Roberto Catalano displays his passion for music

Tools, reeds and gourds used to make musical instruments fill Roberto Catalano’s garage. The raw materials soon become instruments,  like the flute he plays to demonstrate its unique mellow sound. / photo by Megan Peralez

Tools, reeds and gourds used to make musical instruments fill Roberto Catalano’s garage. The raw materials soon become instruments, like the flute he plays to demonstrate its unique mellow sound. / photo by Megan Peralez

by Melissa Gasia
photography by Megan Peralez

One look inside University of La Verne music professor Roberto Catalano’s house reveals he is a music connoisseur. His house is filled with musical instruments—some rare—of all types and from throughout the world. An autoharp and a case full of flutes are under the bed. In every corner of his room are propped up string instruments. Inside his closet, hidden under his hanging clothes, are his electric and acoustic guitars. A prized guitar is on display by a window. “A bunch are in the bedroom, a bunch are in his study room and still others are in the garage,” says daughter Olivia Catalano. “In every room, almost, we have some sort of instrument in there.” Professional musicians have several instruments, but Roberto is a true artist aficionado, owning more than 200 collected instruments worth about $20,000.

Music was always part of his life

Roberto says music has been with him all his life. He recalls growing up in Catania, Sicily, listening to classical records. “I imagined I had the whole orchestra in front of me when I was little,” Roberto says. “I grew up conducting symphonies with my pencil, looking up at the wall.” He listened to melodic orchestral arrangements, love songs and folk music then gradually moved into the rock and roll world with its more aggressive rhythm. The Beatles and The Shouters were coming into their own, and they shaped his musical interest. Roberto eventually transformed from a fascinated child to a music scholar, music instructor, composer and a multi-instrumentalist. He is an active musician on the world stage. Besides the United States, he has performed as a guitarist in Rome, London and Vancouver. He has played with guitarist John Scofield.

Roberto is an alumnus of the University of La Verne Music Department. He returned to teach at La Verne, and for the past 14 years as an adjunct professor he has taught World Music, Latin American Music and the History of Rock Music.

Roberto says he never considered becoming a musician until he acquired his first guitar, which started his career as a self-taught artist. As a child, he remembers asking his parents to buy him a trumpet or saxophone. He says his parents thought it was a silly phase he would eventually outgrow. At 18, he went to a party and saw a guitar propped up in a living room corner. He picked it up and held it. Everyone else in the room disappeared. He plucked the guitar, sealing the deal on his future. His love at first glance passion is now explained analytically. “Musical instruments for me are a beautiful thing to have and to look at, let alone to play.”

Roberto’s first guitar

There was no turning back. As only a young boy can do, he pleaded with his parents to buy him his first guitar. It was a small instrument, covered with fiber glass. Its neck was bolted to its thin body with three screws. “It was the cheapest, crappiest thing, but to me, it was everything,” says Roberto. “I still have it. I love it, but it’s unplayable now.” He took it everywhere. It became part of who he was. He taught himself how to play it. “I locked myself in the room and didn’t come out.” For hours, he would strum its strings in his barricaded room. His mother would yell at him through the door when it was time for dinner.

That guitar started his collection. Proving his musical passion, Roberto persuaded his parents to give in. Percussion instruments—tambourines, triangles and bongos—became part of his growing orchestra. “Musical instruments attract me because of the shape, the materials, and the ideas that are inside the instrument itself, which is the ideas of the people who actually make them.”

As his collection expanded, so did his musicianship. Roberto can play all of the instruments he owns—guitars, mandolins, Arabic lutes, clarinets, flutes, tambourines, simple bows, triangles, bongos, humanatone nose flutes, jaw harps, mandocellos, bouzoukis, harps, friction drums, benas. “I got to learn many at a young age and feed my curiosity through all the examples that were around our house,”oldest daughter Giulia Catalano says laughing. His collection inspired his daughter, and she now plays the piano.

Roberto says he has sold some of his instruments at desperate economic times, but others are sacred. His rarest instrument is his one-string bow. This traditional Italian folk instrument was handmade for Roberto by music instructor friend Michele Loi. Roberto is 5’8’’ tall, and the one-string bow is almost as tall as he is. It has a dried pig bladder at the base, which serves as a resonator. The instrument can be either plucked or bowed.

