SOME PEOPLE SEEK out their callings. Some never find them. Rafael Carrabba walked into his when he was 12. He lived in Garlic Gulch, the Rainier Valley’s Italian district, with parents who were both part-time professional musicians; his mother cut a record with a local big band. He learned to play accordion from his aunt, but when he got to “Red River Valley,” he decided he’d had enough and took up the violin.
One day Mom took Dad’s upright bass to the neighborhood instrument shop (aka violin maker) in Rainier Beach. The proprietor, David Saunders, said he was too busy to fix it. Mrs. Carrabba persuaded Saunders that, if he was too busy, he needed help. He hired her to run the front office, and her son to sweep the floor and mix varnishes.
Today would-be violin makers study at expensive schools; young Rafael didn’t know it, but he’d gotten in at the end of a centuries-long apprenticeship tradition. It was just as the 1960s crafts revival was getting off the ground; the rare kid who wanted to learn musty, meticulous tasks such as cutting scrolls and planing spruce instrument faces could find eager mentors. Carrabba discovered he loved the handwork, and at 13 made his own violin. “Saunders gave me the Monty Python line, ‘Someday, all this will be yours.’ ”
At 14, Carrabba got a summer job in Chicago, the center of the American instrument trade, where crusty Russian and Ukrainian craftsmen pounded in the right way to fix a fiddle. After high school he spent 15 years working alternately for master violin makers there and in London, where he married, bought a house, and planned to stay. He still dresses somewhere between mod and rocker—mop-top hair, low-cut boots, pencil-leg jeans and leather jacket.
Then word came from Seattle that Saunders was ready to pass along his shop, now located on Queen Anne. “I thought I would stay five years,” Carrabba says. Twenty-five years later, he’s still here; he even lives above the shop, medieval-style. With so much new money and rising talent in Asia, Seattle’s proved a good place to sell elite violins, violas, and cellos.
Four more craftsmen work under Carrabba in a lofty studio, surrounded by hundreds of clamps, chisels, jigs, templates, and other implements: “We make a lot of our own tools,” he explains. Instruments in various states—sometimes just winglike faces and backs—dry, season, and simply wait in a fireproof closet vault. “Once an instrument is rebuilt it often takes a year to settle in.”
It can take even longer to undo the damage done in past repairs: “Most of our work is fixing other people’s good intentions.” And their adulterations. Once, a Stradivarius face came in the door, glued to a nineteenth—century English violin. “We had this cello by Tecchler [a seventeenth—century Austrian master], a wreck. We worked on it on and off for 20 years, setting it aside until we finally figured it out. We sold it for over half a million dollars.”
Nosebleed prices for fine instruments—prime Stradivari and Guarneri go for $3 million and more—make Carrabba a high-stakes gambler and dealmaker as well as a craftsman, antiquarian researcher, and musical counselor. Investors—wealthy -cognoscenti and international consortiums that buy Strads the way others buy property and Picassos—stake his big gambles. When economies tank and money tightens, some pull back, leaving him holding some very pricey bits of spruce and maple.
But Carrabba says the biggest thrill comes from playing matchmaker rather than dealmaker. “People come in trying to make a match with an instrument, trying to find a soul mate.” To put the right everyday violin in the right hands, whether youthful talent, journeyman pro, or eager amateur, is like, well, making music.
Read about more people shaping the Seattle landscape.