By David Templeton | From the November-December 2022 issue of Strings magazine
“My first lutherie experience was when I was two years old, and I jumped on my mom’s guitar and broke it to pieces,” says Yam Uri Raz of Yam Violins, playfully cringing at the memory before bringing the brief story to a happy ending. “My cousin took duct tape and put it back together,” he says with a smile, “and transformed it into a perfectly good beach guitar.”
The strings trade is a field of great variety—there are so many roles, passions, and stories. Tales Of The Trade shines a spotlight on the trade and the people involved in the art of the instrument.
Yam Violins, which he established about four years ago, is a small, single-maker operation in the town of Hilo, on the Big Island of Hawaii. On a bright and sunny midsummer day, while his daughter takes a nap, Raz recounts the globe-hopping, myth-tinged journey that brought him to the islands from Israel, by way of Cremona, Italy, the city of violin makers.
“I was always very musical growing up, and for a while as a kid I listened to classical music every night to go to sleep,” he says. In middle school in Jerusalem, Israel, he began playing jazz guitar, essentially teaching himself the instrument. This eventually ignited a lifelong appreciation for the craftsmanship of musical instruments. “I would pick up a guitar that wasn’t mine, and be very inspired by it and curious about it, and would end up playing differently because of it. I knew there was more to an instrument than just how you played it. There was something about how it was made that was essential.”
As a teen, he began fostering dreams of attending Berklee School of Music, where he imagined he would study jazz. That trajectory was slowed when he was inducted into the Israeli Army. He ended up serving as chief engineer on a boat, where he now says he developed an aversion to loud machines and the spotlight, emerging less enamored with the notion of performing onstage as a musician. There was just one problem.
He still loved musical instruments.
“I had started working on friends’ guitars, fixing them up, and I liked doing that and thought maybe I’d be good at it,” he says. After four years of army service, he delayed making decisions about his future by launching a global tour, eventually visiting New Zealand, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Eventually, he knew, he’d need to decide what his future held. “On my flight back home to Israel, I made a list of things that inspired me in my life,” he says, allowing that there ended up being a good number of things on that list, including the opportunity to visit places that inspired him and going to the American Museum of Natural History in New York, which he’d done with his parents as a child. “But the number one thing on my list was ‘learn to make musical instruments.’ It’s interesting that I phrased it that way, because I was a guitar player, but I didn’t say, ‘Learn to make guitars.’ I liked guitars, and I’d been writing to guitar makers around the world, asking questions. But I knew I liked other instruments too.”
Skipping ahead a bit, Raz eventually met a violin maker from Jerusalem named Shlomo Moyal, and began visiting him at his workshop, finding himself drawn to the environment, fairly dripping with the history and romance of violin making. “Shlomo would tell me, ‘Cremona, Cremona, Cremona—the city of violin making,’” recalls Raz. “That sounded pretty interesting to me, but I told him, ‘I’m a guitar player.’ He said, ‘Well, I’m a bass player, but Cremona is the place to be if you want to learn violin making.’ And something just clicked.”
It so happened that Raz had been reading Paulo Coelho’s allegorical novel The Alchemist, the story of a young man who has a dream of finding buried treasure in the desert and, taking it as a sign of his destiny, travels the earth to fulfill his fate. “For me,” says Raz, “the book represented listening to the signs the world is giving you, and deciding whether to listen to those signs or ignore them. And at that time, though I knew about violins more from listening to them than by handling them, I decided the signs were telling me to go to Cremona and learn from the city itself how it feels to make violins there.”
In spite of the fact that he spoke exactly zero Italian, Raz signed up at the Scuola Internazionale di Liuteria Cremona, and quickly found himself immersed in a vibrant community of passionate students from around the world. Those students ranged from recent high school graduates to older retirees, people who spoke dozens of different languages but shared a common language in their commitment to learning and extending the traditional crafts and techniques of European violin making.
“Cremona really is the city of violin making,” Raz says. “You don’t just learn to make violins. You are surrounded by violins and violin makers. You meet violin makers in the supermarket. You see violin makers in the bar and end up talking about details of violin making. You live in a river of people dedicated to the idea of making violins. And then, after working at making violins all day, there are free concerts all over the city, with some of the best violinists in the world playing right in front of you. There are lectures at the museum where people talk about their violin-making point of view. It was such an amazing place, and it was just impossible to absorb all of it. But what a great experience to be there.”
According to Raz, only about 40 percent of those who graduate from the violin making school in Cremona go on to make a living from what they learned, while many others continue their skills on more of a hobbyist level. After beginning his second year at the school, Raz was actually beginning to sell his own instruments, and was growing in confidence that his Alchemist-inspired quest was paying off. “It felt very rewarding,” he says. “It felt true. It felt like I was on the right path.”
He ultimately spent four years at the school in Cremona, then stayed for another year, making violins and cellos on commission in his own workshop. When one of his American clients asked him to accompany her new cello to Seattle, Washington, Raz decided to make a side trip to Hawaii to visit Kilin Reece, a luthier he’d met in Cremona. While there, expecting to stay for just two weeks, he celebrated his birthday by offering to make an Italian dinner for some of Reece’s friends, and at that dinner party, he met Lillian, to whom he is now married.
“I stayed in Hawaii until my visa expired, and then I went back to Cremona, did everything I needed to do while closing down my workshop there, and eventually came back here to Hawaii,” he says, “and four months later we got married. All of that is just more about me following the path that feels true. I genuinely feel lucky every single day.”
Another four years later, Raz is now settled in and building a new workshop on Hilo, as evidenced by the fresh drywall visible in the background of our midday Zoom call. He does not consider himself a fast violin maker, estimating he’s finished around 30 to 40 instruments all on his own so far—not counting those he built or contributed to as a student—while also repairing or restoring a large number of instruments, a side business he enjoys but views as subordinate to his true calling as a maker of violins.
Most of his instruments are custom orders, which generally take him 350 hours to complete and run in the vicinity of $20,000. He considers himself a traditionalist in his choice of European or locally sourced Hawaiian woods and other materials, but remains committed to meeting the sometimes-challenging specifications of his clients. “If I have a specialty as a luthier, it’s listening to people,” he says, “letting them tell me exactly what they want, and then trying to figure out how to give that to them.”
Case in point: Raz was once asked to create a viola with the same resonant tone as the client’s mezzo-soprano mother’s singing voice. “That request was just the beginning, followed by many, many questions from me about exactly what that meant and what the instrument would be like. I don’t always know how I’m going to do it, but that’s part of the excitement of doing this work.”
It is, he believes, the most rewarding part of instrument making.
“It’s the listening, it’s the reading of the signs inside of what a person is telling me,” he says, “and then following those signs, with a finished instrument being the end of the journey—hopefully the same instrument the client was dreaming of. By being able to hit that mark relatively often,” he concludes with a warm laugh and another bright smile, “I keep getting business.”