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The Timple:
The Sound of the Canaries

By: Karl Kunze

Timple, Lanzarote, 37°
Timples Canarias. Photo: Lanzarote37°

Antonio Lémes, timplero, Lanzarote
Antonio Lémes, timplero. Photo: Lanzarote37°

Timple, Lanzarote, 37°
This view clearly shows how the timple differs from other small guitars: it is the arched back, or hump, which gives the timple its nickname of ‘camellito sonoro’ - the sonorous little camel. Photo: Lanzarote37°

Toñin Corujo, Timple, Lanzarote
The timplista Toñin Corujo runs a music school in Arrecife. Photo: Lanzarote37°

Antonio Lémes, timples, Lanzarote, 37°
Antonio Lémes always builds fifteen timples in one batch. His main customers are music schools and shops, but he also takes commissions. Photo: Lanzarote37°

01-06-2011 Lanzarote /Teguise - If asked what springs to mind when associating the Canary Islands with music, you might well think of the "timple“. It is the instrument of the Canaries - no group playing traditional music could manage without it and a local folk music festival without timples would be quite unimaginable. But where is it from? Is it just a small guitar, perhaps born out of conditions of hardship? And how important is it today?

However divergent opinions about the origins of the timple may be, experts are convinced that in some way it has its roots on Lanzarote. But how exactly? Before the Spanish arrived, there were no stringed instruments on the islands - this much we know from the Spanish poet Antonio de Viana, who lived on Tenerife around 1600. These instruments, primarily the guitar but also the baroque lute, must, therefore, have been brought over by the conquering Spanish. It is also thought that Berbers and Moors may have brought their knowledge to the Canaries. One thing is certain, however: a century and a half later, in 1752, a teaching manual was published showing how to play the guitar and the bandola - and a certain instrument called the tiple. The missing ‘m’ is of no concern here: in linguistics this is a case of what is called epenthesis - the insertion of a sound to make a word easier to pronounce. This is probably only very recent though, as we can find references to the tiple in the Cana-ries as late as around 1850. Tiple was, and still is, also the term given to the highest musical register: in the hierarchy from bass to soprano, tiple is the same as descant, as the soprano register was known in the vocal and instrumental music of the Baroque era. In modern Spanish, the soprano voice is still sometimes called tiple - the same as treble in English.

From the 1752 teaching manual we can see that the old tiple and the modern Canarian timple have the same strings and the same tuning. They are also played in the same way - whether playing melodies or chords. So, as we have already indicated, the timple can’t be an original Canarian instrument. So far there have been no archaeological finds from the period of the Guanches and Mahos, nor do we have any written records. However, as mentioned above, we do know that in the year 1604 the poet Viana explicitly states that the first inhabi-tants did not have any stringed instruments. And there is no reason at all to disbelieve him. In your search for the inventor of this instrument you could wander all over the Iberian Peninsula and half of South America finding instruments of a very similar build wherever you went - except, oddly enough, in Cuba, El Hierro and La Gomera. No one really knows why that should be. Perhaps because folk music there is more percussive - drums are very important, and, above all, so is the human voice.

So the timple could be yet another variant of the wide range of Iberian small-bodied guitars, perhaps modified under South American influences. In Venezuela, Columbia and other countries on that continent, we find instruments which aren’t just very similar, they are actually known everywhere as tiple, without the ‘m’. The name simply means that they belong to the family of high-tuned guitars, the soprano guitars, if you like. The first documents referring to the tiple (still without the ‘m’) as a discrete instrument of the Canaries, date back to 1850.

They mention folk festivals in Las Palmas, where tiples could be heard. And there is in fact one point of difference which distinguishes the small guitar of the Cana-ries from the Iberian one: its sound box is narrower, longer and more rounded at the bottom end. This shape can in fact be found in South America as well, but that is not really surprising, given the extent of past cultural exchange. So, could the timple be a Canarian invention after all? Canarian nationalists insist that it is. Néstor Álamo, the Islands’ historian, who died in 1994, referred to an old notebook belonging to the Lanzarote timple maker Jeremías Dumpiérrez, in which he had found a comment claiming that the rounded belly had been designed by a Catalan carpenter named Alpañe, who had been working in Las Palmas at the end of the 18th century. But to speak of an invention in this context would surely be to exaggerate: the curved body had been invented much earlier, and not on the Canarian archipelago. Nevertheless, this note could give us a clue as to how the myth arose that the timple was Canarian in origin.

Things get even more complicated when one considers that in the 16th century there were more Moors than Spanish people living on Lanzarote and Fuerteventura. Their influences should not be underestimated, nor the cultural intermixing with African slaves, especially after devastating raids by Berber pirates.

The most easterly islands, and therefore those most exposed to foreign influences, therefore came to have timples with five strings, whereas on Tenerife they only had four. All of this leads one to the assumption that the modern form of the timple evolved under the most diverse influences, with origins clearly to be found outside the Canarian archipelago - which, incidentally, is also the case with today’s form of the traditional Lanzarote costume. The timple’s final shape most probably evolved here, though, and its popularity among the Lanzaroteños means it continues to be a powerful force in shaping local identity. Although the timple then ‘belongs’ to Lanzarote and Fuerteventura, it is hard to find any outstanding players on Lanzarote.

