By Tom Miller
Grand Prize Bronze Winner (tie) in the Fourteenth Annual Solas Awards
The best guitar maker in Cuba.
Three events—baseball, Pope Jon Paul’s visit, and the Elián González case—exposed Cuba to the American public far beyond the embargo. Yet it was the improbable success of a handful of aging musicians that exposed a Cuba few knew and expanded the country’s audiences far beyond its bashers or its cheerleaders. The musicians went by the name of the Buena Vista Social Club, their music came from the 1950s and earlier, and their appeal was resolutely apolitical. On a visit to Havana, the American musician and producer Ry Cooder, not finding the musicians he sought, teamed up with Cuban producer Juan de Marcos to produce an album of exquisite sounds from another era.
One of Cooder’s Cuba visits coincided with Hurricane Irene which stormed through Havana one night inundating streets near the coast and knocking down power poles throughout the city. In San Miguel del Padrón, a poor, working class suburb southeast of the capital, Juanito Rodríguez Peña and his wife Marta heard the torrential downpour and howling wind, warily took note of the water entering their hundred-year-old wood house, and went back to sleep. The high-ceilinged front room had a few merciless leaks, and the wind overturned the couple’s only furniture, a straw chair and a wicker couch, yet in all they survived Irene better than most. The next morning the nimble guitar maker went to his back room workshop, took the plastic sheet off an instrument he was working on, brushed huge puddles of water from his workbench that came in through the porous roof, and began his day. Marta spent the morning sweeping water, which covered most of the front room, out the front door.
Juanito Rodríguez Peña had been making and playing guitars, treses, and lutes for much of his life. The tres is most succinctly described as a slightly smaller guitar with three sets of two strings each. The Cuban lute, commonly called a laúd, has a pear-shaped body, usually with eighteen strings. Rodríguez Peña, born in the nearby suburb of Luyanó more than seven decades earlier, had gained a measure of notoriety throughout Cuba for his regular appearances on the popular radio program, “Vivimos en Campo Alegre” and the television show, “Palmas y Cañas.” Both programs feature Rodríguez Peña’s forte, música guajira—traditional acoustic music from the countryside. Rodríguez Peña performed around Havana frequently and, drawing on precariously few resources, made and repaired instruments. His raw materials appear irregularly and sometimes serendipitously—much like the bus that carried him into town to rehearsals, studios, and performances. To follow the story of Juanito Rodríguez Peña and his survival is to likewise get a sense of Cuba today—it involves, in varying proportions, inventiveness, skill, resourcefulness, and occasional good fortune.
Rodríguez Peña’s most recent good fortune began about four years ago. Among the knowing musicians who have bought guitars from him was Compay Segundo, the nonagenarian Santiago de Cuba native who, with other elder statesmen of Cuban music, won a Grammy for his part in the Buena Vista Social Club ensemble. The music that Segundo plays comes from the far end of the nineteenth century at the far end of the island. During the initial Buena Vista recording session in 1996 Ry Cooder asked Compay where he got his guitar.
This was no idle chatter between musicians. There was something about Segundo’s guitar that piqued Cooder’s curiosity. As both producer and musician, Cooder has had the admirable distinction of having strummed quality instruments throughout the world, and his recordings over the years reveal a man obsessed with perfection. If you’re thinking about buying a guitar or a tres or a laúd in Havana, Segundo advised, Juanito Rodríguez Peña is your man. Two days later the guitar player from Southern California and the guitar maker from San Miguel del Padrón met, and right away the former bought two instruments from the latter: a reconditioned laúd originally made by Rodríguez Peña’s father Andrés, a guitar maker who died more than thirty years earlier, and a tres that Rodríguez Peña had converted from a requinto, a small similar instrument from Mexico. Cooder considered Rodríguez Peña a master craftsman. Rodríguez Peña thought of Cooder as a tall and amiable foreigner.
