The Puerto Rican cuatro, (not to be confused with the Venezuelan cuatro) is a unique stringed instrument hailing from the beautiful island of Puerto Rico in the caribbean sea. It is officially the national instrument of the island and deeply linked to it's Jibaro people and rich culture. The Jibaro are the proud self-sustaining farmers from the countryside in the mountains of the island. Without getting into too much history about the evolution of the cuatro, it is likely to have descended from the Spanish vihuela which was a common instrument during Spain's reign over the world when they were colonizing many of their territories in the 15th and 16th century and beyond. The name "cuatro", is simply the number four in Spanish. But anyone who has taken a gander at the cuatro will quickly notice there are five double strings on the instrument. This is because originally there were 4 double strings, and later a 5th was introduced to add more range and bass capability to the instrument, however we decided not to call it a cinco! (the number five in Spanish). Although 4 double string cuatros are still in existence, they are not sought after as the modern player much prefers the modified version which is fairly standard nowadays.
The cuatro is a shorter string scale length and body size than a guitar, about 25% smaller. It is set up to be a melody machine, capable also of chords, arpeggios and also very virtuosic performance. The island and diaspora has at least 25 or more top notch virtuosos who will dazzle you with their technique, rich improvisations, and exciting/interesting embellishments. The Jibaro music itself consists of many genres which was absorbed into the repertoire over several decades. The Jibaro musicians are considered to be troubadours. Groups of musicians gather in homes during Christmas time, (parrandas) and perform Christmas music, as the Jibaro genre cannot be separated from this high holiday on the island.
My grandfather was born in Jibaro country, in the town of Caguas, and was the first to tell me about the cuatro and Jibaro music when I was young. He sang and played the Puerto Rican percussion instrument known as guiro in church and in small groups throughout his life in Puerto Rico and when he moved to New York. He had a postcard on the wall with the cuatro, and this is how I came to know it by it's distinct shape, having tight C bouts on the body like a violin. I heard recordings of Jibaro music come from his room, so that's where I first heard the sound of the cuatro and it's music. But it wouldn't play a big part of my life coming up in the Bronx as a kid and being estranged from the culture like many Nuyoricans (term used for Puerto Ricans from New York). I started my musical journey at the age of 14 when my mother bought me my first guitar. The action was about a mile high from the fretboard, and it was very difficult to play. I knew nothing else, but I was so excited to have a musical instrument. There was something truly interesting and enchanting about having a real musical instrument available there. I practiced all my scales, and chords while learning all my favorite heavy metal and rock music on that guitar.
My grandfather came to know that I was suddenly entrenched in music, and was very excited about this discovery, even though I wasn't playing cuatro.... yet! There was a time I recall being in the car with him as he was taking me to school and I turned on the radio to my favorite band at the time, Nirvana. I kept the volume low so as to not disturb the old man.. to my surprise, he increased the volume! As the years progressed, so did I with my music. I became interested in Classical music, Flamenco, the oud and more. I even became interested in other kinds of Latin American music on guitar such as Venezuelan harp music transcribed to guitar. I brought my guitar to my late grandfather's house and played him a beautiful Venezuelan pasaje called, "Los Caujaritos". I was happy I could get through this piece without error in front of the old man's watchful eye, and when I was done, he praised me and said it was so beautiful. He asked where it was from. I said, "Venezuela". Suddenly and justly enraged he shouted at me in Spanish, " iPor qué no tocas la música puertorriqueña!, mijo?" ("Why you don't play the Puerto Rican music!, my son?!"). I lacked a sufficient answer, but the true answer was.. because I was an asshole. (Arguably still am).
Most of my life up until that point I had studied and played various kinds of music, on various kinds of instruments, even travelling and living in Lebanon to study the oud. It would be some more years later until I would actually get to that point. But it took my grandfather's death to get there. About a week after he left this earth behind him, a cuatro came to my shop for repair. I remember looking down at it on my bench in the silence of my workshop and I began to cry. I overheard a story that he was telling my grandmother that I was doing this and that with music, but eventually I would return to my own roots and would be involved with the cuatro. And even some years later, it turns out he was right. I began listening to many videos on YouTube of Jibaro musicians, living and dead. I started to seek out the active musicians to build a report with them, and learn as much as I can. I began to see the depth and richness of this music and it's forms. I became mind boggled at the level of musicianship and diversity the genre had to offer. I still didn't start playing any cuatro, but was just listening and absorbing while I was working.
