The Bow Whisperer

Posted by hati mamatsi on

A meditation about Keith Sleeman‘s bows.


It is important to understand that the violin is in fact, not one but two. A violin cannot be played without the bow, and the bow becomes useless without a violin to play. This might seem obvious but even seasoned violinists will have an unequal relationship with their instruments. Some will pay all of their attention to the violin, as some will devote themselves to the bow.

I played violin from a young age, when I couldn’t possibly comprehend how the bow could be as important – the instrument is called violin, and not bow. For years I played and for years I failed to understand the balance between the violin and the bow, until one day, I met Shanty.

As it often happens in the roads of the world, lamoodstore didn’t find Keith Sleeman, it was Keith Sleeman who found it, and him who decided to become a part of it. I remember distinctly how Shanty’s picturesque figure appeared at the doors of La Moodstore gallery bar and how he introduced himself as a musician, a violinist. Immediately we welcomed him into the space and I was curious to see what kind of a violinist he would be, as he certainly did not feel like the ones I had encountered previously – he seemed to be truly happy.

The first few times I heard Shanty play, I was surprised by his ability with the violin, of course: I didn’t know that the bow existed yet, so I was looking at his left hand when he played.

It struck me that his fingers ran smoothly across the violin, but it didn’t look like he had learned the technique: he was reproducing pieces of the classical tradition from hearing only. He also improvised, and it was through him that I learned what improvisation was.

It took me a while to understand how Keith Sleeman had become Shanty, how this specific kind of musician had come to be. It was a few months later, when he called me to ask for a violin only (not a bow), that I had the opportunity to peek into his craft and got acquainted with Sleeman bows as they are known among musicians around the world.

The first time I looked at Shanty’s bow was when he asked me to lend him a violin. I accepted to let him use my violin for an event, knowing fully that it is difficult to separate from the instrument one has played forever. Something in the way that I had seen Shanty treat the instruments he played made me trust him with it. When the concert was over, he gave me back my violin, and a bow to try. New, clean, hair white from the tip to the frog (the bow’s head and toe), I tried a Sleeman bow without knowing that it had actually been made by the man I had lent my violin to for the night.

It was in the beginning for me not about the quality of the bow itself, but how well kept it was. Here I saw a respect for the instrument that I did not have – my bow was old, already, and having played with it as a kid, then a young adult, then an adult, it showed in its body a path of discovery and rediscovery of an instrument that had accompanied me my whole life: the violin.

The bow that Shanty made me try expanded the violin’s sound tenfold, as it created sound evenly throughout the span of the bow hair. “What do you think?” Asked Shanty. I didn’t know what to respond. He smiled, disappeared for a minute, and came back with a small bottle with a wick that kept a soft flame burning, took the bow, and gently touched the stick of the bow with the flame, for a few seconds. Placing the bow in front of his left eye, pointing forward, he checked how straight the wood was and told me: “There is a small unevenness in the wood, see.” He gave me the bow and I looked at it in the same way he had just done. I know I couldn’t see it, but suddenly I could feel it. I played a couple of notes and there was a clear difference with respect to the sound that had come out earlier.

Shanty could see I was confused, so he brought me to the part of his home he had made into a workshop, and showed me who he actually was.

In the furthest corner of his home was a wooden table full of material: long pieces of wood that were to become a bow, and bows that used to be wood, each of the stages of the creation of the bow existed at once in Sleeman’s workshop. 

There, was a man that had given his name to his creations, keeping only a nickname for himself. I understood then why he had introduced himself as Shanty, the musician: it was the more relatable face of Keith Sleeman, the bow maker. A man that had spent his whole life perfecting not his musical technique, but that of building the instrument itself. 

From a young age, Sleeman had studied under the greatest bow makers of the world, made bows from different wood, bows that would go to street musicians as well as top violin, viola and cello players from renowned orchestras, bows that would play the simplest and most complex melodies with the best sound. 

That was the technique Sleeman had perfected throughout his life, the one that was reflected now in the bows that he made.

Just like that, and through the echo of a sentence that I would hear Sleeman say many times after that, I understood for the first time that the violin, it’s the bow.

Shanty’s musical technique was there only because Keith Sleeman made bows. He played the violin to understand their sound, to perfect his bow making technique. 

Throughout my musical path, I have had several different bows, and several different violins. Most of them were made in factories, copies of old violins that hide under a common label. 

Sleeman bows contain a true movement of the soul, as they reflect the path of a man across the two parts of an instrument that has always been considered as one.

In Shanty, the violin awaits to be played by the bow. In Keith Sleeman, the bow awaits to play the violin, but in the end, Shanty is Keith Sleeman and both of them are one and the same: the bow.


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