A year later Cooder asked Rodríguez Peña to build an instrument for him from scratch. “As a luthier he stands apart from any other string instrument maker I know,” says Cooder. “He is an old-world folk artist. Since there are no music stores per se in Cuba, one simply has to know of the makers. In America and Europe musicians have two or five or dozens of their own instruments. In Cuba, you have one. Musicians bring their battered instruments to Rodríguez Peña and he makes chicken soup from stones. His guitars tell a certain story when you play them. There’s something about how he positions the neck, how he frets an instrument. I look for the joinery and the woodworking, the angle of the neck where it joins the body, the height of the strings at the bridge, the set up of the stress points. That’s what determines how it sounds. It’s what makes a Stradivarius a Stradivarius.”
A visit to Rodríguez Peña’s workshop can be disorienting. One expects the mild disarray of a carpenter, with tools of his trade, stacks of wood, and sawdust lying about. Instead one is confronted by an almost barren workspace. The only objects in sight were a small throw rug, a hand saw, an almost empty can of ninety percent cane alcohol, and a Stanley electric saw. “I haven’t tried it in a long time,” Rodríguez Peña tells me. “I’m not sure it works.” A single fluorescent light bulb hanging from the ceiling illuminates more spider webs than guitars. Additional light shines through the windows and great gaps in the roof. The front panel of an old stand-up bass rests against a far wall. “It comes from Luyanó. I haven’t decided what to do with it yet,” he explains. Rodríguez Peña has lived in this house since 1939, and it was right here that as a young boy he would sit in the corner and watch his father at work.
“My father’s workshop used to extend a little farther out. He would make furniture and doors as well as instruments. Eventually he devoted himself to the luthier trade. He allowed me to cut wood sometimes, but I couldn’t use his electric sander. He was proud of me, but he never let me make instruments by myself. The parents of that era were real strict. Domineering.” Rodríguez Peña turns his fist as if tightening a faucet. “I really didn’t begin my work until he died.”
Rodríguez Peña has few supplies but a world of suppliers. He has no tools to calibrate depth or measure width, yet by eyeballing the wood his pieces fit snugly together. Somewhat by happenstance my family found itself in the middle of a typical Cuban problem and its typically Cuban solution. My wife Regla was visiting her father, a retired Havana carpenter, and dropped in, on my behalf, on Rodríguez Peña. The guitar maker told her in passing that he needed a particular type of lacquer for his work. Regla mentioned this to her father, who allowed as how he had some of that lacquer he no longer used. She relayed this news to Rodríguez Peña, who, the next day, rode the bus to my father-in-law’s. The two elderly woodworkers chewed the fat for a while, and Rodríguez Peña got his lacquer.
Fulfilling Rodríguez Peña’s professional needs was usually not so easy, but he did rely a lot on friendships. As a licensed independent craftsman he could get wood from the government, it never seems to be the right type or age. For many years carpenter and luthier friends would simply give him planks of wood. Or he would go scavenging, traipsing through sites where the ruins of once-splendid homes might offer up the right wood. Sometimes he’d explore the trash built up on the streets of Luyanó. Such excursions are now rare for Rodríguez Peña, who when I met him had recently celebrated his seventy-first birthday, but on an unseasonably muggy winter afternoon he and I accompany one of his suppliers, forty-two-year-old guitar maker Luis García, on his wood-hunting rounds.
García, who learned guitar-making from a Mexican master, lives on the first floor of an enormous apartment building across the street from a cigarette plant and a bicycle repair shop. “I made guitars in a factory,” García said as we pull away from the curb and drive by the nearby baseball stadium, “but I didn’t like the production-line work.” He directs our driver down pot-holed side streets in the Cerro neighborhood. “Pull over there,” he instructs, pointing toward a narrow street. “Sometimes there’s a trash pile on the far side.” Havana’s anguished efforts to keep up with itself means fewer trash pick-ups, hence more and bigger trash piles. This can be good if you’re dumpster diving for wood, but at this particular corner, after walking the perimeter of the junk heap, García and Rodríguez Peña both shake their heads. “I go out looking just about every evening after dinner,” García explains as we get moving again, “either on foot or bicycle. Often I don’t get home until midnight. I stop to visit friends and family. In the last six years I’ve found six complete mahogany beds. I hardly ever skip a night. If you miss a night you might miss a bed. Let’s try over there.”