Finally in 2019 I was able to clear some time to actually start making my first cuatro. Building cuatro obviously wasn't my intention as a luthier either. It really started out with wanting to make guitars, then violins, then ouds and more. But now I was totally compelled to make a cuatro for myself during my off time as I dedicated my regular working hours to orders and repairs. It took me about a year to complete my first cuatro, and was really enchanted by its existence once it was finally conceived on my workbench. During the outbreak of Covid19, life took a sudden change of pace. I decided to start taking the cuatro more seriously building up repertoire and improving upon playing technique. I began a project with a vetern of Salsa music and luthier, Tony Velez where we are recording many Jibaro songs, and trying to gather enough material to hit the stages once Covid19 begins to dwindle.
The cuatro featured in this story is slightly unique in that it's standard shape on the body differs now from the common violin-like shape cuatro with the 2 C-bouts. I found a photo of cuatro legend, Yomo Toro featuring a cuatro with this kind of shape. I also noticed some other photos circulating online depicting early cuatros utilizing the same shape. Maybe some purists would reject this as a "traditional" cuatro, I don't know. However if they did some research, they might come to realize that this is a historically legitimate shape. Otherwise the scale length remains the same along with the other critical dimensions on the neck. This cuatro features a spruce top, mahogany sides, back, and neck. Ovenghol head plate, a highly figured burly maple rosette and my favorite feature about this cuatro would be the pale moon ebony fingerboard.
A few months back oud maker Najib Shaheen approached me with a beautiful Hanna Nahat oud deserving of restoration. He said "Johnny habibi, look how well preserved this Nahat oud is!". The only issue, there was no soundboard attached to the rest of the instrument. Haram! It seems that someone refaced it at some point, and that failed. By the time Najib received it, the second soundboard was already removed.
We have no idea what exactly the original soundboard looked like. On the label its a couple photos of Hanna Nahat with the year 1949.
The objective then was to complete this instrument for none other than the great Simon Shaheen. Simon liked the size and shape of the bowl, and the fact that it was a Nahat of course, which had its original marquetry on the bowl, neck and pegbox. I said to Najib, let me do something special for Simon on this one. Najib agreed after some convincing, and gave me the parameters to work with for Simon's needs. I already had two old original Nahat bone rosettes, we chose the one to use for this project. Najib supplied me with the two smaller rosettes, a floral design common in Nahat
and original Nahat tuning pegs which I had to perform some trickery on to work in a good way. I already had many of the mosaics I made on hand,
copied from previous Nahat ouds. So it was now a matter of some basic logistics/layout, pickguard, general scheme, extended fingerboard, which is imperative for Simon's virtuosic and progressive playing. Some might say that this is not an "original" feature of Nahat, and while there is truth to that, this is Simon we're speaking of here, so this instrument is good as is, especially after he graces us with it on stage.
In the end we were all very happy how the instrument turned out, sound, action, and of course aesthetics. I choose the best wood I have for the soundboard (a hard spruce I've gotten all my greatest sounds from). I'm grateful I was able to do this as Simon is a musical hero of mine, and hope this instrument will serve the mastro well for many years to come. ..
Last year I visited Thessaloniki, Greece to attend a friend's wedding. On the way back I had taken a Turkish airlines flight from Istanbul to New York like I had done many times before. This time they gave me a blanket with Middle Eastern pattern on it. With a 10.5 hour flight and nothing else to do other than allow the carnival in my head to roam free, I noticed this amazing 8 point star pattern as I looked down. A light bulb went off in my head. Over the next year I planned this concept for an oud, and even had a special 8 point star rosette design just for it. It took about 8 months to get to after clearing up some odds and ends in the workshop, then about 3 to 4 months to complete.
Abdo George Nahat was originally known for his partnership with his brother (Roufan) under the "Ikhwan" label. Later he began making instruments using his own label.
