruments, exotic Baroque contraptions - violins, mandolins, and guitars. They were quickly adapted as the music and style of playing fused with other cultures, like the African countries of the slaves brought as manpower for mining.

Mr. VERGILIO LIMA (Luthier): (Through translator) Like everything in Brazil, it's a fusion of influences - classical music, popular music, folklore - so it has this really great quality.

MURPHY: Like Brazilian music, Lima's work has various influences.

Mr. LIMA: (Through translator) It was about music and handiwork. 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.

MURPHY: As a teenager, Lima also spent a year in the U.S., attending public school in Illinois. He didn't speak much English then, so he chose classes that relied less on language abilities, like math, science, and woodworking. Back in Brazil, he focused on crafting instruments. Three decades later, Lima is considered one of Brazil's best luthiers. He makes just 20 to 25 instruments a year, all of them built piece by piece.

Mr. LIMA: (Foreign language spoken)

MURPHY: He sorts through his tools, showing me pieces he inherited from his father and grandfather, who once used them for making bird cages.

Mr. LIMA: (Through translator) 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.

(Soundbite of sawing)

MURPHY: Lima cuts a piece of wood and marvels at its smell. He works with a special variety of jacaranda, also known as Brazilian rosewood. It's prized world-wide 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.

(Soundbite of music)

He shows me a recently finished guitar, and plays a few bars. The instrument is beautiful - fine, curving lines, rich, full sound. Lima is a bit shy and stumbles ever so slightly.

Mr. LIMA: (Foreign language spoken)

MURPHY: He says, I think one of the motivations to make instruments was because I started to study guitar and I could never quite play what I wanted to play before an audience. My skill was in crafting the instruments for others to play. What I do is hidden and quiet.

For NPR News, I'm Annie Murphy in Sabara, Brazil.

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