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From the Sunday Times,   Sunday 09 Nov 2003 > National arts

He's the sultan of string



MASTER STROKES: Crafter of sought-after musical instruments Brian Lisus. Picture: TERRY SHEAN

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One of Cape Town 's best-kept secrets is not a beach or a wine but violin-maker Brian Lisus.

The 46-year-old - who lives quietly in the suburb of Kommetjie on the Atlantic coast - is highly regarded the world over for the cellos, violins and violas he crafts.

Lisus has made instruments for Professor Walter Mony, the former principal violinist for the London Symphony Orchestra; David Juritz, concert master of the London Mozart Players; and Peta Ann Richardson, one of South Africa's top cellists.

And the Grammy Award-winning Yo-Yo Ma borrowed a cello from him when he performed for Khoi elders in the Kalahari in 1994.

This year, Lisus's fame rose to new heights when he made a cello - named Mischa - whose purity of sound has led to it being hailed as one of the best cellos ever made.

Lisus's passion for instruments was sparked when a neighbour in Johannesburg gave him a book on violin-making as a teenager. He had learned to play the cello, but given it up for cricket.

After school, Lisus studied at the Newark School of Violin-Making in England before returning to South Africa where he opened a workshop and violin-making school.

Lisus's expertise became increasingly recognised abroad. Today, his skills are so highly regarded that there is a one- to two-year waiting list for his instruments, which take about three months to make and cost between R60 000 and R150 000 each.

Said Roger Hargrave, a renowned violin-maker who lives in Germany : " When I saw Brian's work a couple of months ago I was shocked because it was so good. I was expecting him to have stagnated because he was stuck out in the middle of nowhere. South Africans don't realise what they've got; they have no reason to go looking for instruments of quality elsewhere in the world."

But Lisus has no desire to live or work anywhere else - even though he would make more money if based in Europe .

He said he spent his days crafting instruments in the way they did 300 years ago, using Bosnian maple, aged for 20 years, imported from Germany .

Lisus also makes his own varnish, using a recipe similar to the one the legendary Stradivarius used.

"If my workshop was transported back 300 years the only thing that would change would be working hours limited to daylight because of no electric lighting," Lisus said.

But among musicians he is something of a legend.

The Los Angeles cellist who bought Mischa, Bill Wolfson, dubbed Lisus a genius.

Said the proud new owner in an e-mail: "If a thing of beauty is a joy forever you are now immortal! Mischa is magnificent . . . What a great cello. "

Peter Martens, principal cellist of the Cape Philharmonic Orchestra, said Lisus could one day be as famous as Stradivarius.

"I have a 200-year-old Lockey Hill cello and in many respects this cello [Mischa] is better than my own. A new cello needs to be played in and already the sound is clear and the tone is incredible. The possibility exists for Brian's cello to one day be considered in the same class as a Stradivarius - but that will only come with age," he said.