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The Philippines Strings Attached

For the discerning guitarists and mu- sic lovers, a trip to the Lapu-Lapu district in the island of Cebu, is al-

ways on the top of the itinerary. But for the not-so-much-into-music people as well, a visit to the city has always been a memora- ble cultural excursion.

Like most things Filipino, guitar making and love for music, too, is a legacy left behind by the Spanish who ruled the Philippines for more than 300 years. Cebuanos (as the in- habitants of Cebu are called locally) in par- ticular, are very musical people. The Lapu Lapu district is considered as the Guitar making capital of The Philippines as there are many families in the district who have been hand-crafting guitars with passion for the last three generations. Called ‘gitara’ or ‘kitara’ (from the Spanish guitarra), the gui- tar must have been manufactured in Cebu for the first time, during the Spanish period. Yet, it developed as a local industry only in the late 1980s, receiving a boost from the government’s promotion of cottage indus- tries.

Well-known nation wide as the best guitars that one can buy locally, the Cebu guitars are not only souvenir items for tourists but are very much favored by the discrim- inating buyers in Japan, the United States, and some European and South east Asian countries, as well. Some of the most popular rock-bands and famous guitarists have been using guitars manufactured in Cebu.

Telling me the reason behind the popular- ity of Cebu guitars in The Philippines and abroad was Fernando Alegre of Alegre Gui- tars. He said, “The Cebu-made guitars have the best sound quality and are available at incredibly affordable prices. We have been exporting a large number of acoustic guitars to Japan, Canada and the United States for a long time. Buyers from these countries of- ten visit the factory as well”, added Fernan- do whose guitar factory is one of the best known ones in Abuno in Mactan Island, where there are several guitar-making fac- tories.

In his guitar factory, Fernando introduced me to one of the craftsmen who was busy

polishing a guitar. The other craftsmen in the same big enclosure were working on dif- ferent stages of guitar making. “It’s the final stage. After the polishing process the piece would be ready for sale,” said Fernando tak- ing the guitar into his hand and showing it to me. I ran my hand around the smooth shining shape of a very attractively designed guitar, gently strumming the strings and wondering what an art it is to craft the most popular instrument in the world.

A guitar is a very noble and beautiful instu- ment in terms of its sound, shape and ap- pearance. The quality of wood used for mak-

ing a guitar has the greatest influence on its sound and its playability over the years. The solid wood soundboards are not only hard to break but they also mature with age pro- ducing a better sound. Local guitars in The Philippines are typically made of various kinds of soft and hard woods procured from nangka (jackfruit) to the more prized naga (narra) and kamagong (ebony). “But we use only solid and genuine mahogany, Indian rosewood, figured walnut, curly maple and Italian alpine spruce because these woods impart both beauty and structural strength to an acoustic guitar”, said Fernando. Explaining the characteristics of each type of wood and its effect on the sound quality, he added, “Mostly the necks of all our gui- tars are made of solid mahogany because of its light weight. And it yields a surpris- ingly strong, loud sound with an emphasis on clear, bright airy trebles. Brazos or fin- gerboards are of ebony or Indian rose wood which is very resonant with a deep warm bass.”

For years, Brazilian rosewood was the in- dustry standard as the best wood for the backs and sides of guitars for its very reso- nant quality with full, deep basses and bril- laint trebles. But ever since the restrictions on the export of Brazilian rosewood were imposted due to the endangerment of the species, many luthiers (guitar makers) have to search for alternative tonewoods. The East Indian rosewood is the closest subsiti- tute for Brazilian rosewood as it has desir- able characteristics of a tone wood. Italian alpine spruce is also favoured as it is light enough to vibrate freely yet strong enough to withstand the tension of steel strings. This is used particularly for classical and fla- menco guitars.

One more important quality of Cebu guitars and the reason for their exceptional popu- larity is that they have a visual impact as cre- ative as the music composed on them. Some are very attractively decorated with inlay designs. The process begins with a design consultation, then drawings, then cutting the inlay from the materials, inlaying, and engraving, if called for. Since Cebu is a sea- port, they have easy access to materials like shell, pearls, mother-of-pearl, abalone, thus explaining the great inlay-decorations. The more intricate the design, the heavier the price of the guitar is. Like most guitar fac- tories in Abuno, Alegre Guitars also offers customized services. “People with unique and sometimes crazy tastes are more than willing to shell out heavy amounts for the designs they want on their guitars” said Fer- nando with a serious note.

Explanation of history and craft of making exotic guitars by Fernando continued till we reached his showroom where the standard guitars and other stringed instruments like bandurrias, lauds and ukuleles were neat- ly arranged. The top-quality guitars were in a separate showroom. While I broused through some of the most exotic guitars that I have ever seen, in the background, some- one in the other showroom was playing on the guitar, the melodious Black Magic Woman by Santana. “Some of our crafts- men are also very good singers and guitar- ists” informed Fernando. “They can play any number that the visitors request”. I didn’t make a request for any; as the guitarist, by sheer chance, was already playing one of my favourites. With this, a remarkable and un- forgettable factory tour came to an end. And I left humming the same tune, and hoping that the sound of Cebu guitars will continue to echo for times to come.