Culture

THE LUTHERIE OF LEBANON

By Jackson Allers
Photos By Andrew Cagle – stills from the AK short documentary film

Before the advent of internet search engines, one thing all orchestra nerds in the 1980s knew was the name of the violin maker whose final creations were unheralded in the history of the instrument’s modern form.

As seen on all of his instruments, which also included cellos, violas, harps and guitars – some 1200 instruments in all during his remarkable 93-year life (1644 – 1737) – was a label with the Latin inscription “Antonius Stradivarius Cremonensis Faciebat Anno (*and the year of make),” or more familiarly, Antonio Stradivari, from the state of Cremona.

It was through Stradivari and a contemporary instrument maker of near equal renown, Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesu, that I was introduced to the word luthier – and in turn as a high school violinist came to know a few luthiers in my teenage years, one whose family had immigrated to Texas fleeing the Nazis during WWII.

These men repaired my violin and sourced the bridges and strings for my instrument. Through their work I learned that they were artisans of clear vision and precision. I saw them in their workshops, surrounded by the strangest tools, communing with wood and shaping it into forms that were in essence the most exquisite sound resonation chambers you could imagine; stringed instruments[1] made up of maple, spruce, ebony, boxwood, willow and rosewood, producing sublime sounds whose notes have bridged divides across every socio-cultural and economic barrier ever devised by man.

Enter Nicolai Gerebtzoff, a first generation luthier that sees himself carrying on the past traditions of great instrument makers – here in Lebanon – a country wrought with a litany of man made “barriers” – a country operating without a president for almost a year, rife with sectarian struggles, piss-poor infrastructure, and a festering 4-year war in Syria which has led to an unprecedented refugee crisis that is straining the country’s resources to its edges.
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“It was a choice I made. I knew the difficulties coming into it. I knew that Lebanon was politically unstable – that there would always be a risk of something going horribly wrong here,” he explained, on a chilly December day in his 26 square meter workshop hollowed out of a furniture factory in the northern Beirut suburb of Biakout. “But in Lebanon, I have certain freedoms to do what I want that would be difficult in, say Canada or the United States, countries that have strict workplace laws for workshops. I mean I don’t have anyone telling me I have to use a certain lacquer on my guitars, for example. In Lebanon, it’s like get the shit done however you can!”

Lebanon is also a land of scarcity for luthiers. With inferior bandsaws, a lack of precision tools, and improper building materials, the lament to a local hardware store clerk goes something like, “I don’t want just any chisel, habibi. I’m not making a chair. I need that specific chisel!”

“I’ve been delayed over and over again setting up this workshop, and getting my first instruments made,” Nicolai explains in an interview taken from a short film commissioned by Audio Kultur to document the lead-up to a big reveal event in March. “But I’ve hit upon something that reaches beyond the bullshit of living in this country. It’s music, and everyone’s trying to be heard in some kind of way here,” he continues. “So making instruments to put into the hands of these artists – I want them to be heard, and while people won’t be able to tell by looking at the guitar that it’s mine – the musician knows.”

I met Nicolai 2 years before the full buildout of his workshop, when he was earning money as a bartender on Mar Mikhael’s main drag. Even then, in the fall of 2012, he was vocal about his plans to build a workshop to make his guitars.

Having repatriated from East Asia with fresh ideas, he made an artistic home as part of the Haven arts collective, and was virtuosic in a variety of ad hoc groups – playing blues-tinged and classical guitar arrangements with custom guitars he had built as an apprentice between 2010 and 2011 under the tutelage of a master luthier from Malaysia, Jeffrey Yong. (Yong notably won perhaps the most prestigious award in lutherie – the Blind Listening Test at the Guild of American Luthier’s convention in 2006 for his Monkeypod OM Guitar – Monkeypod being a local Malaysian wood.)

As I drifted away from Mar Mikhael’s increasing trendiness in the beginning of 2013, Nicolai and I lost touch. Talk, of course, is cheap, almost bottom-basement cheap in Beirut, and I wondered what, if anything, had come of his plans.

In November of 2014, I was reintroduced to Nicolai – or Nick as his friends called him – having heard of the progress he had made with his workshop through a friend who had enlisted him to be a part of a newly formed talent agency.

When we met up, it was Nick’s conviction that he could turn disadvantage into advantage in Lebanon, and his clear desire at age 26 to make a career from building things with his hands that ultimately convinced me that there was a film to be made – that and his obsession with the wood.

