Arts & Entertainment

Brazilian firefighter transforms fire debris into musical instruments

By Carlos A. Moreno

Rio de Janeiro, Sep 13 (EFE).- Davi Lopes has managed to combine two of his greatest passions – being a firefighter and an instrument maker – by using debris from fires and building demolitions to make top-quality stringed instruments that are now in the hands of musicians like Gilberto Gil and Paulinho da Viola.

Although he started at age 15 making guitars, violins, cavaquinhos and mandolins from hardwood and other old wood that he rescued intact from building fires, Lopes vaulted to unexpected fame in Brazil this month after the airing of a documentary telling the story of the instruments he made from debris left over from the fire that destroyed the National Museum.

A lieutenant with the Rio de Janeiro Fire Department, Lopes so far has made five instruments – two guitars, a mandolin, a cavaquinho and a violin – from the debris from Brazil’s oldest museum, and the one with the biggest collection, which burned to the ground in September 2018, destroying its collection of some 20 million items.

“The plan is to make between 10 and 12 instruments. Five are ready. The aim is to make instruments representative of Brazil’s different musical rhythms, like the cavaquinho for the samba,” Lopes said in an interview with EFE.

The instruments are temporarily in the hands of famous musicians who sponsored their preparation, including Gil, Da Viola, Hamilton de Holanda and Paulinho Moska, some of whom already are using them in their performances, but – when the 200-year-old museum is rebuilt – they will all be displayed there.

The remains of the museum’s ticket office, which was made of jacaranda wood, was used for the guitars, along with the furniture and beams made from forest pine, yellow cinnamon and other hardwoods suitable for instruments.

But since his work with the debris from the National Museum was made into a documentary on the Globonews television channel, Lopes now has plans to undertake other similar projects starting with the remnants of a century-old piano and wood from the old Casa de la Moneda, or National Mint.

“Everything started with the story of being a musician. I began studying music very early, at age 10, in the church I attended. And at age 15 I was accepted into a music school,” Lopes told EFE at his apartment in a Military Village – since firefighters in Brazil have military status – and where he has set up a small but well-equipped workshop.

“In 1997, I … joined the fire department and working as a firefighter became a passion. I began combining the two passions that same year, when I went to fight a fire and saw that amid the debris there were intact hardwoods,” he said.

Lopes said that he had already acquired a passion for wood, something that he inherited from his family of artisans, and this enabled him to recognize hardwoods like mahogany in the debris from big old homes that had burned down in Rio de Janeiro.

“With this passion for wood, I saw that I could do something with that and combine all my passions: music, instruments and firefighting work. Starting in 2000, I began to collect wood from fires, already thinking about instruments and in 2007 I had the chance to take a course in instrument making in Sao Paulo where I learned the trade and the techniques,” he said.

“At the beginning, when I rescued wood from the fires, the other firefighters and even musicians told me that that wouldn’t work for making hardwood instuments, that I was crazy. But the fact is that, despite the fact that you have to put in intense effort to clean and restore the wood you find, it’s the same that’s used by instrument makers,” he said.

“After that, when I began showing the instruments I made from the debris, they began to support me and to bring wood to me that they’d found,” he said, referring to his fellow firefighters.

Lopes admitted that at the start he made instruments as a hobby but that now he does it professionally and makes special instruments commissioned by musicians in which he must invest up to a month of work and for which he can charge prices well above the going market rate.

He noted that on the night of the National Museum fire he was off work but that “I went down to the station, put on my uniform and went to help rescue whatever I could” from the ruins.

“At that moment, my intention was to save the (museum) objects, but that same day I had the idea to do something with what survived, to make some instruments and sell them to help rebuild the museum,” he said.

The publicity resulting from the documentary has helped him push forward with his new project: creating a foundation where he will offer music classes for needy children and train new instrument makers, “a trade that is in danger of dying out.”


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