Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The green sounds of the Amazon: rainforest guitars

29 March 2012
Source: Bikya Masr

Manaus, Brazil (dpa) – The neighborhood of Zumbi dos Palmares II lies in the east of the Amazonian metropolis of Manaus. It used to be one of the poorest and most violent areas of this city of 1.8 million people, and it remains a social hotspot to this day.

Zumbi dos Palmares II is the home of Brazil’s environmental activist and musical celebrity Rubens Gomes, generally known as “Rubao” or big Rubens.

Fourteen years ago, he launched a project that links protection of the endangered rainforest to music, crafts and social commitment: the Oficina Escola de Lutheria da Amazonia (OELA, the Amazonian Workshop School for the Construction of String Instruments).

There, youngsters aged 16-21 learn how to make guitars, and above all what wood to use in the effort without overexploiting the rainforest. The materials that are traditionally used to make instruments, like spruce, cedar or jacaranda, are replaced with wood from Amazonian trees.

“Our guitars have the FSC seal, a certificate that proves a careful and responsible handling of the rainforest,” says Gomes, with reference to the Forest Stewardship Council.

Gomes is himself a guitar-maker and before the founding of the OELA in late 1997 he used to teach at the Arts Centre of the University of Amazonas.

These guitars are bought by many artists in Brazil not just because of the contribution they make to the protection of the environment but also because the instruments are of very good quality in both their finish and their sound. “Some instruments are real masterpieces,” Gomes says in praise of his students.

The musician Milton Nascimento has an OELA guitar, and so do Brazilian singers Gilberto Gil and Lenine. However, it is in classical music that the instruments made in Manaus are used the most.

The school gets materials as donations from large logging companies that want to have their wood certified. Three guitars are made per day. A basic guitar, for which four types of wood are generally used, costs 1,500 real (832 dollars). But there are also special models with up to 13 strings whose prices are considerably higher.

“It was strange. At the beginning we used to offer guitars at a lower price. Then we established that the threshold lies at 1,500 real because otherwise people mistrust the instrument,” Gomes says.

Beyond the FSC seal, the trademark of their guitars, mandolins and banjos is the shape of the upper neck of the instrument, where the tension of the strings is adjusted. The tip is made in the shape of the dome of the Teatro Amazonas, which is the symbol of Manaus.

Renato Montalvao started out as a student in the workshop, and he is now a teacher. “Young people get one year of training here. Many of them want to become musicians,” says this 28-year-old.

The workshop has by now become a well-known place to visit. Prince Charles was there with Camilla in 2009 and Brazil’s former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has also visited, as have students from around the world.

For Rubao, the main issue is the social component. “When I came here, young people were killing each other. The state was practically absent. There were drugs, alcohol, violence. Today there is still some of that, but things have improved,” he says.

He left his comfortable flat in the center of Manaus for this social troublespot in the east. “I used to read negative headlines in the paper everyday. It shook me and it really upset me,” he recalls.

Gomes moved to Zumbi, rented a house, then bought it, and he built a workshop and classrooms for his non-profit project. Today, he and his school are a part of the neighborhood. He teaches his students to have a different attitude to the resources of the forest.

“Many know too little about the rainforest. Here, young people learn to appreciate its real value,” Gomes says.
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