Angelo Maestri is an Italo-Brazilian musician whose passion and trade is making traditional, hand-crafted guitars. He learned his craft at the tallers Santiago de Cecilia, in Poble Espanyol. “In Brazil, I was a dentist,” Angelo tells me, smiling widely. He is an intense fellow. He was the last to arrive at the studio the morning I visited, after having been out late the night before playing with his band. His workshop is clean and precise, each area ready for its purpose. It is housed in an abandoned factory that he and a friend salvaged and redesigned as a shared workspace for other artists.
The first thing Angelo does is show me a base fiddle he made, in part, from an antique bath tub. “Design is important,” he points out, “but most important is ‘playability’.” To demonstrate, he plays a few notes on the tub, then quickly turns to another instrument from his private collection, an electric guitar, the body constructed with a Cuban cigar box. As he plays a popular song, the artists in the studio that morning stop what they’re doing to listen. It has a pretty good sound for a cigar box guitar, I tell him, and he reminds me that, historically, similar instruments were common in the poorer communities of the US South, with some of the best bluesmen getting their start on such makeshift guitars.
We speak for the better part of an hour about music, life and the essential elements required to make a fine guitar, how everything, from the work space, the tools and the quality of the materials to the attitude of the luthier and the influence of one’s environment, affects the final outcome. “I like to work slowly and carefully, always consciously,” says Angelo. The wood he chooses is 30 years old, which allows for the internal moisture to crystalise. He runs his hands over the grain to show me the many lines, an indication that the wood is strong. It is necessary to find an equilibrium between the strength of the wood and its thickness. The stronger the wood, the thinner it can be cut, and the better the vibration and sound. He uses cola de conejo, an ancient form of glue made from rabbit bone, to hold the body in place, as even the glue will have an effect on the overall sound quality of the instrument. Every step of the process is important, mindfulness is important, because, as Angelo explains, through music we are open to a gift that comes to us from nature, from the spirit of the universe, something sacred to be shared.