Roberto Catalano has spent countless hours at his garage workbench constructing unique instruments. He claims that the reeds used in the body of his flutes sound “sweeter and mellower” than those heard in concerts. And the bamboo reeds inserted into his gourds make great sounding wind instruments. The bamboo reeds are hung on the wall and picked out carefully to produce his desired sounds. His finished musical instruments are found in almost every room of his house. They are stored in boxes, chests, shelves, and even doll dressers acquired from his daughters. / photo by Megan Peralez

Roberto Catalano has spent countless hours at his garage workbench constructing unique instruments. He claims that the reeds used in the body of his flutes sound “sweeter and mellower” than those heard in concerts. And the bamboo reeds inserted into his gourds make great sounding wind instruments. The bamboo reeds are hung on the wall and picked out carefully to produce his desired sounds. His finished musical instruments are found in almost every room of his house. They are stored in boxes, chests, shelves, and even doll dressers acquired from his daughters. / photo by Megan Peralez

Collector’s workshop

Roberto also enjoys building instruments. He has made about 40 instruments in his garage—mostly wooden flutes and reed clarinets—using simple tools such as blades, tape, glue, screwdrivers and a wood burner. He uses reed as his main material and selects the raw material from a riverbed in Eaton Canyon, close to where he lives. He says his hands have been poked, scratched, cut and burned several times during the creation process.

He describes his flutes’ sound as “sweeter and mellower” than concert flutes because the materials he uses are organic and not metal. His clarinets have a “reedy” sound that he loves. They can be very loud and mimic the sound of bagpipes, which brings back his home memories of shepherds and traditional folk music.

A few of Roberto’s instruments were made by close friend Enzo Fina who uses unique resources. Enzo made a guitar with a tupperwear container as its body, connected to a wood neck. He also constructed a harp using a water bottle as its resonator, with beads as its fine tuners that slide down the strings to adjust the sound.

Many of Roberto’s other instruments come from throughout the world: Italy, Paris, Greece, Africa, among other far away places. Some are gifts; others are from his adventures. Roberto and his friends once sailed 250 miles from Italy to the northern Greek Island of Andros. During a restaurant dinner, he spotted a displayed bouzouki. The instrument seemed to call him, and he walked over to it. It was a well preserved old instrument; albeit, its neck was a little bent, making the instrument hard to play. Roberto had no idea how to play a bouzouki but was keenly attracted by its shape. The instrument was meant for display, but Roberto wanted to own it and ultimately learn to play it. He convinced the owner to sell it to him and is sure he paid an inflated price, but he says it was worth it. Bringing it back to Italy was a challenge. On the boat, he put the instrument in a protective net that swung freely with the breeze. Unfortunately, the wind was heavy, and the bouzouki kept clobbering his friends. It was the only way to transport it without gaining more damage, so he says the whole group had to bear with the situation.

Roberto also surfs the internet for instruments. He did not consider buying a new guitar until he saw the photograph of a $500 instrument he knew he had to have. He had $250 dollars, borrowed $250 from his friend, then drove to Santa Clarita to pick up the guitar.

He recounts that as a Ph.D. candidate majoring in ethnomusicology at the University of California, Los Angeles, he bought three guitars in one year. One of them was more than $1,000 but is worth $5,000 today. The money came from a trust fund set up by his father. After the purchase, he had to cutback on spending to make it through college.

“There’s something about instrumental music that particularly strikes my attention,” says Roberto. “If I had enough money, I would buy anything and everything I get my hands on.”

Roberto Catalano’s musical instrument collection totals more than 200 wind and string instruments that represent a wide variety of cultural backgrounds. Many of these instruments were given as gifts or bought at the Folk Music Center in Claremont. His collection includes a one string bow made with a pig’s bladder, which he holds in his right hand. Michele Loi, his former instructor, created this instrument and gave it as a gift. / photo by Megan Peralez

Roberto Catalano’s musical instrument collection totals more than 200 wind and string instruments that represent a wide variety of cultural backgrounds. Many of these instruments were given as gifts or bought at the Folk Music Center in Claremont. His collection includes a one string bow made with a pig’s bladder, which he holds in his right hand. Michele Loi, his former instructor, created this instrument and gave it as a gift. / photo by Megan Peralez