When he steered his group -- 35 or 40 touring Acadiana by bus -- to a booth where Ville Platte resident Terry Fuselier was showing people some of the fiddles he had made, the French tour guide stopped.
With extreme self assuredness, he asked Fuselier in impeccable French, “Qu’est-ce que l’âme du violon?” (“What is the soul of the violin?”) During a recent interview, Fuselier recalled, “He wanted to make fun of me,” in front of his tour group.
But Fuselier’s reply not only left the visitor -- who was sure Fuselier had no idea what he was talking about -- speechless and dumbfounded It amused his traveling companions so much they told Fuselier they would remind their tour guide of his embarrassment when they got back to France.
Fuselier simply bent down to his booth table, picked up one of the fiddle parts, a small, precisely measured wooden dowel, and simply told the Frenchman, “It is the sound post.”
The other French tourists were plainly amused. “One of them told me he wanted a photograph” of Fuselier at his booth. He told Fuselier he would enlarge the photograph and every chance he had, he would show the tour group leader “that Cajun” who got the best of him.
The sound post, placed under the bridge over which the strings rest, inside the fiddle, produces the sound the fiddle or violin makes.
People unfamiliar with the fiddle, or the violin, often ask Fuselier what’s the difference. The answer is nothing but the strings, although sometimes the fiddle bridge is designed differently than the bridge on a violin.
Violins, used in orchestras, have catgut strings that usually come from an animal other than a cat. But fiddle strings are metal because Cajun or other music played with a fiddle is a bit more extreme. “You can beat on it. You can fight with it,” Fuselier explained.
But as the Frenchman found out to his chagrin, Fuselier has amassed huge amounts of information about making the fiddle that he can describe without consulting the many books he has accumulated on the subject. That information includes the dimensions of the different parts, how to bend parts at what temperatures, the gluing procedures, the instrument’s history and much more.
Just one of the types of wood used to make the top surface of Fuselier’s fiddles is enough to amaze. It’s spruce that grows slowly on the south side of mountains to avoid wind that would cause irregular patterns in the grain that is packed together 23 to an inch. The top can also be pine, but the bottom surface, sides and neck are made of maple.
He said the history of the instrument dates to the mid-1700s in Europe, about the time his ancestors came to south Louisiana from France (he’s researched his family history also). Italian violin maker Antonio Stradivarius originated the design that Fuselier bases his fiddles on.
Using modern techniques and materials, a fiddle or violin can be made in about 200 hours, Fuselier said, but in Stradivarius’ day, it could take 2,000 hours.
The process involves cooking the curved sides of the fiddle at 165 degrees Fahrenheit and clamping the flexible pieces on molds overnight. You have to be patient, because glued parts have to set for 24 hours. Each of as many as seven coats of varnish has to dry for 24 hours before applying the next coat. And it can take hours to correctly position the sound post through one of the two curved, narrow openings at either side of the strings on the top of the fiddle.
Fuselier acquired all of this information as he prepared for presentations through the years. For example, at the parish’s bicentennial late last year, visitors “came in droves” to his booth. Whenever he does show his fiddles, he says he has to keep an eye on youngsters who often want to strum the fiddles like a guitar.
Fuselier has made 22 fiddles since he first started working on them in 2000. when he was 56.
He helped his father, Madias, with carpentry projects since his early years. His father was also a blacksmith after World War II, and he had a store at 122 E. Wilson St., in Ville Platte. Then one day in the store, “He said he had walked away,” from fiddle making after one attempt. “I don’t know why,” he said that, but Fuselier said the comment inspired him to see what’s involved with making fiddles.
Soon after his father’s death, Fuselier contacted the only other known fiddle maker in Evangeline Parish, T-Joe Fontenot, who owned Joe’s Tin Shop behind the L&V Store in Ville Platte, making window and door awnings and other products.
Fontenot showed him how to use the tools, loaned books about fiddle making, and gave him personal lessons on how to make fiddles. “In two or three weeks, I started making fiddles,” Fuselier said.
Fuselier still shares his unique talents with others at cultural events or by special request. And he said he’s willing to teach someone he thinks has the patience to learn it. “I’d do that in steps,” he added.