His work displayed a great variety of diversity. Some of his ouds were very simple yet elegant, while others radically virtuosic demonstrating a level of mastery and imagination that has never been seen since. One such exemplary instrument Abdo made in 1910 was made famous by player Hamza Al Din and demonstrates remarkable workmanship and artistry. Very delicate inlays, mosaics, one of the most intricately carved rosettes that we know of not to mention one of the most incredible sounds we ever heard. This oud really had it all.
The oud that came to Lord of the Strings however is more of the "simple yet elegant" type, yet still very beautiful. In fact many people prefer these kind of instruments over the more ornate kinds. It arrived to me in a sorry shape.
It came to me with a rosewood fingerboard that was installed on top of the oud all the way to the soundhole, something Abdo George never did. Poorly fitted modern ebony Parisian eye tuning pegs were installed, which alienated the style and color scheme of the instrument.. Super high action was never addressed on this oud either. This work had been done recently in Beirut. My goal was again to restore it to it's originality and make it more playable at the same time. The fingerboard was removed and I was hoping to see the original fingerboard underneath, but alas, it was gone. I also noticed the binding around the edge of the bowl was not original. So the next thing I did was lower the action, followed by installing mosaic around the edge of the bowl with a pattern I copied from Nahat. This measure was to restore originality more than anything. A lot of times I'll find older ouds that had mosaics around the edge of the bowl replaced, because a few pieces broke off, so they were all removed and a single strip of walnut or rosewood was put there instead. After some other standard repair work was completed like tracks on the face and some other impurities taken care of, I needed to address the fingerboard. I searched through my photo archives of Nahat fingerboards from mother of pearl (something the brothers did from time to time that I'm fond of) and decided to copy a particular mother of pearl design that I liked.
The kanun (or qanun) in Arabic (قانون) is a kind of trapezoidal zither that rests on the players' lap, containing 78 nylon and wound nylon strings. Its origin possibly dates back to the Assyrian empire or even earlier. Today the instrument is played in a wide variety of countries/cultures, such as the Middle-East, North Africa, Turkey, Greece, Armenia, Iran and more. “Kanun” in Arabic translates literally to "law" or "rule," having come to Arabic from ancient Greek.
I'll never forget the first time I heard a kanun. As a teenager I was very fascinated with the history of ancient Egypt (as I still am). In order to effectively captivate one’s sense of imagination, many television documentaries uncovering the mysteries of ancient Egypt typically featured instruments like the kanun. I vividly recall the legends, images and footage of the pyramids, Karnak, Valley of the Kings, the Great Sphinx of Giza, all while hearing the sound of the kanun.
The kanun's sound can often be described as very earthy yet still evoking trance-like angelic overtones. The strings are plucked with plectrums on both index fingers, fastened to the fingers with rings. Due to an innate percussive quality in its timbre, the player's attack produces a sound that quickly peaks, followed by a slow decay; yielding a harp-like effect that echos deep within your soul. Making a kanun isn't a simple task, even for the versatile luthier. There is a painful void when it comes to locating literary materials sufficient enough for building such a complex instrument. In my case, it came in the form of a disaster.
Hassan Tanari is a very proficient kanun player best known for his performances with the famed Syrian singer, Sabah Fakhri. Mr. Tanari came to New York in 1981 (the year I was born!) to perform with singer Youssef Kassab. At the airport in New York, Mr. Tanari’s instrument was badly damaged, rendering the instrument unplayable. The kanun was made nearly 100 years ago by a maker named Al Haj Ahmad Munir Sabagh in Aleppo, Syria. It stayed with Youssef from 1981 until 2014 when I decided to take it on as a restoration project. At that point I had done some basic repairs to the kanun, restringing, fixing cracks, replacing the membrane, setups, restringing.
