Caleb Byerly stands over his bench, sipping coffee from a ceramic mug as he runs his eyes over an eight-by-50-inch plank of mahogany. The raw board is two inches thick, straight-grained, no knots. He lifts the board and strikes it, sounding a soft, clear tone that resonates for several seconds through the workshop. "That's a good sign that it's going to make a good-sounding instrument," he says.
He looks down at a worn two-stringed lute-like instrument leaning upright, about four feet tall, against the bench. Then he turns back to the mahogany that he will carve to match his model. After a couple of glances, Byerly leans in with a pencil to trace the instrument's shape onto the plain piece of wood. The eyeballed measurements aren't precise—but then, Byerly is not used to having a template. The first time he ever built one of these, called a kuglong, was the first time a kuglong had been made in about 60 years.
Byerly began making instruments in 2007, when he was a 22-year-old Christian missionary in the remote jungles of the Philippines. He was working in the mountains with the indigenous Tigwahanon tribe, largely isolated from the outside world. Byerly immersed himself in their culture, and, as an avid musician, asked them about their music. "We noticed that he really loves to play any indigenous instruments," says Eddie Payaron, a Tigwahanon teacher whom Byerly met in the Philippines. Soon, Byerly learned that the musical elements of Tigwahanon heritage had been taken from them by outsiders much like him. The elders spoke of missionaries from the mid-1900s who had admonished the tribe that its traditional music, used to worship ancient gods, was profane. The Tigwahanon artisans who built the time-honored instruments gradually lost interest in their craft, and the kuglong and its kin were lost.
Byerly, a third-generation woodworker, came home to Archdale, North Carolina, moved by his experience—and more than a little guilt-ridden. "I felt that if it was my people who helped destroy this music, my people would be the ones to help redeem it," Byerly says. He talked to his fellow artisans about instrument-making, which he had never attempted. He discovered a century-old journal from a traveler through Manobo country that recorded the Filipino tribal instruments in great detail. Then he returned to the Tigwahanon village and set up shop. Byerly interviewed villagers in their 70s and 80s, parsing childhood memories for descriptions of the instruments. Then he found some wood and set to work. He emerged days later with his best approximation of the kuglong. Once he and his team had built several instruments, the Tigwahanon came together, many clad in traditional regalia. Adults and children danced. "I remember seeing a woman crying," Byerly says. "She came up to me in tears saying that this was the first time she had heard the sound of her tribe since she was a kid."
Based on his restoration work, Byerly and his wife started Evergreen Missions, a non-profit that helps indigenous peoples re-create their lost ancestral music. Byerly and his team have since brought back—or, as they say, "redeemed"—flutes, pipes, and drums of other Filipino peoples and several Native American tribes. They do much of this work on site, so they'll have access to authentic materials and be able to learn from the peoples in question, and pass back the knowledge to them.
Back in his Carolina workshop, Byerly toils practically without electricity: He prefers manual tools passed down by his own ancestors. The handsaw to cut out the basic shape, the plane to smooth and level. He chisels out the acoustic chamber. To add authenticity, he even chops a few chunks off with a bolo, a bone-handled machete handmade for him by the Tigwahanon.
Once the body is shaped and finished with oil, fitted with frets and tuning pegs carved from scrap, and strung, Byerly sits with the kuglong across his lap. He strums, the top string droning while the bottom sounds a higher tone, rising and falling as Byerly's fingers slide along the fretboard. The sound, somewhere between a banjo and a Chinese pipa, is difficult to describe. Until recently, few living people had ever heard it.