Scavengers are either trash collectors or object hunters, author Paul Auster observed in In the County of Last Things. “A good object hunter,” notes Auster, “must be quick, you must be clever, and you must know where to look.” García agrees with Auster: “What another has seen fit to throw away”— Auster again — “you must examine, dissect, and bring back to life.”
The trash pile García points to on the corner looks more promising, and we all climb out. Across the street sits a once-lovely building now in its final stages of decay. Its Greek columns lay prostrate and broken on the ground with chunks of concrete lying about the rubble. A dog barks from a third floor window in a nearby building; children shoot marbles on the corner. García reaches carefully into the pile and pulls out a flat piece of dry wood about three feet by four feet and hands it to Rodríguez Peña. “Rosewood,” the master craftsman says, tapping it as he holds it up to his ear. He runs his hand over it and taps it again.
“Rosewood,” he repeats. “Too new. New wood is no good. It has to be forty or fifty years old.” A few blocks away we stop again and find another piece. Rodríguez Peña lifts it to gauge its heft. “Nails. It’s got nails in it. It won’t do.”
“See that corner?” García asks. “One night I found a piano top there. Another night I found some furniture. It’s my best place. I always check it out.” Yet by the end of our hunt all we’ve collected is a warning from a traffic cop for drifting slightly over the center white line.
One evening not long thereafter, Rodríguez Peña, laúd in hand, traveled by bus into Havana with his wife Marta to perform with his group, JRP, at a cultural center in the heart of town. Juanito’s five-man group attracted upwards of a hundred appreciative spectators, including the tall foreigner and his wife. Many in the audience were themselves from the countryside, and this was one of the few opportunities they had in the city to comfortably connect with their culture and see live música guajira. Rodríguez Peña, his thin, five-foot ten frame clad in a freshly pressed guayabera and dark slacks, played the laúd that evening, an instrument as refined in sound as it is in verse. The late Andalusian poet Rafael Alberti used the laúd in metaphoric verse to set the migration from North Africa to Spain and on to the New World. “In the beginning was the laúd,” his poem opens. His poet’s-eye view of history described the break-up of the Spanish empire: laúds, he wrote, “ignite their bridges in sparks of gold, along the stars that Spain has lost.”
It’s an instrument that ignited Efraín Amador, a Cuban who has devoted his life to the laúd and tres as both composer and performer. Amador, his country’s leading authority on the two instruments, has strummed Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart on the laúd in concerts throughout Europe, Africa, and the Americas with his wife accompanying on the piano. “It took me years to convince the Instituto Superior de Arte here that these weren’t just some hillbilly instruments,” the fifty-three-year-old told me in his home in Guanabacoa, outside Havana, “that they deserved to be studied alongside the piano and violin.” In the late 1980s the laúd and tres got official approval, and Amador is now their champion. His personal collection includes a laúd from Rodríguez Peña.
Six months after Cooder ordered his instrument; Rodríguez Peña had given it a lot of thought but not much time. Although Cooder has become associated worldwide with Cuban music through the success of the Buena Vista Social Club, in Cuba itself radio did not play songs from the CD, stores did not sell it, and, with the exception of a few special screenings, theaters had not shown the film. The guitar maker, clueless to the Buena Vista album or its producer’s identity, continually referred to Cooder simply as “the tall foreigner.”
When Cooder next visited Rodríguez Peña, he brought along enough wood for his own instrument and plenty more, and enough lacquer and glue to build and recondition a dozen used instruments. “¡Que bárbaro!” Rodríguez Peña cried out when he saw the gifts. “Outrageous!” It was a reunion of sorts, and the player and the maker hugged warmly. Rodríguez Peña picked up a sheet of Alaska sitka spruce from Cooder and tapped it next to his ear, listening for its resonance. He did this often, testing the wood with the intense wonderment of a child. “Hear that?” he said, holding it next to my ear. Actually I didn’t hear what the master guitar maker heard, but I did see the gleam in his eye. Rodríguez Peña and the tall foreigner talked about the pending construction of the instrument, a tres. Neither the world-class guitarist nor the world-class luthier spoke the other’s language, but they chatted amiably about the tres with very little help from a third party.
