THE PUERTO RICAN CUATRO PROJECT
Cultural archives Folkloric research Cultural Events
Representing the third great loss to Puerto Rican culture within barely five months, the gifted elder tresista [tres player] Mario Hernández (born Mario Casanova Clemente in 1925) passed away during the first week of January 2013, ending a long, illustrious career that established in great measure the manner in which his instrument is played today. Over the years we have built an archive of not only the accomplishments of the great master but also a history of the instrument he so wonderfully cultivated.
Listen to a sample of the great master's work during a solo of the guaracha, Yo no me marcho de aquí [I'm not leaving here] by Mario Hernández and his group Sexteto Borinquen
Welcome to the Cuatro Project!
We're a small, diverse group of music lovers of Puerto Rican descent who set out almost 20 years ago to discover all we could about the the musical and craft traditions surrounding the entire family of native Puerto Rican stringed musical instruments--with a special focus on the cuatro--the island's "national instrument." This website represents a summary of our twenty years’ (and ongoing) search. Please enjoy, share and participate!
What did Puerto Rican music sound like in 1909?
No, you won't need a time machine to hear Puerto Rican singers and players playing and singing at the beginning of the twentieth century. That's because those real sounds were captured and recorded on wax disks and cylinders--the earliest recording technology. These lay mainly hidden to the public in private collections.
Would you like to hear an early four-string cuatro, or an actual bordonúa, or a tiple--just like they sounded 100 years ago? An expert in the field of early Puerto Rican recorded music, David Morales, is a valued member of our Cuatro Project. Recently he gave us digitized copies of extremely early recordings in wax of early singers and players, which we offer here.
The traditional Puerto jíbaro instrumental ensemble
Puerto Rico's traditional "orquesta jíbara," from right to left, consists of: guitar, cuatro, güiro (scratch gourd) and bongo. (Jíbaro is a term that refers to early agricultural workers and subsistence farmers who lived predominantly in the island's central hills, considered the creators of the earliest forms of native Puerto Rican musical culture.) The Cuban bongo drum is a relatively modern addition, as is the Spanish guitar. The guitar entered the ensemble in the early 20th century as a replacement for the orchestra's original cumbersome, large, old folk guitars, the bordonúa and the vihuela. During the 19th century the jíbaros also configured their native folk instruments to perform creolized versions of European Salon or "art music"--genres such as the mazurka, waltz and polka. Jíbaros traveling to the towns and cities to sell their produce heard this music, liked it and took it back with them to the hills. They played their own version of these styles on their own stringed instruments configured into a grouping we now call the Orquesta Jíbara Antigua. The Orquesta Jíbara Antigua then comprised a cuatro, a tiple, a bordonua and güiro. The photo above shows a contemporary jíbaro orchestra based in Western Massachusetts, with Junior Martínez on the cuatro and Victor Ríos on the guitar.
The "Queen of the Mapeyé"
Felita Oyola: A life dedicated to art and culture. We regret to note the recent passing of the great Puerto Rican troubadour who preserved our cultural traditions in New York and especially in Boston, Massachusetts, in a career that spanned some sixty years. Felita’s career began with her debut in 1948 in the long-running radio program “Tribuna del Arte” (Showcase of the Arts) hosted by Rafael Quiñones Vidal, who gave her the name “The Queen of the Mapeyé.” Later in her life, accompanied by such famous traditional instrumentalists as Yomo Toro and Nieves Quintero, Felita became an institution in the city of Boston. We have created a page dedicated to this famous artist here.
We have just added this beautiful historical photograph to our archive. It shows don Marcelino Quiñones and his "southern" cuatro. Our cuatro has adopted several different shapes during its history. More about Marcelino Quiñones and his cuatro here.
Immediately above is a historic photograph of Eusebio Gonzalez Ocasio, "El Indio de Sábana Grande," playing a transitional cuatro (a cuatro with the 10 metal strings of the modern instrument, but with the early keyhole shape) from an 1898 newspaper. We searched and found his son (an opera singer!!) and interviewed him about his father, whom Efraín Ronda--an early cuatro researcher--called “one of the great cuatristas playing before 1925."
The native stringed instruments
Our small island of Puerto Rico has not only its famous cuatro, but several different kinds of cuatros, plus an entire bouquet of other distinctive string instruments which have all but disappeared. See them all here.
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A prized endorsement:
"I admire your great dedication to your web page and your eagerness to make known our national instrument as well as the musical genres, musicians and composers connected to it."
Luis Manuel Álvarez, ethnomusicologist, University of Puerto Rico
What have we added to our site since your last visit?
Accomplishments of the Cuatro Project--And there are many!
The cuatro's story in a nutshell
Giants of the Cuatro
New!! Researcher David Morales' comprehensive Ramito discography
Flor Morales Ramos, "Ramito" was believed by many to be the greatest jíbaro troubadour of all time.
Why is the Cuatro Project necessary?
"Too many of these youngsters think that just putting a Puerto Rican flag on their pants makes them Puerto Rican. We have lost a great deal. We are on the verge of becoming extinct."