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In Tune With a Master Ecuadoran Guitarmaker

People from around the world seek out Jacinto Guevara's musical instruments

As the clouds stick to the green mountains of Ecuador's Chimborazo province early in the morning, Jacinto Guevara settles in a wood chair in the doorway of his stone house and polishes a guitar, as he has for over four decades.

The small village, three hours south of Quito, sits in a valley nestled between Ecuador's highlands and volcanoes. In front of Mr. Guevara, a cobblestone road leads to the verdant sides of the Andes at the foot of the Tungurahua Volcano.

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One morning on a recent trip, as I headed up the footpath past Baos toward the village of Juntun, I noticed the guitarmaker.

The village's 16,000 inhabitants were slowly waking up. All was still except for the barking of dogs and the sounds emanating from Guevara's guitar.

The climb led me to the "pramo," the high-altitude plains above the tree line where most of Ecuador's Quichua Indians live.

The mountains had trapped the clouds, drenching the forests with mist, allowing delicate plants to survive Ecuador's harsh climate. In a backdrop of shaded greens, I was immersed in a colorful spectacle of orchids, bromeliads, and ferns.

But the real surprise was waiting when I came down in midafternoon. The village was full of life, energized by the chatter of children. The frail guitarmaker was still there, smiling in his doorway, polishing a guitar.

After nodding a friendly "buenos dias " and exchanging a few words, he invited me in.

A rickety stairway spirals upward to his home. The bare single room upstairs is where Guevara grew up, where he learned the art of woodworking from his father, who traveled throughout the provinces building church altars. It is where he lives with his wife and two grown children.

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Downstairs, in the cluttered studio, he's been making guitars for more than half a century. The studio is packed with bits of wood of all colors and shapes, Coca-Cola ads sticking on a wide wood beam, portraits of Pope John Paul II hanging on the walls.

Learning from his father

Guevara was 15 when he began woodworking with his father full time, refusing his father's offer that he go to college. "I never wasted a year," he says, a barely perceptible smile on his face, brown-tan and wrinkled.

"I didn't want to leave home. I wanted to learn from my father."

For years he built wood cabinets, tables, and chairs. But music had been his real passion. Late in his teen years, he had taught himself to play the guitar. "I would play music from my land and tangos from Argentina," Guevara says. Then one day he took pieces of wood and crafted a guitar, out of intuition.

Lessons from the masters

His new vocation led him to travel. Not far, only a few hundred kilometers away, to the capital of Ecuador, and to Riobamba, where great master guitarmakers lived. He spent months learning the art of guitarmaking from Carmero Rovalino and Olivo Chiliquinda, among Ecuador's most famous guitarmakers. They passed on their knowledge freely.

Guitarmaking had become Jacinto Guevara's full-time job. Almost 50 years later, it still is.

The Quito "masters" are long gone. Guevara himself has become a master of sorts. But he laments what he says is today's artists' reluctance to share their art and techniques with younger students. "There is selfishness," he says.

The kaleidoscope of colors and friendliness of this village stay in my mind. So does the treasure of Jacinto Guevara, a gentleman who, without having to leaving his home, has found joy in his own creativity. "The guitar has been a means of communication," Guevara says.

Guevara has rarely gone beyond the boundaries of his home village. He doesn't need to. People come from all over the world in search of his instruments. A notebook sitting on the long table of his studio provides a record of the musicians who have come to his door. They have come from countries as far away as Germany, Israel, and Ecuador's outer provinces.

Clings to old ways

"He is a master and an artist," says Juan Mejia, a music and literature professor who regularly travels from Ecuador's coast city of Guayaquil to buy Guevara's guitars. In Baos, the cobble stones are aged. And where bare feet once walked, cars now travel. But one part of the picture remains the same: Jacinto Guevara.

The artist clings to the old ways. Eschewing the slicker, easier methodology of the power tool and computerized machinery, he's using time-honored methods and old tools that require the skills of his hands.

His wood comes from the forests near his home village, too. There's dark Nogal from Juntun, white Platuquera from Riobamba, pine from the Cotopaxi province. He buys it cut, lets it dry for a year, before blending pieces together into a music instrument. The neck. The body. The frets.

The guitarmaker's long fingers move delicately to connect each piece of the guitar with one another during hundreds of hours spread over weeks.

He arranges thinly sliced pieces of wood around the guitar's sound hole. They're of natural shades, inlays of colors assembled into the rosette.

The work demands detail and patience. So does finishing the guitar's frets so they're smooth and even-leveled. In a factory, the frets' edges may be hard, causing the strings to vibrate. What is it that makes Jacinto's work so wonderful? Skills? Yes.

Materials? Of course. But the ingredient that cannot be found, learned or purchased is best described by Viviana Aguilar, a high school student who excitedly came to buy one of Jacinto's guitars when I was there. "He made my guitar with love," she says.

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