Travel

While my guitar gently sings…

At a guitar factory

At a guitar factory  

Shalini Mitra traipses among the famed luthiers of Philippines’ Cebu island and finds the rich heritage and history behind the craft

For the discerning guitarist and music lover, a trip to the Lapu-Lapu district in the island of Cebu is always on top of the itinerary. Like most things Filipino, guitar making and love for music is a legacy left behind by the Spanish who ruled the Philippines for more than 300 years. Cebuanos (as the inhabitants of Cebu are called locally), in particular, are very musical people. The Lapu-Lapu district is considered the guitar-making capital of the Philippines as there are many families in the district who have been hand-crafting guitars for the last three generations. Called ‘gitara’ or ‘kitara’ (from the Spanish guitarra), the guitar must have been manufactured in Cebu for the first time during the Spanish period. Yet, it developed as a local industry only in the late 1980s, receiving a boost from the government’s promotion of cottage industries.

Well-known nation-wide as the best guitars one can buy locally, the Cebu guitars are not only souvenirs for tourists but are much favoured by discriminating buyers in Japan, the US , and some European and South-east Asian countries as well. Some of the most popular rock-bands and guitarists use guitars manufactured in Cebu.

Fernando Alegre of Alegre Guitars tells me the reason behind this. “The Cebu-made guitars have the best sound quality and are available at affordable prices. We have been exporting a large number of acoustic guitars to Japan, Canada and the US for a long time. Buyers from these countries often visit the factory as well. In his guitar factory, Fernando introduced me to one of the craftsmen who was busy polishing a guitar. The other craftsmen in the same enclosure were working on different stages of the unfinished guitar. “After polishing, the piece is ready for sale,” says Fernando. A guitar is a noble and beautiful instrument in its sound, shape and appearance. The quality of wood used for a guitar has the greatest influence on its sound and playability over the years. The wooden soundboards are not only hard to break, but they also mature with age, producing a better sound.

Local guitars in the Philippines are typically made of various kinds of soft and hard woods procured from nangka (jackfruit) or the more- prized naga (narra) and kamagong (ebony). “But we use only solid and genuine mahogany, Indian rosewood, figured walnut, curly maple and Italian alpine spruce because these woods impart both beauty and structural strength to an acoustic guitar,” adds Fernando. Explaining the characteristics of each type of wood and its effect on the sound quality, he says, “Mostly, the necks of all our guitars are made of mahogany because of its light weight. And it yields a surprisingly strong, loud sound with an emphasis on clear, bright, airy trebles. Brazos or fingerboards are of ebony or Indian rose wood, which is very resonant with a deep, warm bass.”

For years, Brazilian rosewood was the industry standard as the best wood for the backs and sides of guitars for its resonant quality with full basses and brilliant trebles. But ever since the restrictions on the export of Brazilian rosewood were enforced due to the endangerment of the species, many luthiers (guitar makers) have had to search for alternative tone woods. The East Indian rosewood is the closest substitute for Brazilian rosewood. Italian alpine spruce is also favoured as it is light enough to vibrate freely, yet strong enough to withstand the tension of steel strings. This is used particularly for classical and flamenco guitars.

Another important quality of Cebu guitars and the reason for its exceptional popularity is that it has a visual impact as creative as the music composed on it. Some are attractively decorated with inlay designs. The process begins with a design consultation, and then drawings, followed by cutting the inlay from the materials, inlaying, and engraving, if called for. Since Cebu is a sea port, it has easy access to materials like shell, pearls, mother-of-pearl and abalone, used for the great inlay-decorations. The more intricate the design, the more the price of the guitar is. Like most guitar factories in Abuno, Alegre Guitars also offers customized services. “People with unique and sometimes crazy tastes are more than willing to shell out heavy amounts for the designs they want on their guitars,” says Fernando. Fernando continues to explain the history and craft of making exotic guitars as we walk towards the showroom, where standard guitars and other stringed instruments like bandurrias, lauds and ukuleles are neatly arranged. The top-quality guitars were in a separate showroom. While I browse through some of the most exotic guitars in the background, someone in the other showroom plays the melodious Black Magic Woman by Santana. “Some of our craftsmen are also very good singers and guitarists,” says Fernando. “They can play any number that visitors request.” I didn’t make any as the guitarist, by sheer chance, was already playing one of my favourites. With this, a remarkable and unforgettable factory tour came to an end. And I leave humming Santana and hoping that the sound of Cebu guitars will continue to echo for times to come.

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Printable version | Jun 4, 2020 6:08:44 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/travel/shalini-mitra-traipses-among-the-famed-luthiers-of-philippines-cebu-island/article6362977.ece

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