However this instrument would need all that and a lot more. After successfully bringing the instrument back to life I was told by Mr. Kassab that this instrument would be ideal to copy should I ever want to build a kanun due to its medium size yet satisfactory tone. The idea of making a kanun was always naively in the back of my mind. Due to a lack of understanding, I also naively underestimated the process. There are several challenges in the process of creating any instrument. Good measurements, good mould to build the instrument on (there is a saying, the instrument is only as perfect as the mould), of course the instrument needs to function in a good way, the sound is important, and last but not least; the lay out of the mandel levers used for the intonation of critical pitches. The open kanun strings themselves are tuned to whole-tone pitches. However to play whole tones, half tones and/or quarter tones, small moveable levers (mandels) are installed on the mandel board. The player then has the ability to open and close the levers in order to produce specific musical pitches necessary to carry out a melody or tune whilst utilizing the maqamaat (model system used for Arabic music). Think of these mandels as movable frets. There are a variety of mandel configurations available when it comes to the kanun. Sometimes it can be understood by examining the systems by region.
Cheaper beginner kanuns typically feature 4 mandels per string, giving you the bare bones basic configuration for Arabic playing. Some kanuns in Armenia are found with just 2 mandels per string, used for a system not utilizing quarter tones all together. Turkish systems are typically more numerous containing as many as 11 per string. This allows you to play any mode in any obscure key. However, even for progressive Arabic repertoire, 11 mandels per string can be over complicated and bulky as there is no need to play a microtonal mode in the key of F# as an example. The old Aleppian kanun featured 11 mandels per string, (modified by adding more mandels at some later point) is a typical example of redundancy. So the central question is which mandel configuration would be implemented? Since players usually try to find kanuns mainly based on specific mandel systems that suit their playing preferences, I decided to sit down with renowned kanun master Jamal Sinno and ask him what is the ideal system for progressive Arabic repertoire.
Jamal has performed extensively with virtuoso Simon Shaheen, who has been at the forefront of Classical Arab music, pushing the envelope and knowing what tonal requirements should be available to the kanun. Jamal, having to keep up with Mr. Shaheen and his technical/tonal demands, would be the best person within my vicinity to know what configuration would be ideal.
After some back and forth with Jamal he concluded that a 6-8 mandel system per string would be optimal for the progressive Arabic player, doing away with redundant pitches, keeping only the very important ones, while still having double the amount of a standard kanun of 4 mandels per string. Jamal was also helpful in dictating the exact pitches needed per string, in order.
For the next step I needed to find a supplier that makes the mandels. I found a supplier in Turkey that makes very high quality mandels from nickel silver, but they are not cheap! Yet moreover, installing mandels proved to be an ordeal and a learning process in itself as it is a skill not used in any other aspect of life or even luthiery! Some of the other technical challenges of building a kanun are the measuring and marking of all the grooves for the strings on the bridge and mandel board end, the tuning pegs, the holes where the strings tie to on the end, and more. All of these parameters need to be executed successfully with precision and thoughtful planning or the functionality will be greatly compromised. Of course tuning is another element that is critical. The kanun requires an enormous amount of tuning, especially on a newly crafted instrument with a fresh set of strings! Every stringed instrument, whether guitar, violin, or oud require a considerable amount of tuning until the instrument settles, but with 78 strings that sit on top of a thin flexible membrane, the kanun is the king!
It was also necessary that I put together a set of optimal kanun strings as I found no readily available source specifically for the Arabic kanun. String sets are accessible for Turkish kanun, but the string lengths, and nuances in the music require a different set of gauges as the Turkish sets tend to use the same gauge for up to 6 strings! My kanun strings are available on the accessories tab located on my website.
After building a few kanuns I’ve recently taken up learning to play, which has also been a very pleasurable experience. I hope many more people won’t feel intimidated by the mandels, coping with tuning and the amount of strings the kanun has. You’ll be rewarded once you get past these seemingly overwhelming obstacles. For the sake of preservation and knowledge, I will produce more material regarding kanun construction in the near future.
Yet another astounding oud made by Toufik Nahat in 1928 recently received an extensive restoration here at my workshop. Exhibiting some of the classic motifs and ornamentation we'd expect to see on a classic Nahat. (Please read my previous blog post to learn more about Nahat ouds) Hand carved bone rosettes, mother of pearl for the fingerboard, beautiful mosaic/marquetry pattern on the soundboard, bowl and neck, and of course that famed sound of an old Damascene oud.
