Jorge looks like a folk-rocker from the 70s and that’s the music he still loves
“They get the wood to make these fine instruments mainly from old furniture. “This was a dresser,” Jorge showed me. “This was an old house...” — David J Whyte
MUSICAL MYSTERY TOUR
They gave me a quick tour of the workshop, not that there was a lot of workshop to explore, just a tightly-packed multitude of sharp-edged tools and varying scraps of wood on their way to becoming a finely-crafted, finished instrument. “These are Italian viola-makers who visited us recently,” Henrique informed me, pointing at a picture pinned to the wall. “They are two of the best viola makers in the world… a father and son. He went on, “In Italian, the word is Violara, which means makers of Violas. In Portuguese, it translates as a rapist. Viladore. It’s a pleasure being with the best rapists in the world!” It does not sound so good. “Did you get this one from Sir Paul McCartney?” I quipped spying at an old Hofner bass lying, covered in sawdust in a corner. “Ah yes, Abbey Road,” exclaimed Jorge. I had struck a chord.
“So how did you get started in this?” I addressed the younger Henrique as it was he I had initially met and to be honest, I wasn’t sure how much English his father had. What I hadn’t realised was it was the dad, Jorge that had initially set up the business! “He always loved working with his hands,” Henrique told me. “Initially, he learned to repair flutes in Lisbon and when he came back to Madeira he started working with wind instruments, repairing and restoring them. ‘Jorge Flute’ became his nickname.” “Then came a chance to work with a very prestigious maker of guitars. My father and some friends went to a workshop with him and from then on”… Suddenly Jorge chimed in! “It was love at first time,” he almost shouted.
Jorge’s English was absolutely perfect and he immediately took command of the conversation. It was the 1970s and Jorge was a big music fan. He started reeling off the bands he was into in those halcyon days, many of them using traditional stringed instruments. “Fairport Convention”, “Uria Heap”, “Jethro Tull”… they were my favourites. Oh and Sandy Denny! I loved Sandy Denny! Her best ballad was ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes.” Jorge and I shared some musical tastes. “There are only two kinds of music,” he insisted. “The music I like and the music don’t like.”
BACK TO BUSINESS
Getting back to discussing business, Jorge continued, “There was no one in Madeira to repair violins at that time. I was working with saxophones, clarinets and even electric guitars and basses, but nothing else. Then, someone in the group said, “We have traditional instruments here on Madeira.” And the master said, “bring them here! You’re going to learn how to repair them by making them,” and each of us had a go at making Madeira’s traditional instruments, the Braguinha then the Rajão and the Viola de Arame.” Out of the group of friends that started this project, Jorge was the only one to continue. There had been no maker of new instruments on Madeira for 40 years. “There was one guy who tried,” Henrique said. “His method of showing how well built his instruments were was by standing on them. “I’m looking for an instrument, not a step ladder!” Jorge jumped in.
It’s interesting how Madeira’s musical instruments went with migrants who travelled to Venezuela, Hawaii and Brazil seeking new work opportunities. “The immigrants took their instruments and through the years adapted them,” Henrique said. “The ukulele is the best example. The Cuatro in Venezuala probably came from the Portuguese cavaquinho, the tension of the strings is very low so it’s almost like a percussion instrument…tonal percussion, they call it.”
Henrique has been learning from his father for 7 years ago. He’s now 28.
I asked them if there was still a demand for their instruments. “There’s always a waiting list. There’s also plenty of instruments to repair.” “I have many informations on my Facebook,” Jorge jumped in again. “Photos…step-by-step on how we build them. All about the workshop. If anyone wants informations, we will send it to them. If they have a question they just ask.” I was surprised to learn that they get the wood to make these fine instruments mainly from old furniture. “This was an old dresser,” Jorge showed me. “This was an old house. We need very old wood. Some are from Victorian houses. This one was a Madeira wine barrel - smell it.” I could detect a faint whiff of vinho! “Alpine spruce is strong,” he said showing me the lines on a flat piece. “The more regular the lines, the better the sound. It’s like the difference between ordinary glass or crystal. It takes many hours to plane or rasp into the perfect thickness.” I was handed a guitar to try out, a thin, shapely instrument. “This is my sister,” Henrique joked. “Because my father made it.” I guess it was a sort of family joke. And, with good timing, Jorge’s wife joined us.
Henrique and his parents in the workshop
Then a friend dropped in. I thought he was the postman with his red jacket on. “He helps us out,” said Henrique. The friend started tapping out a beat on a Cajon box drum. There was an air of music beginning to stir. “Let’s have a jam,” I suggested. “We do that every day!” they simultaneously both said.
David J. Whyte