One such, though, is Toñin Corujo, aged 47, the principal of the Tocoyma music school. At the moment he has 60 pupils just learning guitar and timple, but he and his team teach other instruments and singing as well. His first CD, Arrecife, was released in 2004. In 2007 it was followed by Sal y Arena, which he produced with Andreas Prittwitz. On the latter CD in particular, the music is quite restrained but still catchy; not overly esoteric. The sound and the melodies envelop you, they carry you along, at times becoming very light-hearted. It is a pleasant mix of the familiar and the new, guided by a heartfelt desire not to allow the music to become pure entertainment, yet not igno-
ring that aspect of it, either. The question of why there are so few timple concerts given is quickly answered. Cultural promoters just don’t take it seriously enough, according to Toñin. They are happy to support popular rubbish on TV, like Operación Triunfo (the Spanish version of Britain’s Got Talent), but “these people don’t like things from round here. Anything that comes from outside, that’s fine, just let’s not have anything from here”.
Marcial de León was born in 1927 in Cuba. In 1933, when he was six, his parents emigrated to Lanzarote after the dictator Machado was toppled by Fulgencio Batista, the ‘Leader of the Revolution‘. His year of birth was actually entered as 1929 on his passport: as a four-year-old he would not need to pay the ship’s passage. In 1953 he married a Lanzaroteña, who bore him six children, now aged from 44 to 57. His wife died in 2001. When he talks about it, his eyes still fill with tears... He trained as a carpenter, and went on to become a timple maker. He used to produce up to 60 instruments a month. Today he only builds on request, perhaps four or six instruments a month. The plain ones cost 60 euros; with decorative inlay the price can be anything up to 150 euros. The best sound is produced by wood from the mulberry tree (moral), he says, followed by rosewood (palosanto). However, he also works with two types of mahogany (sapelli and caoba) and with beech (haya). The top is always made of spruce.

Antonio Lémes has spent his whole life doing this: timple making is his raison d'être. Born in Teguise, he had trained as a carpenter when a friend suggested they should try and build a timple together. And that’s what he continues to do. At the age of 65, he’s still in the workshop. He works to commission, unlike his two colleagues featured in this article. He always works on fifteen timples at one time, because “I have fifteen templates”. Although his workshop is located in central Teguise, it isn’t open during the Sunday market. He’d find that too much, he says. However, if groups come with a guide, he’s happy to show them how he makes his instruments. He also sells his timples to shops, who sell them on, or to music schools. If you buy directly from him, the instruments cost between 90 and 350 euros, depending on the materials used and the time taken to build it.

As far as the future is concerned, he is not overly optimistic. “The politicians don’t do enough for us”, he says, and neither of his two sons is keen on taking over the workshop. Once he has gone, a little bit more of this tradition will be lost, as is the case with Marcial’s workshop.

The youngest timplero we came across is Vicente Corujo. And this despite coming to instrument building via a most convoluted route, even if it was what he wanted to do when he was a child. First he had to learn a proper trade, he was told, and so he did an apprenticeship as an electrician. But his true vocation caught up with him one day, when a customer broke his violin. Corujo repaired it for him, and from then on there was no stopping him.

By this time he was already 30, though. Now, 15 years later, he is passionate about the very artistic timples he builds. He believes the varnishing process is crucial, and manufactures his own varnish. One coat tree resin (resina del árbol) and one coat animal resin (resina animal), as he calls the two basic elements. Finally he applies several coats of shellac, an alcohol-soluble varnish made from resin extracted from the kerria lacca insect. What you have in your hands then, is a high-quality instrument - which is just as much a product of his fine craftsmanship and the materials as the varnish: he uses African rosewood, red eucalyptus, jacaranda, and for the rosette design, known here as ‘greca’, he uses mother of pearl (nácar). Everything is finished with the greatest precision and loving attention to detail. With this level of effort involved it is understandable that the master craftsman does not make many timples a month - sometimes only three. That’s why the prices range from 350-1.000 euros. However, you won’t find a single timple in his workshop that isn’t already sold.


Timple Museum and Timple Concerts

In mid-March the mayor of Teguise officially opened the new timple museum in Teguise, in the Mueso Palacio Spinola (Plaza de San Miguel s/n). Visitors will be able to see valuable timples, find out how the instruments are built and discover their history.
To celebrate the opening, a timple concert is being held 11:30h in the Timple Museum in Teguise on 5th of June, featuring Benito Cabrera. For more events inquire at theTeguise Departamento de Cultura (phone 928 845 999) or check the events news in our website: www.lanzarote37.net

Totoyo Millares - Luis Millares Sall - „Totoyo“
- 1979 Antología del timple, Vol. 1, 2, 3-CD No.1
- 1987 Antología del timple, Vol. 2
- 1998 Clásicos Canarios
- 2001 Antología del timple
- 2006 Las Manos del Maestro

Toñin Corujo
- 2004 Arrecife
- 2007 Sal y Arena

Benito Cabrera
- 1996 Concierto de Timple
- 2000 Tiempo de Cerezas
- 2007 Sal y Arena

Domingo Rodríguez Oramas El Colorao
- 1995 El Timple
- 1999 Timpliando
- 2003 Aulaga

José Antonio Ramos
- 1998 Los Cuatro Gigantes
- 2004 José Antonio Ramos y Andreas Prittwitz
- 2004 Para Timple y Piano

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