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Building a global brand of craftsmanship

Update: December, 21/2008 - 00:00

Building a global brand of craftsmanship

El Mariachi: Cuong calculates the right size for the guitar’s soundboard and neck at his workshop in his home at 248/39 Hoang Hoa Tham Street in HCM City’s Binh Thanh District.

Strumming my pain with his fingers: Cuong Luthier, famous for his guitar-making skills, fine-tunes a classical guitar before delivery to a customer.

(21-12-2008)

Thanh Hieu discovers a master artisan hoping his handmade guitars will spread the word about Vietnamese creativity.

In the 1980s, Vu Van Lan received his engineering degree at HCM City’s Technology University, worked for a few years at a State-owned company and then embarked on an unlikely career as an amateur guitarist.

But the dearth of quality guitars available in Viet Nam at that time inhibited his progress.

So Lan, who is known by the nickname Cuong Luthier, decided to make his own.

"I wanted a good guitar, but I couldn’t find one," says the 53-year-old native of HCM City.

Fellow guitarist Phung Tuan Vu, whom Cuong met in the 80s at a coffee shop where other musicians were playing, was also looking for a better instrument, as were other classical guitarists.

It was Vu who began calling him Cuong Luthier, after the lute, a precursor of the guitar.

While still working at the State-owned company, Cuong began doing research in libraries and consulting friends on guitar-making techniques.

His experiments, however, were not always successful.

"That’s why my house was always full of guitars, because I would destroy those that didn’t meet the required standards," says Cuong.

Over time, he perfected his technique and began selling guitars, but it was not until 1992-93 that his skills reached a professional level.

Today, Cuong is one of the few successful guitar-makers left in the country. His predecessors include Truong Huu Chau of Hue, who remains famous for his Tan Chau guitars, and the late Tam Art, reputed to be a virtuoso artisan.

Only Cuong and the lesser-known artisan Do Viet Dung of Ha Noi continue to make guitars on a made-to-order basis.

Cuong’s guitars, industry experts say, are unparalleled for their splendid shape and vibratory range.

"To make a classical guitar, which originated in Spain, you must be in a peaceful state to create the proper sounds," Cuong explains. "That’s why I can’t make guitars in large quantities."

Although he has a waiting list of 200 names, he makes no more than two guitars each month, which sell for US$500-1,000 each.

Cuong’s craftmanship involves precision and patience. "You can’t worry about time when making a guitar since you have to make multiple changes during the process."

For the instrument to possess a full, deep, rich sound, he is meticulous about perfecting the sound of each musical note, each of which exists in a forest of complex chords.

Proud owners

Many of Viet Nam’s music conservatory students own one of his guitars, as do other professional guitarists and individuals from the US, Australia, Denmark, France and Austria.

Whether it’s Viet Nam’s best flamenco guitarist Tran Van Phu or any other performer, Cuong accepts orders on a first-come, first-serve basis only.

Some buyers will wait up to two years for the guitar, whose soundboard is made of either cedarwood or sprucewood and the other parts of rosewood, all imported from Indonesia, Malaysia and India.

"The wood to make a guitar must be more than 100 years old," Cuong says, "and the more straight the vein the more expensive the guitar will be."

For some Western clients, he makes the instrument in a climate-controlled room in HCM City to create sounds more suited for a temperate climate.

Cuong says the most difficult task is making the soundboard, gluing the bracing system beneath it, and adjusting the sound.

"A quality guitar must have a good tone, its volume must sound loud enough, and you should be able to play it in different ways," he says. "The guitar-maker must know how to balance sonority and the degree of intensity or loudness."

In the past, Cuong mass-produced guitars for export to Taiwan and Singapore, but later shifted to made-to-order manufacturing in an aim to build an international brandname for Vietnamese-made guitars.

Surviving in such a competitive market, however, is fraught with problems.

Dozens of guitar-making workshops across HCM City and in neighbouring Binh Duong and Dong Nai provinces now make low-quality guitars sold at much cheaper prices.

Many artisans, he says, have reluctantly turned to mass production to earn a living.

Cuong earns an average of VND200,000 ($13) a day, after excluding 90 per cent of the cost to buy materials.

To survive, he says "you must be a professional, that is, extremely good at it."

Cuong’s guitars are much less expensive than instruments of the same quality and continue to sell well in other countries, including the selective French market.

He is currently doing research on the latest generation of classical guitars, but believes the prices will be too high for the local market.

Respect from peers

Owning a Cuong Luthier guitar is a professional badge of honour, symbolising your superiority as a musician, many Vietnamese owners say.

However, an English friend of guitarist Huynh Huu Doan points out that despite the quality, Cuong’s guitars cannot sell for more than $1,000 because they are labelled made-in-Viet Nam.

Though he finds this a sad state of affairs, Cuong feels encouraged that local professional guitarists have been buying his instruments for more than a decade.

Guitarist Trung Nghia, who once played at a coffee shop on Hai Ba Trung Street, says of Cuong’s instruments: "I could not imagine that this was a locally made guitar. At first, I thought the sound was from a $2,000-$3,000 imported guitar!"

Musician Huynh Huu Doan, a former HCM City Conservatory of Music who now lives in the US, calls Cuong "a talent" and praises his expertise.

"The mellow quality and the vibration of the sound has truly stunned classical guitar professionals," says local young guitar hopeful Cao Hong Ha."Unlike other guitars, Cuong’s guitars echo loudly as they are stroked more forcefully, which helps the artist perform a piece more successfully." — VNS

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