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The Puerto Rican Vihuela-Bordonúa

This ancient Puerto Rican melody instrument came to be called Bordonúa in the twentieth-century--although the Cuatro Project proposes that it is not the old Puerto Rican Bordonúa described in the 19th century--but instead,
its parent is probably the forgotten Puerto Rican Vihuela.

Additional articles:  Tunings and stringing details                    What happened to the old Puerto Rican vihuela?

The Cuatro Project's Nueva Vihuela Puertorriqueña

This vihuela-bordonúa, built during the 1920s and belonging to the late bordonuísta Candelario "don Cando" Vázquez, sits on his table in Juncos, Puerto Rico, next to his hat and coffee cup.                                                              
Photograph by Juan Sotomayor

Some important 20th century vihuela-bordonúa relics that survive

The few surviving instruments named bordonúa (but which the Cuatro Project believes are vihuelas) built during the early 20th century represent a form that existed in the 19th century, or perhaps earlier. By the 1930s this form had become obsolete as its few remaining exponents, Candelario Vázquez (Juncos), José Velázquez (Yabucoa), Andrés Font (Yabucoa) and Aniceto Lozada (San Lorenzo) died off or retired. The instrument was said to be hard to make and hard to play, and it was soon forgotten after being replaced (along with the tiple) by the far more versatile, sonorous and accessible Spanish guitar. Its interesting to note that most of the surviving relics share precisely the same template outline and placement of their multiple soundholes but differ in details such as bridge configuration, pegbox, number of strings, etc. They also differ in that some are prepared to accept eight, some nine, and some ten strings, spaced in varied arrangements of single and double-string courses. What do they all share? The share the same geographic range, that is, ithe East-Central region of the Puerto Rico, and most significantly, they share similar stringing and tuning intervals, same multiple soundholes, and the same musical function of some of the old Spanish vihuelas.


The Candelario Vázquez vihuela-bordonúa

The late Candelario Vázquez' vihuela-bordonúa held by his son.
Photo Sotomayor

We went looking for Candelario Vázquez' instrument in Juncos, Puerto Rico and found it--a treasured heirloom in the possession of the Vázquez family. Below is the elder Candelario Vázquez (know to all as don Candó) when he was alive and actively playing his beloved instrument:

 Listen to Candelario Vázquez (at an advanced age) playing the melody line of a danza on the instrument that he called bordonúa, while accompanied by a guitarist. 

Candó's instrument is similar in size, shape, floating fingerboard (see photo immediately at right) and over-size frets as the others, but is distinctive in that its soundboard is purposefully sunken and the strings are raised at the bridge by a massively carved bridge platform.

The José Velázquez' vihuela-bordonúa

The late José Velázquez' vihuela-bordonúa held by his son Luis Velázquez   
Photo Sotomayor

The Velázquez vihuela-bordonúa appears to share precisely the same template outline and dimensions as both the Vázquez and Font instruments, implying a similar maker. However they are significantly different in detail, suggesting that different makers shared the same template but each built their instrument according to their own tastes, abilities and resources.

They all share the distinctive over-sized frets, but differ in how they are individually attached to the instrument. They share a floating fingerboard as seen immediately below,

..but includes a peculiar series of bicycle-spoke reinforcements cris-crossing the interior of the soundbox. The fanciful differences of each instrument, while strictly maintaining a series of immutable features seems to point to several builders sharing the same set of template shape and measurements passed on from an earlier time, but each displaying variations according to each builder's sensibilities.


 The Andrés Font vihuela-bordonúa

Andrés Font's vihuela-bordonúa is a treasured relic housed at the Cultural Museum in the historic Casa Roig in Humacao, PR. 






The vihuela-bordonúa at the Museo de Música de Ponce [Ponce Museum of Music]

This vihuela-bordonúa is housed at the Museum of Music in Ponce. Unfortunately they are unable to provide any information about it. It is of extremely rustic construction, from a template outline different from that of Vázquez and Velázquez instruments. The fingerboard seems to have been replaced after it was completed, perhaps a fingerboard from another instrument: see how it covers the soundhole like an afterthought. 


