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What was "the Round Table"?
The Cuatro Project revives a Puerto Rican tradition that disappeared

Above we see in the photograph a re-creation of a Round Table made by the Puerto Rican Cuatro Project in February, 2005, for the video documentary,  "La Décima Borinqueña". From left to right: Modesto Nieves, cuatro; Ricardo Abril, décima improviser (died  2009), Ricardo Villanueva, décima improviser, Ramón Vázquez, guitar; Gilberto Ortiz, guiro; Isidro Fernández, décima improvisor; Tony Rivera, trovador and cuatrista.

Listen to Isidro Fernández and the musicians of the Round Table improvising a décima about the Spanish bard Cervantes using as a forced ending: "Cuatro siglos de nacido" [Born four centuries ago]


Notes by researcher David Morales

The region of Puerto Rico including the towns of Humacao, Naguabo, Ceiba, Fajardo and Río Grande--is the home of a historic tradition, little known within the history of the Puerto Rican décima. Certain distinguished troubadours and improvisors--some whose professional apogee occured during the years 1940 and 1950--kept up over many years the tradition of the "Mesa Redonda."

According to don Joaquín Mouliert, these troubadours and pioneering poets would gather during weekends in certain locations to share their décimas. These illustrious troubadours, such as Pedro Ríos, Jesús Díaz, Perfecto Álvarez, among other, would customarily gather around a round table (if one was available) to take turns improvising or reciting décimas with particularly literary of historic themes.

Each week, one of the troubadours selected a theme around which every one of had to improvise or recite décimas, always following the rigid rules of the Espinela--four entire verses of ten-line, eight-syllable stanzas, each of the verses with its last stanza concluding with the "pie forzado" or obligatory ending phrase. The themes varied, and were based on what the chosen lead troubadour had been reading lately in books such as the Bible, The Cid, the History of France, the Odyssey, Don Quixote, the Count of Montecristo, the life of Joan of Arc, etc. The verses were always created at the moment they were recited--at the time they were called for--an admirable feat that requires outstanding mental agility

Accompanied by a guitar (during those times the cuatro was not often played in that region) each one of the trouboadours in the group had to improvise or compose décimas according to the breadth of his knowledge of the subject that was selected. The troubadors selected among themselves the one to start the round of décimas.

After all the participants completed singing their improvised décimas it was up to the next participant next to the first singer to chose the subject for the following round, and so on around the table. The subject or theme was in each case summarized in the last verse of the ten-verse poem, called the pie forzao.


DAVID MORALES INTERVIEWS JOAQUÍN MOULIERT, last troubadour to sit at a Round Table

What was the Round Table, and how did it begin?

Look, the Mesa Redonda was a form the old troubadours used in the days where there were few other forums to express themselves, like  radio or television--which still rarely don't allow us, but at least a little more often than in those days--in those days there wasn't that outlet, just during Patron Saint's day festivals, it was customary during the day of the Patron, in the villages, especially in the East, it's where the Round Tables begin. Well, those troubadours would go and participate, say, during Santiago Day in Fajardo, San Antonio day in Ceiba, San José day in Luquillo, and the day of Mary of Mt. Carmel at the Puerto Real beach of Fajardo. And wherever there was a fiesta for the Patron, they would emerge to improve décimas about the Patron Saint, and prizes were given out.

Sadly, the jury consisted of people like the mayor or the police leutenant--people who knew about everything except the décima. But, at least it had to begin is some way. Troubadours would invite themselves, from Humacao, the ones from Naguabo, the ones from Ceiba, the ones from Luquillo, the ones from Rio Grande, from Mameyes, which is a barrio between Rio Grande and Luquillo...from all these towns they would gather in some place or other. 

For example in Ceiba they would meet at Pim-Pam's place. Pim-Pam was a corner coffeeshop with a large-ish hall, where there were several improvised tables with benches. They'd sit there and they'd sing. They'd gather at the place of Pilar Pacheco, another Round Table troubadour of those days of Rio Grande, at a little coffeeshop called El Trovador. They'd go there. In the sugar cane colony of don Felix Villafañe in Rio Grande, there don Felix would bring those troubadours and treat them like royalty and they would sing till daybreak.

But the principal essence of the Round Table, it didn't require a round table, nor did everyone even have to be seated in a circle. Sometimes there was a table, sometime there wasn't. There was a chair or a bench and there would be a guitarist seated on the right. The guitar would begin. And with a historic them, one would start to sing--and then each and every one else in turn would follow after the conclusion of four décima verses, which was the requirement that they be sung about the same theme the first one sang about. The turn would fall on the one on the person's right, then the next in turn in circular fashion. Until the last person to improvise on the first one's theme finished his, it would not be over. That's why it was called Round Table.

How was the theme chosen?

