I must have been six years old, a dinner celebration, perhaps a wedding reception. I was at a table with my family and the serenading group came to the table … (think, Los Panchos 1959). As a young child sitting down, my head was level with the explosion of sound coming from the guitars, playing boleros, and the popular music of a different time and world. This was in Cienfuegos Cuba, my birthplace, and it was still the time when many were giving Fidel Castro a chance to deliver on all his promises, but alas, what he ultimately delivered was to convert his “Cuban Experiment” into a Marxist-Leninist state - a situation which did not agree with many, and created the great Cuban diaspora of the 20th century.
In Latin countries we often use multiple surnames. As a young boy I learned that my full name was Juan Oscar Azaret Alea Moron Sabido Blanco Espinosa. My father’s name, Azaret is the least traceable, I have heard Barcelona, it’s roots likely Hebrew. My mother’s name Alea, is from Asturias. My grandfather Jose Alea lived with us until his death. I remember him telling stories of his childhood in the Cantabrian Mountains of Asturias under the reign of Alfonso XII, son of Isabella II. My maternal mother’s name Moron, is from Andalucia. The US has an airbase near the town of Moron de la Frontera. My maternal grandmother’s name Sabido is Catalan from the region of Gerona Spain. On a visit to Cordoba I was fascinated by the Mezquita, and decided I would fashion my rosettes after this awe inspiring 10th century mosque. As it turns out Jose Romanillos had already beat me to the punch, so I decided instead to fashion my head design after such motifs. In the 16th century a Catholic Cathedral was built within the Mosque. I once attended mass there, and it is quite surreal to attend a Catholic mass within an Islamic Mosque; a fitting testament to the “Convivencia” a long period of peaceful coexistence, among the Christian, Jewish, and Islamic residents of Cordoba between the 8th and 15th century.
My next memory of a guitar - I was nine, and now in the small town of Greeneville Tennessee, where in my bedroom a friend had left his small acoustic guitar, perhaps Sears or Stella, and I remember placing my ear on the body of the instrument and plucking the strings, and marveling at the resonance and the volume. Those years were, to quote a phrase, “an illusion to me now”, and I have my older brother Ramon to thank for first bringing guitars into our family. Folk music was all the rage in those years. In Tennessee there are a lot of “pickers”, so it wasn’t long before I started getting my hands on my brother’s guitars, and teaching myself what I could on the instrument; no lessons in those days, just kids learning from kids. We moved to Miami for a year when I was 14, and my brother went off to Medical School in Cadiz Spain leaving his guitars behind, and me, having no friends in this new city, well there were the guitars. When my brother would come home from Spain he would bring some real guitars – a flamenco guitar, a classical guitar. Those were the years when a dollar in Spain would buy you a pretty good lunch with some vino tinto, and 80 American dollars would buy a darn nice guitar.
As all good 1st generation immigrant children, we were to become doctors or engineers. My brother became the doctor, following our father’s footsteps, and I became the engineer. When I got my first apartment after graduate school (MSEE Stanford), and having started my engineering career, the wood working projects started - bookshelves, stereo cabinets, coffee tables,,,. I had no tools, but there was a wealth of older employees at Bell Telephone Laboratories in North Andover Massachusetts from whom I could borrow tools and expertise. I made a lot of dust at our apartment complex’s basement storage area … likely not a popular thing. I remember during these years falling in love with working with wood, and I loved sound – high fidelity. I guess the term used in those days was audiophile. I read all the magazines and checked all the specs.
It was about that time, in my mid-20’s that I recall walking to lunch one day and thinking – I love acoustics, I love working with wood, I play guitar … I should build guitars. But actually I was getting away from playing during those years, and life was becoming busy with other fascinations for a Cuban hillbilly in New England. I did finally lose all my accents, though perceptive individuals still sometimes question.
It was to be many years later that my wife Leslie, having observed my longing for a vintage Martin D-18 at a music store said - “why don’t you buy it.” I declined as I really wasn’t playing in those years, but she was not to be deterred, and attempted to buy it a few weeks later for my birthday – it was gone. Instead my present was classical guitar lessons with a local teacher Audi Bridges. Wow, did that open up the flood gates; learning the classical technique, all the wonderful music, the nylon strings, the things which were there in my early childhood, but had up to that point not resurfaced in my journey – the Spanish sound!
I have always traveled often to Miami, as much of my family is there, and I discovered there a luthier – Paris Banchetti – an old time luthier, a fascinating fellow. I bought several production Spanish guitars from him, but never made the leap for a custom instrument, but he was kind enough to talk to me about lutherie, and allow me to hang out and play in his workshop. I recall he was restoring a Santos Hernandez on one of my visits. So it wasn’t long before I found my way back to my old notion that I should build guitars. In the Boston area at that time, early 90’s, we had the “Luthier’s Workshop”. Thomas Knatt, and Alan Carruth built, and repaired instruments, and took on students … I was to be one of them. I hung out with them for about 3 years off and on, and those were great times. Tom’s lutherie began in the 60’s, not long after this graduation from MIT. He spent some time learning from David Rubio. Both Tom and Alan studied violin making from the legendary Carleen Hutchins, one of the few Honorary Fellows of the American Acoustical Society along with Thomas Edison and Amar Bose. It was this perspective that Tom and Alan brought to lutherie, and which was instilled in me as a natural consequence of my academic and professional training.
For over two decades now, I have been honing the craft of lutherie. I have also been very involved with (and now a board member and trustee) the Boston Classical Guitar Society. One could write a book, I suppose – “It’s not About the Guitar.” For all of the wonderful people and the sharing of their lives and music, I am eternally grateful. There is no greater joy for a luthier than to see players love an instrument, and use it to express their soul through their music.