The Aniceto Lozada Rodriguez

We received this photograph of an un-named bordonuísta who we assumed was Candelario Vázquez due to the close resemblance. The instrument seemed to have an identical outline template to the Vázquez instrument (and to the Velázquez instrument as well), but the different bridge design and its slotted headpiece indicated that it was yet a third instrument, one that we hadn't seen in any collection before. We thought perhaps it was Vázquez holding another similar instrument in his posession--the resemblance was simply too striking. Later, however we received a correction from his grandson of the man in the photograph, who affirmed that he was familiar with the photograph and that it certainly was not Candelario Vázquez from Juncos, but instead it was a familiar photographs of a highly-regarded citizen of San Lorenzo, Aniceto Lozada Rodriguez. This was confirmed by a second source—another San Lorenzo native, Jorge A. Torres Bauzá. The photograph showed him at age 90, but he died 11 years later at age 101 in April of 2007. 


 Puerto Rican efforts to rescue and revive the vihuela-bordonúa 

The vihuela-bordonúas of Vicente Valentín





The vihuela-bordonúas of Cristobal Santiago 



The ICPR/Francisco López Cruz rescue

Francisco López Cruz toca una vihuela-bordonúa de estilo nuevo hecho por Leoncio Ortiz de Corozal

El Dr. Francisco "Paquito" López Cruz (1909-1988) participa en la creación de un inventario de manifestaciones culturales puertorriqueñas emprendido por el Gobierno de Puerto Rico a través del establecimiento del Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña en 1955, liderado por Ricardo Alegría. Entre otros proyectos para el ICPR, emprende un rescate del instrumento que el nombra "bordonúa", la cual el mismo declara es descendiente de la vihuela--aunque es a la antigua vihuela española a la que se refiere. Sugiere una nueva encordadura moderna para el instrumento, rechazando las inescrutables encordaduras de las originales vihuela-bordonúas. Bajo su auspicio, el Instituto comisiona a prominentes artesanos como Vicente Valentín (visto arriba), Antonio Rodriguez Navarro, y Leoncio Ortiz a recrear ejemplares modernizadas del instrumento.














 The vihuela-bordonúas of Aurelio Cruz Pagán

The vihuela-bordonúas of Eugenio Méndez



The vihuela-bordonúas of William Cumpiano

The vihuela-bordonúas of the Cuatro Project











The vihuela-bordonúas of Secundino Merced

The very narrow upper and very wide lower bout are distinctive of the vihuela-bordonúas of Secundino Merced (1906-1925) of Aguas Buenas, PR.




Why is the Cuatro Project changing the bordonúas name to vihuela?

     Puerto Ricans have been told that an odd, obsolete guitar-shaped instrument of native Puerto Rican lineage--its memory resting within relics made early in the 20th century and preserved in several public and private collections on the Island--is called the "bordonúa." These few surviving samples shown, share the same name as the 19th century bordonúas that were often described in accounts of that period. But these relic "bordonúas" are not the same as those earlier namesakes. 

These so-called bordonúas are cloaked in mystery: nobody really remembers how to play them, mostly because their odd stringing and string spacing arrangements seems to defy categorization. Curiously, cultural preservationists nonetheless recreated modern versions of the instrument, changing them even further from the original models. They changed them in virtually every regard: in size, shape, stringing, tuning...all in an effort to make them more accessible and easier to play for modern players. Preservation through change: a odd effort, indeed! These present day replicas, these "modern bordonúas," are quite successful on their own terms: many are beautiful in workmanship and beautiful to hear. They have even spurred several excellent players to produce beautiful recordings with them. But these newly minted instruments have very little--only superficial resemblance to the relics whose "tradition" they are supposed to be preserving.

But the curiousity doesn't end here; those old preserved relics in the collections are themselves significantly different from the bordonuas that were in existence during the century before them, the 19th century. All the bordonúa relics have up to ten doubled and single metal strings, tuned to a melodic register--they were strung to play the melody part in string bands. They also had multiple soundholes.