“In the modern era of guitar making you may have master craftsmen,” Cooder told me later, “but a number of different specialists’ hands work on the same instrument. Rarely do you find one shop where one maker works on one instrument from start to finish. You simply can’t get instruments like this anymore, not in the competitive marketplace. Rodríguez Peña doesn’t work in the contemporary commercial environment so he can make the effort to bring forth the best. We live in an era of technical proficiency, but this goes far beyond that. You could not replicate an instrument from him in New York, London, or Los Angeles.”
Cooder returned to Rodríguez Peña’s modest home the next day, not to further along the tres, but for a lesson on the laúd. With the master and the teacher at work, it hardly mattered that they come from very different backgrounds, occupy extremely different stations in life, or that neither of them reads sheet music. Cooder was learning to play the “Zapateo Cubano,” and Rodríguez Peña was showing him on his own laúd how best to position his hands. Never have I seen twenty such educated fingers at play.
A day later Rodríguez Peña unlocked an old tobacco-scented armoire in the bedroom and showed me where he keeps two of his own instruments. Then he pulled away a blanket on a table to reveal two more he is working on. After that he took me over to a bookshelf and uncovered yet two more. Most of his instruments were safely stored in the house’s only room with no overhead leaks. Finally he escorted me out through the workshop to his narrow backyard. We passed by a painting of Rodríguez Peña’s younger brother Orlando, whose death in a traffic accident some twenty-five years earlier still brought sorrow to his usually cheerful face.
“As soon as I finish the tres I’ll build a new cinderblock workshop,” he announced, designing his new workplace with his hands. The backyard, where Marta hung clothes to dry, yielded bananas, mangoes, guayaba, and frutabomba, and their sweet aroma wafted through the house. A pig Rodríguez Peña was fattening up for the family Christmas fiesta snorfed by, and the guitar maker drew a hand across his throat and smiled.
The laúd teacher still beamed from the previous day’s lesson. “The foreigner learned the ‘Zapateo’ in its entirety! It was in 6/8 time. He’s extremely talented and intelligent. He has an excellent sense of rhythm. What did you say his name is?”
When we passed back through the bedroom I noticed a Bible next to some plastic flowers, open to the Book of Luke.” Rodríguez Peña goes to Pentecostal meetings. “We sing. We talk of God. It’s every Wednesday night for an hour or so. With all my music and guitar making, I haven’t had much time for it lately.” Rodríguez Peña was also a member of Cuba’s Communist Party, and had been for more than twenty years. “We had a study session last Saturday,” he said of his Party chapter. “We discussed the problems of the revolution and read some of the country’s laws.” Likewise, he serves on the neighborhood Committee for the Defense of the Revolution. “We keep the streets clean. It’s volunteer revolutionary work. We paint the curbs. We discuss neighborhood problems at our meetings.”
A couple of evenings later I was chatting with Rodríguez Peña and his wife in their daughter’s house just across the street from their own, when the electricity suddenly shut down throughout the neighborhood. It was time for the weekly two hour blackout. I commiserated with them about this hardship, but almost as one the entire family rose to contradict me. “No, don’t you see? We used to have blackouts every day for hours at a time. Things are getting back to normal.”
Rodríguez Peña stood on his daughter’s front porch and plucked out a riff on his tres. The next day he would ask local municipal officials for a permit to patch up his hurricane damaged roof with wood and corrugated metal he hoped to find. On the way he plans to stop at the bank to pay his monthly eighty peso license fee to maintain an independent repair shop. He assured me he will get to the tall foreigner’s tres as soon as things are in order.
Tom Miller has brought out eleven books during his fifty-year career writing about conflict and culture in the southwest borderlands and Latin America. His titles include The Panama Hat Trail, Trading with the Enemy, and Revenge of the Saguaro. He has won three Solas Awards and was editor of Travelers’ Tales Cuba. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, LIFE, Rolling Stone, Esquire, The New Yorker, and many other rags and mags.
Photo credit: P. K. Weiss, Southwestphotobank.com