Sunday, January 13, 2019

The Oldest Line of Violin Makers in America

by Andy Fein, luthier at Fein Violins,
and Ivana Truong

The mid-1500s is very early in violin making history. The earliest violins, violas, and cellos still in existence were made by members of the Amati family circa 1540. So, usually, when we think of very early makers of violins, violas, and cellos, we think of Italy, Germany, and France. To that category of early makers should probably be added The Tarahumara or Raramuri, as they call themselves.
Tarahumara violin, made in the late 1800s, in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Raramuri/Tarahumara people are native, indigenous Americans that live in the Copper Canyon of Mexico. And they've been making violins probably since their first contact with the Conquistadores (and the Jesuits that traveled with them) in the mid-1500s. That early a time of violin making would put them in line with the early members of the Amati family of Cremona, Italy.  A century BEFORE Stradivarius.

The Tarahumara Native Americans, living in the Copper Canyon near Chihuahua, Mexico, are mostly known for their running ability. And while their running ability is incredible, some running 700 continuous kilometers in about 2 days, they also have a rich culture surrounding their version of the violin.

Native Americans have an often overlooked history with stringed instruments. In addition to the Tarahumara, the Apaches, Seri, and several other tribes also have bowed fiddles. The Apache fiddle is constructed from a plant stock, and usually has 1-2 strings made from horse hair. The lack of European influence in the fiddle's music and appearance lead some to believe it could have been part of the tribe since their ancient migration from Asia, where bowed instruments were first made. (we have written more about the origin of stringed instruments in our "Before Cremona" Blogpost) The Seri, a tribe that lives on the Gulf of California, plays rectangular violins that are carved from a single block of wood. This violin may be based on similar instruments from other tribes or could have been influenced by Russian traders, who used similar fiddles. Both the Apache and Seri fiddles are constructed similarly to early string instruments from Europe and Asia.

Apache musician with their fiddle
File:Apache violin, made by Chesley Wilson, 1989 - National Museum of American History - DSC00053.jpg
Apache violin made by Chesley Wilson in 1989, now displayed at the National Museum of American History

© Daderot/ Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0 / GFDL
The Tarahumara, who call thmeselves the Raramuri, use instruments that are constructed very similarly to Baroque violins. The Tarahumara violin's f-holes are an interesting reminder of this. The f-holes of Tarahumara violins are often separated into 3 segments, a feature found in German violins of the time. So, through the Spanish, traits from German violins in the 1600s can now be found in modern-day violins from the Copper Canyon in Mexico. But despite the interesting similarities, Tarahumara violins are far from identical to their Baroque ancestors. The most obvious difference is that Tarahumara violins are unvarnished and don't have purfling. (Purfling being the black and white lines that are inlaid into the edge of most modern violin family instruments.) Another easy difference to spot is the solid bridge. Looking a bit closer, the violins also have a very interesting soundpost. In most violins, the soundpost is a piece of wooden dowel located under the treble end of the bridge. But Tarahumara soundposts are actually shaped like a hook, with the notch of the hook fitting into the f-hole of the violin. This means you can see the soundpost from the outside. Inside of most Tarahumara violins, there is no bass bar, which is normally a piece of wood running under the g-string of a violin used to reinforce the arching.

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A modern violin with a contemporary set up
A 1960s Tarahumara violin. If you look at the treble side (E string side) f-hole, you can see the soundpost
The ends of the f-holes are often separated on Tarahumara violins, a feature of some German Baroque violins
The violinmaker and violin have an important place in the Tarahumara culture. The violinmaker mainly carves masks but also makes flutes, drums, and violins. These masks and instruments are important to their religion, which is a combination of Catholicism and animism. Violins will often be used in ceremonies and during dances, such as the dutuburi, their rain dance. Instruments are often used recreationally as well. Violins are often played at tesguinadas, which are Tarahumara drinking parties, or other gatherings.

Many families have at least one violin, which is played by a man. Playing style can vary, but the violin is usually not played on the shoulder. Instead, it is held into the chest. Bow hold varies even more, but players often hold the bow farther up.

Tarahumara violinist
Tarahumara violins haven't evolved in the ways that modern instruments have, but their fascinating history and cultural importance certainly make them worth studying and preserving.

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A colorful Tarahumara violin with an animal head scroll. These violins are sold to tourists and aren't for actual use

Patrocinio Lopez, a Tarahumara violin maker, describes his carving process and what the violins mean to him

A short clip of Albino Roseachi, another Tarahumara violin maker carving and playing a 

Thanks to Joseph Peknik, who was a huge help when writing this article. Much of the information in this blog post has come from an article that he coauthored titled "America's First School of Violin Making" which was published in the 1996 Violin Society of America Journal 

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