When we researched several old books written in the 19th century about Puerto Rican customs, what they described as bordonuas were large guitar-shaped instruments with six single (probably gut) strings. The name bordonúa itsels appears to derive from the term bordón--which since antiquity actually means "a thick, low-pitched instrument string." So it appears reasonable to conclude that an instrument with bordones be called bordonùa. Indeed, having bordones would have impated to them a deep sound--that is, deeper than the sounds of the other stringed instruments in the traditional instrumental group. We now that these lower-pitched, 6 single string bordonuas were being played around 100-150 years ago in Puerto Rico. None of them physically survive in this form today. Nobody remembers what they looked or sounded like, either, save for a glimpse of them seen in a 19th century painting.

The early-20th century surviving namesake relics are also unplayable, but we could tell from their pegs, nuts and bridges, and some of the surviving strings themselves, that they were made to be strung--not with six single large gut strings--but instead with 8-10 single and double thin gauge strings made of steel. That would have given them a bright, shiny, metallic voice. Also, the children and grandchildren of the old-timers who actually played those 20th century bordonuas insisted that they never played the lower-register accompaniment, rather, they always played the principal melody-line voice in musical groups. They also said they had never heard of them ever having six single strings, either.

This was the puzzle we faced and which confused us for 10 years: two significantly different instruments with the same name, bordonúa. And nobody ever remembering a six-string, lower-register instrument also called bordonúa, either, regardless that they were described that way in the old 19th century descriptions.

Just recently we noted two interesting details: the way the younger bordonúa relics were strung and tuned were all similar to the ancient Spanish vihuelas and later, 17th and 18th-century guitars. These were strung with eight, nine or ten strings and tuned in guitar-like intervals. And all of these were all customarily lumped together with the same name: vihuela. Coincidentally also, those present-day museum relics that came to be called bordonúas had multiple sound holes, just like the ancient Spanish vihuelas. So these so called "bordonúas" carried on them traces of the ancient Spanish vihuelas, and the tunings and stringing arrangements that recalled the later Spanish "vihuelas."

Going back to those old 19th century descriptions, they all included a mysterious fourth member of the family of Puerto Rican native instruments. There indeed existed during the nineteenth century, possibly earlier, another distinctive guitar-like native instrument called vihuela in Puerto Rico--which nobody ever talks about or even has heard about today anywhere in Puerto Rico. It's another "disappeared" or forgotten Puerto Rican stringed instrument that was once described in the Puerto Rican countryside in the 19th century texts--but is completely unknown and unheard-of in Puerto Rico today. And what do those 19th century texts say about the forgotten vihuela jíbara? They had "up to ten strings" and they played the melodic register in musical groups, groups that also included tiples, cuatros, and bordonúas in various arrangements. And that their ancient namesakes, the earlier Spanish "vihuelas" had multiple soundholes and were strung with eight, nine or ten strings in guitar-like intervals.

The only way to fit all these disparate facts together into a reasonable description of what occurred was that there actually were four native Puerto Rican instruments in the 19th century: tiple, cuatro, 6- string bordonúa and "up to ten" string vihuela. Only the tiple, cuatro and vihuela survive into the 20th century, the 6-string bordonúa disappearing at the beginning of the 20th century. The vihuela, with its multiple soundholes and ancient vihuela stringing survives into the 20th century but it's old name is forgotten and Puerto Ricans bestowed upon it the name of the extinct bordonúa. So we can conclude that in modern times 'the complete family of Puerto Rican stringed instruments consistes of the tiple, the cuatro and an instrument called a vihuela which came to be called bordonúa.

There are quite a few historical precedents for name-shifting string instruments and we found several other instruments that were called several names at once, or the same instrument with different names at different times or places, or that instruments physically changed without the old name changing--or similarly, that different instruments in different periods had the same name. In instrument history, instrument names are often fluid in this manner. In Puerto Rico there are other instances of fluid instrument names. Take the cuatro. The cuatro is named because it had four strings. A completely different instrument but with a similar usage appears in the late nineteenth century--with 10 metal strings tuned completely differently--and Puerto Ricans called THAT a cuatro too. In some places the bordonua was called a "large tiple". In Spain the name "vihuela" stuck and remained the name of different twelve, ten, nine, and eight string guitar-like instruments across the centuries.