A version of this content was originally published in Music, Memory (2014). Names have been changed to protect individuals' privacy. The views and opinions expressed by the individual characters should not be taken to represent the views of the author.
Magdalena del Mar, Lima, Peru.
We entered the workshop through an average door on a residential street, emerging into a long garage-shaft with a ceiling but no rear wall. It almost never rains here, and the cold never exceeds a pervasive, damp chill. The greyish late-afternoon sunlight that is typical of Lima winters filtered in through that opening, reflecting off of instruments completed and not yet begun, everything in between, and the tools and the man that facilitate their metamorphosis. Sawdust marked its choreography in the air, alive with our movement. Luis was wearing a jeans jacket and pants to match, both discolored with embedded signs of woodwork and age. The pants hung loosely over his boney frame and he walked toward us with a deliberate stumble. His glasses were missing one arm and leaned crookedly across his nose, but his smile was warm as we kissed our greeting.
Raúl and I had only met the day before – he was an employee of the cousin of one of my childhood friends – but his invitation to come along on a visit to the workshop of a master fabricante was not one to turn down. I didn't really know what to do after the introductions, so I followed the two men toward a workbench and perched on the edge of one of the small wooden stools. Luis seated himself on another stool and set to work sanding down the wooden exteriors of a small pile of long, thin cylinders, mostly quiet but occasionally exchanging words with my new friend. A CD played from the boom box to my back, emitting sound that mixed with their mumbled syllables and made following the thread of conversation difficult. Luis hugged the sandpaper around the wood with one palm and twisted the tube with the other as he brought the two hands together. Apart, together. Cigarette held contemplatively between his teeth. Open, close. The sound was meditative, like an ocean played back at triple speed, until a slight change in the rhythm and a puff of breath would indicate an inspection of the fresh layer of skin for baby-cheek smoothness.
“Would you like to help?” He did not speak English.
“Yes! What can I do?” I slid off the stool and stood up eagerly.
He chuckled and mumbled something at Raúl, who shrugged and met my eyes. Today was not the day, apparently. I returned to the stool, hoping I had not been too forward and offended the man.
Raúl, meanwhile, was seated on the steps that led from the rear non-wall into a communal courtyard, bent over a ceramic imitation-Moche drum. The drum was about 45 centimeters tall and had a disproportional hourglass shape, with the top much wider and longer than the base. The Moche were a people from the northern coast of Peru who lived while Common Era was still in triple-digits, remembered today primarily for their pottery. Most of what I knew about them was from the research paper I had written on the effects of colonization on Andean sexuality; the Moche are particularly infamous for their vessels sculpted and decorated in representation of homoerotic and other non-Christian sex acts. (I believe many of these clay artifacts are kept in a locked room in a museum in Lima, only accessible upon inquiry.) In order to secure the drumhead in place and create enough tension on the skin, Raúl had placed metal hoops at either end of the drum and was weaving them together snugly with synthetic black string.
Luis began making instruments after he separated from his first wife. Well, it was not quite that immediate. After the separation, he had some issues with drugs for a year or so before he journeyed to a meditation retreat center as a form of rehab. It was then that he made his first quena. According to his telling of the history, its first song brought him to tears.
Luis had not yet eaten, so I followed him to a small kitchenette off the courtyard. As he stood over the stove, he explained that the quantity of food he was preparing was greater than was his custom; due to his long and frequent meditations, his stomach has shrunk and he eats little. However, his circulation eventually became so poor that he spent a period beginning last February paralyzed from the waist down. I accepted some agua con gas and shook my head when he offered me a portion of the food, using my vegetarianism as an excuse. Luis has discovered many things through meditation. One of these is the music of neurons singing across synapses, proof of the music in everything. “You only have to listen hard enough,” he said between bites of chicken. The small plate also had rice and a few spoonfuls of a thick stew I did not recognize.
Later, once we had returned inside and natural light was no longer sufficient, Luis suffocated his cigarette in an ashtray and suggested we switch the boombox to radio. However, he could not figure it out himself because the buttons were in English. Raúl laid his work on its side and stood to help. My mouth opened in slow motion as his foot caught on one of the pieces of hanging string and the pottery began to roll, first hitting one step (Raúl turned) and then the second (he reached out toward it), coming to a stop on the floor. Raúl picked up the instrument and the clink of broken ceramic inside was audible. It took a few minutes of inspection for him determine that the crack on the surface was not, in fact, superficial, and so he got to work on unweaving what had been his work for the past hour or two. Luis made some sort of joke about a fatality as he struck another match, sawdust wreathing away through the air. Raúl made no show of frustration or disappointment; he unwove, Luis went back to sanding, and I thought about the radio, forgotten.
Luis has spoken with God. In his spiritual journeys, he has learned to leave his body and enter a higher realm. God gave him several messages to bring back to Earth. Nuclear energy, for example, is bad. Atoms are meant to be as they are; splitting them apart throws the universe out of balance. This disequilibrium has many clearly visible symptoms – take, for example, the number of lesbians and homosexuals wandering around.
Eventually Luis remembered the boombox and I helped him tune it to 88.3 FM, discos de oro en ingles. It seems to be a pretty popular station; Cirilo also listens sometimes when we're in the car. As Luis began hollowing the cylinders with a lathe, Raúl moved over to a lamp on the worktable, placing five or six small macaroni-colored gourds on its pockmarked surface. He showed me how to hack away at their insides with a large metal file, initiating and enlarging the resonance chamber for what would become ocarinas. It was nice to have something to do with my hands and I immediately felt less invasive. As I worked on this coarse sanding, Raúl began to sculpt the plugs that would close the openings at the bottoms of the instruments. “Put Your Head on my Shoulder,” which had been my favorite song when my grandmother died about a decade before, played in the background, half-buried in a duet with the whir of machines.
El fabricante left the lathe and dovetailed a tapered piece of wood that would serve as the mouthpiece with a dab of glue (imported from the USA) into the cylinder. While the glue was drying, he retrieved a similar instrument from a clamp and used a thin stick with pencil markings along its length to make measurements on the wood, positioning a drill with different bit sizes to make two small holes near the mouthpiece. He placed a wooden eagle figurine, about four centimeters long with a thin airshaft running the length of its rectangular base, over one of the holes and blew; the flute whistled into his tuner. Though the instrument’s eventual tuning was to be pentatonic like many South American flutes, this flute’s ancestors resided far to the north. A European ensemble that was popular a few years ago played Andean music on Native (North) American flutes. About five years ago it was apparently easier to find an instrument like the one Luis was crafting in a Peruvian artisanal market than it was to find a quena or antara.
It was dark by the time Raúl escorted me to Salaverry to catch an omni back to Jesus Maria, where he was also headed to meet friends for dinner. “I am lucky to have met you,” he said as we approached a corner. “Luis rarely speaks about his past; I have known him for years but have only heard these stories once before. He must think you are special.”
Luis has had to sacrifice many worldly things to achieve the spiritual awareness that he now has. His body has betrayed him. He has lost family – not just his first wife; not even his children from a later marriage contact him. Of possessions he has few. But he has his workshop, his apprentices, his instruments. The music in his head and hands.