This was a very extensive restoration project as many difficult challenges arose and dragged out extensively over the period of a few months. To repair the many cracks on the soundboard, it needed to be removed which is a very risky and invasive operation since the instrument is 90 years of age and the soundboard in some places is only one millimeter thick! I would also correct the loose neck and really high action in this stage. A brace inside was also replaced, along with repairing some loose braces; a very critical necessary task for the instrument's structural integrity.
The mosaic binding was copied to the 10th of a millimeter and replaced when the soundboard was reinstalled to keep everything as original as possible. Unfortunately this treasure was repaired previously by an ameteur, causing some damage to the soundboard and to the rosettes.
After installing the soundboard back there was a very obnoxious buzzing sound coming from the rosette once I put the strings on it and tested it extensively. This is often the problem with these older instruments with Bone rosettes. The main rosette and the small one were "repaired" previously using white plastic pieces, and white out, and weren't contacting the soundboard. A lot of the mosaic pieces around the soundhole needed to be replaced as well. The original small bone asfour (bird) rosettes was replaced altogether with a new hand carved one due to damage and the precious bad repair.
All in all I'd have to say that this particular instrument is quite remarkable in that apart from the damage to the rosettes over time, unprofessional repair work and some other issues, it is incredibly well preserved. For example, the finish on the bowl and neck still appears vivacious as if Toufik himself just applied the final coats of finish last week.
Damascus, Syria. Arguably the epicenter of the oud. The most significant makers hail from this important city of the Arab world. Nahat isn't a single maker, but a family dynasty starting with Abdo Nahat in the 1830's and ending with Elias Nahat as late as the 1980's in Brazil. Nahat ouds are regarded as the best and are highly sought after. The craftsmanship and rarity play a part in this. The Nahats are important because they established what would be defined as a classic Damascene oud. The dimensions, shapes, patterns, motif/marquetry designs, and of course the "true Arabic sound". The very word "Nahat" means carpentry or wood worker in Arabic, which most likely implies a family trade that could span a number of generations. We know they made furniture as a primary occupation. Their oud labels read "atelier de menuiserie" in French, or "carpentry shop" in English followed by "quality furniture at discount prices." Some of their ouds are lovingly embellished with mosaic inlays similar to the ones in their furniture. The geometries used to shape the bowl and soundboard demonstrate an advanced understanding of mathematics and it's role in optimizing acoustic output. The use of ratios and combinations of angles and mastery of craftsmanship is difficult for us to reproduce even in modernity, with all the technology that has been bequeathed to us.
A common problem I've had in the past with repair and restoration work in general is that the client doesn't want to pay for authentic restoration work. Typically they only want to render the instrument into a functioning state. This can sometimes mean alienating certain aspects of the instrument's originality. The work sometimes can be so lengthy and difficult at times more than one can possibly fathom. In the case of this particular oud, a 1927 Toufik Nahat which belonged to the clients father, I was given permission to do whatever necessary to bring it to a respectable state shortly after finding out the soundboard was already replaced. According to a small rectangular handwritten label next to the maker's label it says, "Toufiq Ajhar, soundboard replaced. 95 Court St. Brooklyn " with no date. Upon further inspection the binding tiles did not match the fingerboard's binding. Usually the tiles should be all the same, around the soundboard and neck, sometimes around the outer edges of the pegbox walls. The main reasons my client brought his Nahat to me is the bad warping on the soundboard, the soundboard coming loose from the bowl, and the horrendous action. I considered repairing the warped soundboard, perhaps by removing it, rendering it more freely without the restraints of working with my hand through the narrow soundhole. I planned on routing off all the unoriginal binding tiles from around the soundboard to remove it with more ease, execute the soundboard repair, then copy the pattern of binding tiles from around the fingerboard (which are original) and so I would have made the oud slightly more authentic. Upon removing the soundboard I can see why it failed and was collapsing in on itself. First off the board was thicknessed too thin, being 9mm in some areas, not even a full millimeter and roughly half the thicknesses under spec. Additionally the unoriginal soundboard was lacking the necessary 2x vertical braces adjacent to the soundhole where it was also ultra thin. At that point it was obvious to me that it would be foolish spending time and money repairing this soundboard and that it should be replaced. I called my client to share some photos and talk about the idea of not only replacing the soundboard (which his father put many miles on) but do an authentic Nahat style soundboard, complete with motifs copied from the bowl and in a style very much known from original Nahat soundboards that have survived. My client was surprised the soundboard was replaced and said it would have had to been done long before his memory could serve him, and quickly agreed to having the soundboard replaced to Nahat parameters.
