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Making violins in Jozi Print E-mail
13 April 2011

Delicate work is going on in a studio in downtown Joburg, where musical instruments are repaired and restored, and even made.

SHE is going to be the country’s first black luthier – a maker of stringed musical instruments – based in downtown Joburg. She plays a double bass and sings in a choir in her spare time.

 

Thembi Buthelezi at her work station, making her first violin
Thembi Buthelezi at her work station, making her first violin
She is Thembi Buthelezi and after studying the intricacies of violins for the past four years, she is now ready to make her first violin.

 

This rare and delicate skill was once the domain of the Italian and French master violin makers; but after WW2 the Chinese took up the challenge, and are now major manufacturers of some of the best violins in the world.

Buthelezi, 33 years old and born in Thokoza on the East Rand, has a long history of involvement in music. She sang in her church choir for many years; then five years ago, her brother took her to the Johannesburg Foundation Orchestra, where she began playing the violin. Within two years she’d switched to the double bass.

Then four years ago she became an apprentice to Svend Christensen, a violin maker and restorer.

“Making an instrument is essentially sculpturing,” he explains.

Buthelezi plays for the foundation orchestra and the FBA Brass Band, the band of the Faith Brethren Apostolic Church.

She recounts how she became Christensen’s apprentice: “Svend came with a task – to take an enamel pot, burn it, then clean and shine it. I took it seriously. I made a fire outside, and cleaned half with steel wool and sunlight. I did it correctly.”

Her meticulousness worked, and he took her on board. “I started with the small things, watching him, cleaning instruments, sharpening tools with wet stones. I can now set up a violin, and I am now making my own violin,” she says with a shy smile.

So far, she has made the template or shape, and the ribs or sides. She is busy making the bottom of the violin, and will soon be thinning the body by scooping out the inside. Next is the scroll, which she has already begun. She expects to finish her violin by the end of the year, in between restoration work.

“I am very, very excited. I can’t wait for it to be finished,” she says. She plans to buy it when it is finished. “I want to show it to my grandchildren and say: ‘Look what granny did.’”

Then she’ll make another instrument, perhaps a double bass or cello.

Christensen has another apprentice, Tshepo Motsiri, who has been with him for two years, and is proving to be adept at working with wood.

Repair and restoration
Christensen runs a thriving instrument repair and restoration business from a studio in August House in End Street, a converted factory building that now houses expansive loft apartments and creative industries.

His involvement in music and instruments goes back to 2000, when he’d grown tired of the advertising world. But he’s always had music in his life, he says.

His Danish father was an engineer, working in Botswana, where he met Christensen’s mother. When he was two years old, he returned to Denmark with his father, while his mother rode across Africa on a Harley Davidson to join them.

His mother always challenged him to come up with creative solutions to problems that arose in his life. He grew up being exposed to orchestras and classical music.

Meeting a violinist at a press launch, with whom he now lives, changed the course of his life. Her students needed new parts for their violins, and he found he could make them, having always been versatile with his hands. “I was always naturally good with my hands,” he explains.

He started off learning at his kitchen table, never forgetting the quality of restoration seen from local violin repairer and restorer, Dawn Hadad, who is based in Cape Town, but later he attended courses and workshops in France and Italy.

He imports spruce, willow and maple, the last being the best wood with which to make violins. He has made one violin and several dozen violin bows, his “true love”. He took jewellery classes because he wanted to give his bows an artistic flair – an unusual silver piece at either end give them a flourish not seen in other bows.

“Violins have always followed me,” he says.

But swamped with repair and restoration work, with violins, cellos and pianos spread around his studio, Christensen doesn’t get much time to make violins. At present, he is working on a 1821 violin, carefully removing the cheap glue before repairing the hair-fine cracks that have developed in the instrument.

And he has created a company called Fiddlefax which aims to promote and network musicians and music. It claims to make cases for anything musical, from bagpipes to reed whistles, among other unusual endeavours.

He is having fun building a Dr Seuss double bass, in steel. He has also built his own cutting machine, which fills an entire room. The mind boggles.

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