Music is in the air: An expat returns to his musical roots, making and playing Cuenca guitars

Nov 23, 2021 | 4 comments

Guitar makers at work at the Old Cathedral.

By Jeremiah Reardon

With the Covid pandemic largely under control in Cuenca, thanks to the cooperation of its citizens and the efforts of its health professionals, festivals once again abound. One of them is the Eleventh Guitar Festival, taking place this week at the Plaza de Las Herrerias. (See the festival Facebook page for details).

“Grateful to live in Cuenca” is my morning prayer as I gaze in the direction of the Cajas Mountains and feel sun on my back. On those green hills I’ve walked numerous trails both alone and with friends. I feel blessed to have a terrace outside the kitchen door to savor my morning coffee while taking in this magnificent view of my playground and Cuenca’s water source.

This week’s guitar festival is being held at the Casa de Chaguarchimbana on the Plaza de Las Herrerias.

Today, I follow a new path, a musical one starting two months ago when Rodrigo, my Ecuadorian neighbor and retired animal science professor from The Institute of Technology of Chimborazo, invited me to join Sinfonia’s Curso de Luthier held in a room of the Old Cathedral, Iglesia del Sagrario. A half dozen of us study with El Maetro Oswaldo from the famous luthier community of San Bartolome, an hour and a half bus ride east of Cuenca.

Cuenca’s symphony has provided my wife Belinda and I with many evenings of free classical music, sometimes in the high-ceilinged Old Cathedral. On occasion, the orchestra plays for ballet and operas, at events with no admission charged. How I admire these fine musicians and others I see play in festivals.

Conveniently, I have the good fortune of now owning a guitar given me by our house cleaner, Ligia, and her husband, Jose, who helps me with cabinetmaking projects. When they learned about my participation in the workshop, they surprised me with a used one from their home, a Chinese brand, Manca, available at Coral Hipermercados.

Our nephew Matt and his fiancée Debra marry in May next year in California. He’s a musician and plays in a rock band. My late brother Denis played the piano and taught his son to play music, beginning with the violin at the age of five.

I want to play Leonard Cohen’s ballad, Hallelujah, at the wedding and have begun practicing the chords on the guitar which our helpers gave me. At the wedding I’ll play the guitar I made in the workshop.

Growing up in a musical household in Maryland, I played violin. On Saturdays I took private lessons in the home of Mr. Ellsworth. He lived across from Washington, D.C.’s Catholic University where I attended music theory classes with an older woman from France with twenty or so other aspiring musicians. We’d practice singing the musical scales, following her alto soprano.

After lunch, I practiced with the university’s junior orchestra. My parents attended an evening concert when I played classical compositions in the third violin section. They had seen me play in recitals, sometimes accompanied by my pianist mother on piano, but that evening felt like the “big time.” I looked out from the stage to see a nicely dressed audience who sat respectfully to hear our performance.

Once I became interested in joining sports teams at school, I devoted less time to music and violin practice. I played in the school band with my brothers but discontinued my private lessons and the routine of Saturdays at C.U.

In New York City, as a night school student at City College’s Baruch School of Business, and a fulltime employee for Otis Elevator in midtown Manhattan, I studied violin once a week with a young woman instructor at the Henry Street Settlement School. For a month of Saturday mornings, I played with the rehearsal orchestra at Teachers College, Columbia University. Students learning how to conduct an orchestra led us in classical pieces.

Craftsmen at Casa de Chaguarchimbana stoke the fire that will help shape the side pieces for the guitars.

Once the family moved to Philadelphia, I had lessons on the guitar for a couple of months in 1968. My sister’s friend at Temple University came from Spain and played classical guitar. While at home over Christmas break from the University of Maryland, I rented a guitar from a local shop. I’d visit him at his apartment off campus and studied with him for a couple of months.

When I lived in Bisbee, Arizona in the Seventies, my friend Jim, a schoolteacher and parttime bartender, set quite the example for us musical devotees. He temporarily left his wife Sue and their two toddlers to move to another canyon in Cochise County’s Mule Mountains and live with his rock band buddies in order to master the bass guitar. For six months, Jim practiced and jammed with the band. Later, at the Copper Queen Hotel where he’d bartended, he played for the admiring crowd on his electric bass guitar.

When Belinda and I planned to retire and live in Ecuador, I had in the back of my mind to take up the guitar. It took a while to get around to it, eight years, but I’m so pleased to be a musician once again. Before playing Ligia and Jose’s guitar for the first time, Rodrigo had visited us when he tuned it and played a song for us.

Now, I had to make it my own through practice. Holding my guitar while I perch on the guest room bed, I glance through the window overlooking Avenida Diez de Agosto. My fingertips tingle afterwards. Ligia, who also plays, suggested that I soak them in warm salt water. In time they’ll develop callouses which will make practice less painful. Reaching my fingers across the neck of the guitar to play a chord is a stretch for the left hand.

My pinkie (or fourth finger) is permanently bent in a flexed position due to dupuytren’s contracture, a condition named for the nineteenth century French surgeon Guillaume Dupuytren. It usually begins as small, hard nodules just under the skin of the palm, then worsens over time until the fingers can no longer be straightened.

In Monterey, California, where we managed apartments for a commercial property developer, I had surgery on the right hand in order to correct the bent pinkie. That made it easier to shake hands. Though Belinda talks about correcting the left hand, I haven’t felt the need to do so. Maybe, that’ll change. Mother’s piano-playing days were over when her condition worsened, around the age of eighty. Denis also had the condition, but to a lesser degree than Mother’s and mine.

What won’t change is my desire to overcome this handicap and continue practicing the chords of Hallelujah as played by the late Jeff Buckley: C, A minor, F, and G. To play G, I first place my pinkie on its string, followed by fingers two and three on their respective stings. Seems to work; I’ll just have to act quickly when doing so.

The fellows at guitar workshop have inspired me to play. It’s a shop environment comprised of musical craftspeople. Occasionally, a student or a guest of the instructor picks at a guitar for a few minutes. I finally realize that the tune Maestro Oswaldo tests on a guitar is the zarzuela El Condor Pasa by the Peruvian composer Daniel Alomia Robles, a song which inspired Simon and Garfunkle’s If I Could.

Testing the final product.

When it came time to form the guitar body’s side pieces into the S-curve, our workshop set up a wood fire in the courtyard of La Casa de Chaguarchimbana, the location of Plaza de Herrerias’s Museo de Artes del Fuego. Leaning over a heated metal pole with a reddened tip, for five hours the maestro bent several sets of thirty by four-inch-wide bamboo pieces while liberally applying water to the wood which sent up steam. He’d compare the bend to the shape of that piece’s body-backside.

At the workshop our maestro tightly wrapped the body of my acoustic guitar with rope. First, he applied glue upon the top and bottom edges inside the two S-curve side pieces fitted with the small wood pieces I had meticulously glued to the curved inside the week before. Then, he slipped each piece into the notch he created at the base of the guitar’s neck. At the guitars bottom, the pieces are glued to a pine support block joining the body’s top and bottom boards.

For the time being I practice with the goal in mind to perform at the reception for Matthew and Debra on the happy occasion of their wedding. But several months loom ahead with time to fill. One thing’s for sure, I’ll visit the Cajas where music is heard in the chirps of birds, tumbling rock-lined creeks and the whistling wind. And attend the many fine musical offerings in town, including this week’s Xl Festival de Guitarras.

Photos by Jeremiah Reardon


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