I have taken a few weeks off from this blog – too much has been getting in the way of my building over the past month, so I have not had much to share! In a couple of weeks I will be back to a more regular schedule, so I will have more regular blogging happening at that point if all goes to plan.
Today, I am pleased to share with you the fourth instalment of my “shop talk” series featuring the British luthier, Jo Dusepo. I first came across Jo via her Instagram and have admired her work over the past couple of years through this platform. Jo builds a wide variety of instruments, focussing mostly on lute and oud-like instruments as well as other world and historical plucked string instruments. She is also a musician herself – check out her albums on bandcamp here, and radio host on K2K radio.
As per usual with this series, I have conducted the interview over email, so the responses are completely the work of Jo Dusepo. The images in this post are taken from her website and instagram pages, so I cannot take any credit for her lovely work!
To start out with, could you give us a bit of insight into your background as a luthier? for instance: How did you get into instrument building? Why did you choose to build lutes/ouds/etc? Do you come from a background as a musician, or was there something else that got you into building?
I’m self-taught. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by music and instruments, and especially world music and instruments. I am a musician too, but I fell in love with the sounds I heard but couldn’t get hold of the instruments that made them. After a few years of trial and error I was able to make my own instruments, and I caught the lutherie bug. 10 years of practice later, I went professional. I have also always had an interest in historical music, especially the medieval and renaissance periods, and fell in love especially with the melodies of the Cantigas and of John Dowland. So, the oud and lute are the perfect combination of these two, since the medieval period is when the oud came into Europe and over time became the lute. The medieval lute and oud have a lot in common, and it wasn’t until the renaissance that the European lute and the oud diverged further in building style and design. It also seems appropriate for me since I am a luthier, and that word comes from the french word luth, meaning lute.
What was the first instrument that you built? Do you still have it, and does it play? How did you find the self-teaching learning curve at the beginning?
I guess that depends on your definition. I built all sorts of instrument-like things as a kid. One I particularly remember was a biscuit tin (cookie tin for North American readers) banjo-like thing with fishing line strings. It played but was a struggle to keep in tune! I’m not sure what happened to it, but I don’t have it anymore. The first ‘proper’ instrument I built was a citole-style ukulele. I think I ended up taking that apart later to use for something else. The learning curve was at first frustrating but over time got easier as I improved over those 10 years.
How many instruments have you built?
I’ve long ago lost count, but I’d estimate over a hundred by now. Probably about 150 or so.
What kind of space do you have as a workshop?
My workshop is a separate building outside where I keep all the tools etc. I don’t know how best to describe it. I have a workbench on one side and shelves full of tools, templates and other stuff all around the other sides. On one wall I have a series of lute moulds hanging. I also have an old music player in there which plays a playlist full of music that inspires me whilst I work. I find having that space helps me focus and be inspired.
What is your favourite hand tool? power tool?
My favourite hand tool is a fine toothed back saw I bought a few months ago. It’s great for making pegbox joints and all sorts of other things. A good all-purpose saw. My favourite power tool would, I guess, be my bandsaw. I’ve had it a long time and it’s still going strong and is probably the power tool I use the most. My table saw, thickness sander and bending iron are also frequently used and among my favourites. It’s difficult to choose, because they all have their role!
Do you have any luthier “heroes”?
I like those who come up with amazing new ideas, or build less usual instruments like me. For me this includes people like William Cumpiano, Federico Tarazona, Meredith Coloma, Kave Ghorbanzade, Alfonso Sandoval, Travis Carey, Angel Benito Aduado and many others.
Now that you are well-established in your professional career as a luthier, what drives you to keep building? And, is there something that you are constantly trying to improve or develop with your instruments?
I find there are always new challenges, as well as being driven by my love of music and instruments. I was recently commissioned to build a renaissance cittern, for instance, which has some weird and wonderful design choices in it.
I would imagine that part of your interest in building the wide variety of instruments that you do stems from a desire to maintain tradition and the diversity of string instruments. Do you think that it is important to keep all of these instrument traditions alive, and, is there a place for historical instruments, such as the medieval lute, outside of immersive type historical performances and instrument collections?
Yes, I do love the musical traditions behind both the historical and world instruments I build, but I don’t necessarily see myself as continuing a tradition, especially in the case of the world instruments from cultures I am not part of. I do think it is important to respect and keep alive traditions though, yes. I always feel the world is a little poorer every time I hear of an instrument that has gone out of fashion somewhere in the world, usually in favour of imported Western-style guitars. Most of the customers who commission historical instruments from me do wish to play historical music on them, but there is also some wonderful fusion styles. I’ve particularly come across a lot of early medieval styles mixed with Arabic, North African and Persian music. There are also a few bands I’m aware of who do historical music from along the silk road.
How do you balance your own desires as a luthier with the demands of your customer base – or do you find that people are drawn to your instruments because of your interests?
That’s not really been an issue. Maybe I’m just lucky, but I’ve found my customers usually share the same interests as me.
Are the instruments that you build copies of other instruments or are they plans that you have drawn up yourself? I would imagine that you have done a bit of both over your career.
As you suggested, both! Most of my instruments which are not based on a specific historical example are my own design. I like to draw up my own plans, and I will often change aspects to fit the player. On the other hand, I have customers who want an instrument based on a specific historical example. This can be of a surviving instrument, or based on a painting or other historical source.
How do you deal with the idea of authenticity when it comes to staying true to the instrument you are copying/imitating vs designing? Do you find that there are still things to improve/develop or experiment with when it comes to historical instrument making, or is it more of working to get closer and closer to what the original instruments were like?
In the case mentioned above, where I base it off a historical painting or similar, it often requires some experience to be able to interpret the source, and look for clues. For instance, whereas many renaissance instruments survive, there are no surviving medieval lutes. So it requires that experience to reverse-engineer the plans. I have also in the past made re-productions from specific surviving historical instruments. Ultimately, how close a historical instrument is to the original, or whether some modern innovations are included is entirely up to the customer.
Thank you also to you, the reader, for following along with this series. If you have any comments, questions, or suggestions, please leave them down below.