Manuel Henríquez Zapata
...creating our instruments for over a half-century!
Music Is The Soul’s Inspiration
--Manuel Henríquez Zapata
Article by Felipe Mario Olivera Pabón
While searching for a Puerto Rican “cuatro” with which to entertain myself and learn a little, I found more than just a superb musical instrument. I had the great pleasure and honor of meeting one of the most outstanding artisans and luthiers of our beautiful Puerto Rico, Don Manuel Henríquez Zapata. When you establish a dialogue with Don Manuel, you immediately notice that he exudes a humility and simplicity that although rare qualities, are the two most prominent characteristics of those individuals that demonstrate their expertise in their fields with the fruits of their labor and not by idle talk or fanfare. Don Manuel not only makes musical instruments of superior tonality, resonance, and smoothness, his musical instruments are great works of art. Each “cuatro,” “requinto,” guitar, “tiple,” “tres,” mandolin, or “bordonúa” is a work of art that exhibits magnificent details.
E ach of his creations carries a message to the Puerto Rican populace. The message: “for the people to keep our music ardent” is symbolized on each of his musical instruments by an artistic and distinguishable flame. This flame and other details unique to Don Manuel separate him from other outstanding artisans and luthiers and make him a master among masters. Although the art of artisanry is alive and well in Puerto Rico, we should always keep our eyes open so not to let this art succumb. Don Manuel related that the musical instrument known as the “bordonúa,” which was the instrument that was used to accompany the “cuatro” was in danger of extinction. Some luthiers in Puerto Rico became aware of this and revived the instrument. Don Manuel went a little further; he built a “bordonúa” with some unique modifications. To this instrument, Don Manuel reduced the number of strings from twelve to ten without the instrument losing its original effect while its execution and fluidity were enhanced. Additionally, he made its mouth with an inverted oriented oval shape rather than round, and he placed an “eye” in the center of each superior arch (close to the beginning of the arm). The front view of the instrument resembles a face in astonishment. Don Manuel relates, “...since the instrument was in danger of extinction, I experienced a disquietude and wanted to create one with my own modifications to send a warning to the people with the inverted oval shaped mouth and two eyes to keep their eyes wide open so this would never recur.”
A nother symbol used by him in his most recent instruments is to immortalize the “Mariquita,” a little bird that in Puerto Rico was also in danger of extinction. For the people to perceive the idea to be alert and protect our fauna, Don Manuel places a similitude of the beak of the “Mariquita” on the heel (the back part of the arm that ends in a triangular shape) of his instruments.
D on Manuel is now 70 years of age. Many of these years he spent abroad. As with many of our compatriots, he went abroad perhaps in search for a better life or maybe due to curiosity for the unknown. Since he was interested in the art of artisanry at an early age, I believe, Don Manuel went abroad due to curiosity of the unknown and with the intent to learn much more about the art that had long captivated him. Whatever the reason, Don Manuel enriched himself artistically on his travels through various countries, accumulating ideas and stimulating his imagination to later visualize these ideas and actualize them in his works. Immediately upon establishing a dialogue with Don Manuel, one can appreciate his vast knowledge not only of artisanry, but also our culture, history, and music; and one can clearly perceive his philosophy and the great love he feels for Puerto Rico and for the entire world.
W hen in 1948, Don Manuel came to the United States when he was 22 years of age, he met an already well known Italo-American luthier by the name of Louis Scaffa in New York City. He worked with Mr. Scaffa until 1952 when he was drafted in the United States Army. He continued reading and studying at every opportunity. The military life took him to Frankfurt, Germany. This presented him with the opportunity of enhancing his ideas with the art of German artisanry. When he finished his commitment with the United States Army he returned to New York City and continued working with Mr. Scaffa until 1957. Don Manuel then worked in the accounting department of the famous Waldorf Astoria Hotel. Continuing his fervor for the art of artisanry, after his daily tasks, he would go to the basement of the home he bought in New York City and built musical instruments. He would sell these instruments to the musicians in the Latin neighborhoods, attaining a good reputation among the musicians of the area.
A fter many years and experiences, in 1980, Don Manuel decided to return to Puerto Rico this time with the purpose of remaining and dedicating himself totally to artisanry, specializing in string instruments.
T he process of building a musical instrument is extensive. Don Manuel first selects the wood according to the instrument he is going to create. If a “cuatro,” female “Yagrumo” for the top and “Majó” for the box, arm and head. After selection of the wood begin the phases of forming the instrument without the need of molds. Don Manuel has nothing against the use of molds, but in his technique he does not need them. All of his labor is by hand. From the moment of the preparation of the wood you can readily see fine details and can clearly appreciate the beauty of the instrument.
M any luthiers either lack the knowledge of the painting of the musical instrument or their shops are not suited for this last, but of utmost importance phase in the fabrication of the instrument. As in each facet of the fabrication process, Don Manuel excels in the painting of the instrument. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why his musical masterpieces maintain such a sweet and melodic resonance that continues to improve as time goes by.
H is musical instruments are highly coveted by musicians and collectors of the southwestern part of the island where he is better known. But Don Manuel is also known in other areas of Puerto Rico and far away places such as Canada and New York. Many of his works have been recognized by the Puerto Rican Cultural Institute.
In addition to musical instruments, he also creates beautiful figures of the popular “Three Wise Men on Horseback” and other religious figures. Although he creates these with less frequency because of their labor intensive and detailed nature, and the demands for his musical instruments. Worthy of note is the fact that he does not create the wooden horses from memory; instead he personally observes the animal while carving the figure on the wood...his details are absolutely fascinating.
Don Manuel relates, “since I was a child I tried to do the best I could in my work, but it is today when I do the best work.” Not only is he motivated by the love he feels for his work, but he is also motivated and inspired by the life of the famous Antonio Stradivari from Cremona, Italy, who built his best instruments between 74 to 86 years of age.
There is no doubt that Don Manuel Henríquez Zapata, from Barrio Cotuí in San Germán, Puerto Rico is one of our most prominent artisans and luthiers. Call him at 787-264-5449, or whenever in Puerto Rico, visit him and then you will be able to appreciate the quality of his work. His shop is located on Route 314, kilometer 3.8 (from San Germán to Cabo Rojo, take Route 102).