SANTA FE, N.M. — When Anthony Belvado asks audiences what comes to mind when they think of Apaches, people almost always answer: “Geronimo.”
He hopes one day someone will say, “The Apache fiddle.”
“That would really make my day if I heard it,” he said.
Belvado, a San Carlos Apache who lives on the tribe’s Arizona reservation, has devoted his life to keeping alive what he calls a “dying art.” Now at the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe for a three-month fellowship, he will talk about his work at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday and open his studio to visitors.
He has been making the fiddles for about 30 years, he said, getting his start after high school. A postcard image of a long-haired Apache man holding the instrument in a 19th-century photo studio piqued his interest, Belvado said.
He went to his grandfather, Salton Reede Sr., who he knew made such fiddles, and asked him about it. A tutorship grew from there, with his grandfather guiding him through the making of the instrument.
“There are just a handful of makers back home,” Belvado said.
And his grandfather didn’t always tell him everything right away.
After he made his first instrument, Belvado said, he drew the bow across the string and was stumped when he didn’t get any sound. “What’s wrong?” he asked his grandfather.
“He kind of grinned and told me what was missing,” Belvado said. “He said, ‘You need to go up in the mountains’ and find the piece that was missing.”
Holding up a patch of pine pitch, Belvado said that resin, applied to the horsehair strings of the bow and fiddle, was the final step needed to make the fiddle sing.
Its song, though, only includes one note. Without multiple strings or frets to push down to change the length of the string, the fiddle’s sound is limited to whatever pitch it develops based on the tautness and length of string, and the resonance from the sound hole into the hollowed instrument.
Belvado makes his fiddles from agave, using the base of the woody stalk for larger versions of the fiddle, with the narrower portions converted to more traditional-sized models. Other fiddle-makers have used aspen or walnut, he said, but he goes for materials that grow nearby.
It takes him about an hour and a half to hollow out an agave that is split in half, with the sides then rejoined for the fiddle, he said. When he tried hollowing out a stalk without splitting it, he said, it took him about two weeks.
One large fiddle took him a year to make, start to finish, he said. Besides the agave body, the fiddle has mesquite for the stringholder and tuner, with rawhide topping the instrument. “I try to incorporate different designs and materials from our arts and crafts,” he said.
He painted on hummingbirds, seen as messengers in his culture, to decorate the instrument. “You probably won’t see another piece this big anywhere,” Belvado said, adding that he had to use nylon strings because he couldn’t find horsehair long enough.
The Apache fiddle doesn’t go back too many centuries. Tribal members started making them in the 1800s, probably after seeing the instruments used by Spanish colonists, he said.
“I always think about that very first (Apache) fiddle maker,” Belvado said. “What sound came out? What did it look like? It really intrigues me to think about that first individual.”
Rather than tuck the instrument under the chin, players of this fiddle hold the instrument at elbow height, bracing it against their body while drawing the bow across the strings with the other hand.
Its use evolved for courtship, with a young man sitting by himself and singing. Belvado said knowledge of the special songs have died off with the tribal elders.
Sometimes, he said, others have asked him to play the fiddle and sing a song on their behalf for a loved one.
But Belvado said he refuses, because he hasn’t been trained in that tribal knowledge.
“In our culture, if you don’t know what you’re doing, you don’t mess with it. It would come back at you,” he said.
“I respect the instrument for what it stands for. I think a lot of instruments in museum collections still possess power,” he added. “(Makers) were given power to do what they did. That’s why I show a lot of respect for the instruments I do make.”
And it’s also why he won’t make repairs to fiddles made by others, he said.
Spending time at SAR during his fellowship, Belvado said, “has really opened my mind up. It made me grow as an artist.”
“What I want to do most,” he continued, “is really educate the public about this. I would like to do more lectures.”
Maybe then people won’t ask, as they did when he first brought his fiddles to Santa Fe Indian Market around 2000, if he was displaying bird houses in his booth.