The theme was chosen by the starting troubadour. Note that I just said that it was the turn of the guy on his right. Well, for example if the troubadour on his right began with the theme The Count of Montecristo. He, by chosing the pie forzado (obligatory ending line) would determine the theme, because no one knew that the subject was the Count of Montecristo, because the troubadour didn't want anyone to know the name of the book. He would simply sing his pie forzado as "navegando en una tabla" [floating on a wooden plank]--a very interesting historical tidbit from the Count of Montecristo, when he jumps into the sea from the Castle and navigates on a piece of wood until a boat picks him up--it's a most beautiful story. The next troubadour who´s second in line would say to himself, "floating on a wooden plank? well then it must be the Count of Montecristo." He would narrate the verses to the third one, and well it went on and on. Until it made the entire round. But the theme and the pie forzado was chosen by each troubadour when his turn came up.

So, who chose the theme?

When they arrived at the Round Table, they would first say, "so and so, you will start" Then it would be the one with the most confidence that would begin, because he was at a disadvantage. Because he would have to start cold. When every body is following the same pie forzado it's easier when you're fourth or fifth in line. Because the last guy down the line he's got an entire décima made up in his mind by the time his turn comes around. Understand? But what emerges as an idea from don Jesús [Díaz], they called him El Conde [The Count], when they decided that to start out cold was too difficult, they decided that the first décima wouldn't count. During Patron Saint's Day festivals, to establish the pie forzado, the first décima was deemed not valid--simply it was to be a warm-up. The judging, when there was judging, would start on the second décima.

When they came back on the next week, then how did they choose the theme? Was it the winner of the contest that would choose the subject when he began the round on the following week?

No, it wasn't necessarily that way. The winner could or could not appear the following week. It could possibly have worked out that way. There were times that one of them would have to leave due to some commitment or obligation, and he would excuse himself, and they'd promise to let him be the one to set the theme for the next gathering. But among those who remained, and finished the Round Table, no, when they returned they'd chose among themselves what the theme for that gathering would be.

Was it always a round table? That is, how was the event, was there a round table or not?

Well the Round Table, on occasions where there was a table, they'd use a table. But if they got to a place and there was no table, they'd simply place chairs or benches and they would form a circle. 

Was it a formal event or on the spur of the moment?

It was an informal event, as informal as you could consider an artistic event to be. But it was an event where a lot of respect was show. While the troubadours sand, nobody would talk. About the theme at hand, nobody could argue about it while the troubadour was singing, for the simple reason that he would loose the Muse. When the troubadour sang and somebody started talking, he would stop. Perhaps the troubadour was at a loss for words at the moment and he used the talking as an excuse to stop, because he would be forgiven for stopping only when he was interrupted by someone else, not by him.

Was the theme always history-based?

During the Round Table, the theme always had to be based on a historic subject, because whoever would start singing, shall we say, because he had illusions of being a troubadour or perhaps he wasn't qualified to do it, and would start with some florid subject, he would be called that it had nothing to do with the theme, and it was said he was singing "vanagloria" [vaingloriously] and told not to participate.

Were there other requisites to participation?

No, the requisites simply were that you should be ready to sit at the table and narrate a history and that it would be in the same spirit as what everybody else was doing. And when the Round Table came to an end, everybody else would feel that he had contributed. If he didn't sing very well, but followed the theme faithfully, he would be permitted, because I knew troubadours who were very good at history, but very bad troubadours! For example, we had a well-known troubadour who was a teacher of general history and later became Mayor of Naguabo, don Moncho Carrero, he wouldn't miss a single Round Table. And he would begin his histories. But the trouble was, he didn't know the décima very well. He didn't possess the capacity, the resources, the ability to structure one the way it had to be. But he would sing and everybody would clap afterwards.

Would each troubadour always sing four verses?

Yes, the terms that were set for all the troubadours was that they had to sing four verses. Never was a round of a Round Table stopped because there were too many and it would take to long to complete the round.

What were the surroundings like? Describe for us a certain Round Table event. Were drinks served?

I understand that the last large, well-attended Round Table that was held was done in my house, in the balcony of my house. It was when don Luis Miranda was there, next to other troubadours, And during that Round Table, there was, logically, someone who wanted to give himself a good belt, he would get up, go to the kitchen and would get a shot, and then would return.

Describe the musicians. What were the musicians doing?

There was usually only one musician, a guitarist, and he usually played a seis cruzao, as we called it, which became today the seis fajardeño [seis from Fajardo]. [Mouliert then tra-las the two versions of the seis, the Fajardeño sounding similar to the cruzao but significantly faster] The cruzao was better because it gave them more time to improvise.

Weren't other styles of music played, that is, was it only a seis fajardeño?

Yes, for the Round Table, as it was practiced in the Eastern sector, which was where I knew it, it was always the seis fajardeño. In those days there weren't very many genres. