Image credit: Michael Isabell
Luthier John Vergara owns the Lord of the Strings instrument shop, where he builds and repairs a variety of stringed instruments, including the Arabic oud, the Puerto Rican cuatro, classical guitar and violin. Some are built simply, others extravagantly, inlaid with mother of pearl or constructed from Spanish cypress.
In this episode he shares the story of his journey in music and what goes into his work. He also plays a couple tunes: an Argentinean piece on classical guitar and an improvisation on Oud. He dedicates the latter to his friend and mentor Bassam Saba, a well-known Oud player and a maestro in the Arabic music world who recently died of Covid.
“I had come back from Lebannon – no money,” John recalls. “At that point he [Bassam] was just teaching me for free. For whatever reason he saw something in me and he was inspired to teach me. I was part of his New York Arabic Orchestra, founded and led by him, and he would take a lot of Western people who were interested in Arabic music and he taught them how to play.”
John’s clients hail from all over. As one of only two luthiers in the US authorized to make ouds, he is sought after by musicians who want to commission an oud or repair one. After years of dedication to the craft, he was able to leave his job at IBM to dedicate himself full time to the shop. It’s a labor of love.
“I was talking to a friend, he’s a luthier. I asked, ‘What would you do if you didn’t have this?’ He said, ‘I’d be dead.’ I have to say it’d be the same for me. As crazy as this sounds, this actually keeps me sane. Even on my one day off I’ll come in – if I don’t have anything going on, I’ll work. It clears my mind and I’m excited to do it.”