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31.05.2019. Best of the Coast
In the village of Praiano, behind a high dry-stone wall, lies an old, trellissed citrus grove. Beyond, an unassuming door leads into a low, arched workshop. It’s the sort of windowless space where you might expect to find crates of lemons and garden tools.
Instead, it’s a reign of wonder. From the ceiling, in various stages of completion, hang mandolins, guitars and other stringed instruments that you would need to be a music historian to identify. Below, liutaio Pasquale Scala is putting the finishing touches to a guitar with a curved back, handsomely finished with alternating strips of light and dark wood. It’s a chitarra battente, a traditional guitar from the Cilento region, south of Salerno, with five pairs of strings. The ‘battente’ part of the name refers to the fact that the players would ‘beat’ the wooden body of the instrument while playing to keep the rhythm.
A genial, pony-tailed artisan of few words, Pasquale has been making stringed instruments here for over forty years, inspired both by his cabinetmaker father and his interest in the folk music of Campania and the Italian south, which was stirred when he joined a folk ensemble that included “a few guys who still remembered the old melodies, and how to play them”.
But there were no surviving maestri to teach him how to construct the old instruments: so Pasquale set about teaching himself, devouring books about the history and construction of traditional guitars and mandolins, and picking up useful tips from vintage pieces that he was asked to restore.
It’s as much a hobby as a job, he tells me. Taking two or three months over each instrument, and making no more than ten a year, Pasquale prizes perfection over economy of scale, saying simply “I take all the time I need”. One whole side of the workshop is stacked with strips of different woods: there are lengths of poplar and lime for the core of the neck, strips of precious ebony for the fingerboard laminate, cherrywood, walnut and even rarer exemplars. Luthiers become highly attuned to how different woods behave in different conditions, Pasquale explains, and to the direction of the grain. He will instinctively vary the thickness of the body according to the hardness or softness of the wood: the more rigid it is, the thinner the body wall should be.
Pasquale has made, he estimates, more than forty different kinds of instrument over the years. Most are for musicians in folk or historic musical ensembles – like the French period music group for whom he is currently making five different models, including a mandolone, a larger, bass-range version of the mandolin, with eight pairs of double strings.
Today, Pasquale is assisted by his son Leonardo, whose speciality is making the intricately carved ox-bone rosettes that adorn many period guitars and mandolins. The duo have worked for clients in Europe, the US, Canada and South Africa, building and restoring instruments designed to last several lifetimes. When the workshop feels a little cramped, all father and son need to do is stand outside and breathe in the lemon blossom. “I have a colleague who does the same job in a dark little room in central Bologna”, says Pasquale. “When he saw where I worked, he swore. Not many luthiers get to enjoy a view like this”.
Liuteria Scala, www.liuteriascala.com