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Sugar Hill Luthier Handcrafts Rare 1600s-Era Instruments

 Gabriela Guadalajara expects to spend up to six months making a viola da gamba, a 1600s-era instrument that was largely replaced by the cello, for a client.
Luthier Handcrafts Viola de Gamba from Sugar Hill Workshop
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SUGAR HILL — Gabriela Guadalajara walked down her staircase to her dim workshop bursting with dusty logs and curvy instruments to lay out five wood strips, alternating between a dark walnut and shiny beige maple chopped down in the 1940s.

In the next six months she'll shave a long slab of ebony into an elegant neck. A square of tan wood will transform into a curled bridge. And she'll carve, bend and stain woods until she pulls six strings tight across the length of the completed viola da gamba.

Guadalajara, who lives near her work space at the corner of St. Nicholas Avenue and 149th Street, is one of the few luthiers, as people who craft stringed instruments are known, who handcrafts the viola de gamba — a six-stringed instrument that was popular in Europe in the 1600s until it was largely replaced by the similarly-shaped cello.

“The gamba is a beautiful instrument and the sound is beautiful. The feeling of starting an instrument is about the same. I always want to do it,” said Guadalajara, who has made string instruments since adolescence in her native Mexico.

She's currently working on a new $12,000 gamba, which takes about six months to complete, for Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi, a 54-year-old ex-military historian now studying to become a Buddhist chaplain.

Ghamari-Tabrizi has done hospice volunteering since the emergence of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and hopes to one day play for the sick and dying children she cares for.

“My vision now is spinal injury adolescents, adolescents with chronic illnesses, and adolescents who are dying. I fell in love with that age group. Not that they’ll love my gamba, but they might,” Ghamari-Tabrizi said.

Ghamari-Tabrizi found her way to Guadalajara through William Monical, New York City's pre-eminent viola da gamba maker and restorer.

Monical taught Guadalajara everything he knows about the instrument during an apprenticeship before retiring in 2013 and sending all his old clients to Guadalajara.

"She has the flexibility to work within her own imagination and her own style. She has a marvelous sense of color and shape,” said Monical, who moved to Oregon, but keeps in touch with his onetime protege.

Guadalajara, whose childhood was filled with her father’s baroque music collection, loved to play music but saw practicing as a tedious deterrent. She said that once she realized she could simply craft the instruments, she was hooked.

At about 14, she walked into a violin-making school and started to create what would become her first violin, in the first step towards become an expert and finding a fulfilling career.

“There’s nothing like the first time you put the strings on the instrument you just finished and somebody plays it,” Guadalajara said. "It’s alive.”