“Wood changes with weather, humidity, altitude – everything,” he explained with infectious reverence, “and each piece of wood is different, so you have to be able to tap into their natural properties. Mahogany responds differently than a piece of spruce or to a back of myrtle or rosewood. Their sound properties also tell you about their structural properties, and give you clues as to how the instrument might respond later on depending on how you manipulate what you’re building.”

It sounds as alchemical as it appears when watching him manipulate wood on film, and in the two months I brought cameras into his world, it’s been hard not to feel like I’ve entered into a sacred pact with a timeless craft – with secrets that will be revealed much later on.

Yet, there’s also a sense of anguish that has set in because of the countless setbacks that Nick has experienced trying to advance his work. During the months preceding our November meet-up, Nick had only managed to produce raw versions of two guitar prototypes from his workshop – electric guitars whose shapes were inspired by the PRS (Paul Reed Smith) and Joe Satriani Ibanez guitar bodies. These, along with prototypes for another acoustic guitar and fretless bass, were the first instruments Nick had begun making since leaving Yong’s tutelage in May 2011.

Nick’s future rests on his ability to create finished instruments bearing the hallmarks of his mentor’s influence – letting the wood grains shine and allowing the tonal properties of the wood to sing. These are characteristics in Jeffrey Yong’s JJ (Jeffery Jumbo), OM (Steel String), and his Tioman I & II (Nylon String) guitars.

When we began filming, I seriously questioned Nick’s ability to get the instruments built on time, and by the end of December, he had run into yet another series of problems, with the most pressing being an inability to find the right kind of (purple) paint to use on his signature guitar – the PRS body type which he dubbed the “Z1.”

These instruments will also need to resonate with Lebanese (and regionally-based) musicians if he is to make his mark as a guitar builder – and in a more rudimentary sense – earn enough money from the sale of his instruments to survive, and invest in more equipment.

At print time, both his signature electric guitars were unfinished instruments – still only theories of instruments. Indeed, as January approached, Nick had fallen well behind a self-imposed deadline for completing what he ultimately wanted to be 6 completed instruments for an originally schedule reveal expo in February.

He’s now scaled that down to four instruments for a March reveal that would see local musicians putting his instruments to the test for the first time, with a wish list of artists to include Charbel Haber – frontman to the post-punk group Scrambled Eggs and pioneer in the improvisational music scene, Nader Mansour, one-half of the breakout blues-rock revival group The Wanton Bishops, and Iraqi oud virtuoso and founder of the regional indie label Nawwa records, Khyam Alami.

I admit that my own excitement about his future as a luthier revolves around the build out of his first oud, something he also acknowledges when he pulled out a geometric diagram in his workshop in December that was based on a ratio of the Golden Mean – a pattern he plans to overlay on the back of the instrument to be. “The icing on the cake is the oud. That’s the market here, and it’s an instrument that appeals to a much larger clientele base than guitars here and in the region,” he explained.

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Nick is quick to throw his opinion in about what he sees as the inferior build quality and sound quality of ouds on the market in Lebanon. “I’m not an oud builder. I’m not a guitar builder either. I’m a builder. And I’m not brought up in a tradition – so there’s not a school of thought that I’m following,” he said, adding that he wants to design his oud with a new (inner) brace support system that would open up the sound when compared to a more traditional oud. “I’m trying to build an instrument that oud players will appreciate for a new set of tonal qualities.”

It’s a bold statement that will certainly put him in the crosshairs of Lebanese oud makers the likes of Nazih Ghadban, Fadi Matta, Albert Mansur, and George Bitar. But Nick is adamant that he’s not trying to build a traditional instrument, “I’m hoping to be able to push the envelope in everything that I do.”

As a filmmaker, I appreciated Nick’s belief that he could “finish what he started,” but the barriers to working in Lebanon, in an atmosphere of scarcity, presented a big question mark in the filmmaking process. More importantly, it did put Nick in the awkward position of asking himself what would happen if he failed to complete what he set out to do? Having sunk his life’s savings into building out his workshop, and given he has no other job prospects, I realized I could be filming a ‘non-event.’

Did Nick manage to absorb 30 years of lutherie knowledge from Jeffrey Yong during a year-long apprenticeship? I mean, even working 6 days a week during that period with no breaks – was that enough time?

I honestly don’t know, but I do know there’s a confidence in how Nick works that belies his lack of experience – often doing things on camera that he later reveals almost offhandedly was a “first attempt” at something – not the first time without Yong’s tutelage – something he’d never tried before – a new technique he was applying to his guitar building process.

Whatever happens, it’s not a fair-weather decision he’s made. Nicolai Gerebtzoff is in it for the long-haul.

 

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