Meet master bowmaker Marco Raposo

“Some people think a bow is only wood and hair,” says Günter Seifert, violinist with the Vienna Philharmonic and head of the Wiener Geigen Quartet. “But the bow can be more essential to expressing the soul of the music than the violin is.” [Source: Russ Rymer, Smithsonian Magazine, 2004]

Master bowmaker Marco Raposo knows this. He has made his living from the crucial distinction between the sound generated by synthetic carbon fibre bows and that created by nature-given Pernambuco wood bows.

A craft in crisis

20 years ago, Marco and his fellow bowmakers realised that the supply of Pernambuco wood that nourishes their craft was about to run out. Only around 8% of the Atlantic Forest remains and of that just tiny, scattered fragments are home to the Pernambuco or paubrasilia echinata tree, whose heartwood provides the perfect density, resonance and malleability to create bows that make a violin or cello sing, naturally.

Marco himself established a small plantation of Pernambuco trees in 2000 to produce seeds and wood for the future, but more needed to be done.

Meeting in a bistro in Paris, bowmakers from around the world came together to form the International Pernambuco Conservation Initiative or IPCI. In 2005, working with CEPLAC, a Brazilian government agricultural and forestry research institute, the IPCI launched Programma Pau Brasil, which planted over 150,000 Pernambuco seedlings and kicked off a major research project into the best conditions to grow this precious tree.

The theme of collaboration

Perhaps reflecting its role as an essential partner in the beauty of classical music-making, the Pernambuco tree itself flourishes in what is known as a climax community – a habitat populated by multiple species of plant and animal. It does not really thrive in monoculture or urban environments.

This is why Marco reached out to RAIN, who specialise in agroforestry projects, regenerating forest habitats as a network of symbiotic, co-dependent species.

The plan is to collect the seeds from Marco’s original plantation, and grow on 50,000 Pernambuco saplings. These will then be distributed to 70 local farmers who will be trained by RAIN to care for and nurture the trees to maturity. Research has shown that a well-maintained paubrasilia in the right habitat will produce enough heartwood for bow-making within 30 years or so.

A hero of the Mata Atlantica

Marco Raposo is not only a master bowmaker. He is a proactive, knowledgeable and committed agent for change in the eco-disaster that is the Mata Atlantica today.

In 2004 he founded the Instituto Verde Brasil, to care for the 7,500 Pernambuco trees he had planted, and to build partnerships with government and research bodies in order to develop a sustainable, funded, long-term project to build back the paubrasilia population.

Thanks to a grant from the local government in Espírito Santo on the east coast of Brazil, and the loan of land to create a nursery, Marco has built a team who have germinated thousands of paubrasilia saplings and other native species which will be used to re-forest areas of Espírito Santo.

Marco also works to protect the 150 or so mature trees in his local area. Illegal logging or just destruction through clearing or fire are both threats to the species.

Hope born of focused action

Nearly 20 years after those master bowmakers met in Paris to decide how to save this unique resource, the Pernambuco tree is still not off the CITES endangered list and its numbers are still nowhere near a level that will ensure its long-term survival.

But the Trees of Music project and the combined efforts of RAIN and Marco Raposo’s Instituto Verde Brasil will change that, with the right support from investors to assure the future of this “cinderella of the orchestra”, the Pernambuco tree.

Find out more about the Trees of Music project here.