Saving the Music Tree

Artists and instrument makers have banded together to rescue Brazil's imperiled pernambuco, the source of bows for violins, violas and cellos

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Aquarter-century ago, wood dealer and bow maker Horst John recognized the need to replenish the dwindling stock of trees and began planting pernambuco on his property in Guarana. His effort has been expanded by Jacy Sousa, who has headed Horst John Bows since the founder’s death in November 1997, and is being replicated by Arcos Brazil and Waterviolet Bows, also in the Guarana area, and by Marco Raposo Bows farther south in Domingos Martins. Floriano Schaefer, who runs Arcos Brazil with Celso de Mello, has worked to salvage and use nonliving sources of pernambuco, such as dead logs lying on the forest floor.

Those same bow makers have been spearheading IPCI’s efforts with the government, which require a native’s understanding of the Byzantine world of Brazilian law and politics, a territory less charted and fraught with greater peril than the country’s snake-infested forests. Federal and state laws already forbid the cutting of pernambuco under most circumstances, and the transportation or use of most of the wood. As a result, Brazilian bow companies have come under close inspection by the national ecological policing agency, which wants assurances that the companies’ wood stocks (and some of the wood they’ve sold to foreign bow makers) do not come from illegal sources. As the Brazilian makers labor to demonstrate that their suppliers are reputable, the IPCI bow makers must allay other suspicions. Brazilians have a fear, grounded in the hard lessons of their history, of the intentions of outsiders, who have traditionally come to extract the nation’s natural riches but not to help the country. IPCI bow makers have had to ensure that they are not merely putting an idealistic face on the same exploitation that supplied wood to their professional forebears for 200 years.

To that end, the contract that IPCI signed with the cacao research center in November 2003 goes far beyond simply ensuring the future of the tree. It offers environmental education and economic support for poor and landless farmers. Thanks partly to the involvement of the German Association for Technical Cooperation, an agency dedicated to conservation and development issues, the contract is also integrated with efforts to establish bio corridors—extended and uninterrupted ecosystems—critical to the survival of many species of the once-universal, now fragmented Mata Atlantica. “This is big,” Yung Chin observed on a tropical Bahian summer evening last November, after he, Klaus Grünke, Marco Ciambelli, Charles Espey and Marco Raposo had hashed out the final details of the accord with the cacao research center. “Three years ago I thought we were just going to go to Brazil and dig a hole in the forest and throw some money in. Boy, was I wrong. We’re part of something that’s bigger than we ever imagined.”

The profound interconnection between a musical tool, a plant, an ecology, an economy, and a society and its history is a lesson of the forest. On the June day in 2002 when the visiting bow makers walked into the Mata Atlantica to find the old pau-brasil tree, José Roberto de Melo explained the significance of the plants they beheld: how this vine was sacred in the African religions transplanted to Brazil by the slave trade, how another had medicinal use. One of the cooperative’s workers cut a large leaf from a palmetto and held it up with a smile. “This is an instrument too,” he said, one that the aboriginal Indians had used to communicate over long distances. He hit the end of the stalk with the shank of his machete, and a loud, hollow bass note boomed through the forest. “Warning,” he translated. The IPCI bow makers are sounding a similar alarm: the future of a high art rests on the future of an imperiled tree.


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