We’re in Cusco, Peru, the ancient Incan capital and a beautiful, albeit touristy, city. My sixteen-year-old son Sumner informs me that he’s spotted a music store a few blocks away. When we try to return there, however, we can’t find it.
Our goal is to pick up a flute or panpipe to add to a collection of small musical instruments we’ve assembled from other trips. But this time, it seems we’re out of luck.
And then, just as we’re hurrying back to meet my waiting wife, Kris, and other son, Connor, I spot a sign that says “Luthier” (the word for someone who makes stringed instruments).
But it is far more intriguing.
We step off the main alley into an old courtyard filled with dust and a few puppies running around. We fear we’ve intruded into someone’s residence when a teenage boy waves us over and points us to a doorway at the back of the courtyard.
We enter into a dark room, perhaps twelve feet square. Inside, two men, one young, one older, sit working with hand tools on a number of guitar-like instruments. The older man looks up, smiles as if expecting us and invites us to see some finished products.
In another small room off the courtyard are two walls filled with handmade stringed instruments, as well as some flutes. The flutes – our initial goal – are quickly forgotten as our craftsman/guide takes one of the instruments and plays it for us.
The sound from this small instrument – approximately the size of a tenor ukulele – is magical. He tells us the names of this instrument and several others, none of which I recognize. He hands the ukulele-sized instrument to me, shows me a simple chord, and I strum it. If sounds could smile, this one would be grinning sublimely.
The instrument, known as a charango, has five rows of strings with two strings per row like a small version of a twelve-string guitar. I’m intrigued, but it is Sumner who is transfixed. We try a few other larger instruments but realize they are out of our price range and the idea of even getting the charango home seems preposterous given we are traveling with only carry-on luggage.
So we thank our wonderful host, inform him we’ll discuss the logistics with my wife and then, if we decide to purchase the charango, we’ll return by 6:00 p.m. when he closes.
As Sumner and I run back to meet Kris and Connor, we chatter on like two teen girls planning what they’ll wear to the prom. I can tell that this isn’t just a quaint souvenir to Sumner. He has fallen in love with the instrument and the dream of playing something so unique, so bright in its sound and so intimate (especially compared to the huge baritone sax he plays at home).
We eventually find Kris and Connor and describe our adventure. They don’t appear to share our enthusiasm (maybe it was the extra half hour they had to wait for us…).
Together, we discuss the practicalities: The charango costs more than Sumner has; we’ll never get it into our luggage; he doesn’t know how to play a stringed instrument and, we’re all too tired to race back to the luthier at this hour.
And yet, at 5:55 p.m. our whole family is in the small “show room” watching our craftsman/musician friend teach Sumner how to play a few chords. We then bargain in an amiable way and walk out a few minutes later with several things.
First, Sumner proudly bears his new charango in a beautiful hand-woven case.
Second, I carry, wrapped in Peruvian newspaper, an added part of our bargain: an elegant hardwood flute. I still can’t play it, but it looks great…
Third, we emerge with the experience of having not just purchased two fine instruments, but having shared – even briefly – in the life of their maker. That personal connection made all the difference. Our small instruments contain within them all the craftsmanship, musicianship and passion of our luthier friend. They’re a part of him.
And now, they’re a part of us.
With some transactions, you get far more than you bargained for.
P.S. If you wonder what a charango sounds like, check out this great video of musician Josh Garrels playing one. He seems as enamored by its mandolin-like sound as Sumner is…