After clearing some outstanding tasks from my work bench, I began plotting my path with the Nahat project. I became obsessed thinking about the details and how it would turn out in the end. I began by choosing some aged turkish Spruce a friend had given me, from a board I had good luck with the sound in the past. The wood's appearance would be commonly seen on an original Nahat oud; medium to wide grain, wavy grain pattern. I would have to copy the binding around the fingerboard to complete the soundboard and I would copy one of the diamond S pattern from the back of the bowl to inlay into the soundboard. The pattern around the fingerboard consists of various sandwiched strips of veneers varying in color to produce the pattern. The same was done with the motif on the bowl. The veneers are thicknessed to the correct dimensions then glued together and left to sit for two days to dry. Once dry, the edges can be cleaned up of glue squeeze out, cut along its edge into strips which are fit into a custom made mitre box which the various angles are built in for a fine saw to cut the strip into pieces that forms edge binding or inlay mosaics. The soundboard was joined and the braces thicknessed, located and shape to previous Nahat specifications; a critical measure for an authentic Nahat sound. One of the small bone rosettes were completely missing so I had to reproduce a matching replica. The other rosettes were removed, cleaned up and performed minor repairs on them. Four diamond S shaped inlays were made and inlaid into the soundboard around the soundhole on top of a black purfling which encircles the main soundhole. The pickguard was fashioned from black veneer using a classic Nahat pattern. Binding tiles were also inlaid around all 3 of the soundholes from the copied pattern on the fingerboard. The neck needed serious reworking as the action was another serious issue. It was reset with the soundboard off, and 2x additional 3/8ths hardwood dowels were installed through the neck block into the neck to add additional strength to the neck. The soundboard was installed, pickguard glued on, and 3 additional Nahat style inlays would be added. I made a new bridge because the bridge on the soundboard was not in the Nahat style. The bridge was fashioned from walnut, dyed black and a decorative mosaic cap joined to the top. The rosettes installed, along with the binding. The action came down significantly however I wasn't entirely please and performed a second reset from the top of the soundboard and landed a very comfortable low action which should be very future proof considering 2 dowels were added from the inside prior to the installation of the soundboard. After installing the strings I was very satisfied with the rich sweet Arabic tone we all search for. The use of quality wood and an aged bowl should be the main reasons for this.
In general I wish most of my clients would be more understanding about the amount of work it takes to do a proper restoration. Many can't afford it as well which is a part of the reason you see many antique instruments butchered and stripped of their authenticity. I recently took the stance of doing restoration work as original as possible. Some say it wouldn't matter, but to me, it does.
Many people have issues on the oud with "buzzing". I hope this video sheds light and demystifies issues with buzzing on the oud.
This Hanna Nahat oud was made in 1910, Damascus Syria. It belonged to my clients grandfather, and comes from a family of musicians.. so this oud had a lot of playing on it. Coincidentally it had a lot of bad repairs. As a luthier, one of the most challenging thing about doing a restoration is going over bad previous repairs. The soundboard not being original, it was replaced after realizing the braces were notched behind the fragile bone rosettes. There was no strong emotional attachment to the soundboard which also had long cracks in various places. The oud was restored to "Nahat" parameters. The rosette had some pieces missing, and so not much able to be done about that. Scroll through the slide show to see the work being done in chronological order.
I've been known for my disdain of fusion, however here is a fusion of Latin and Arabic music I cranked out with my friend, fellow musician and luthier, Tony Velez. In this video I play a guitar, oud and violin I made, Tony plays a tres he made. All instruments are available on this website under "Store" tab.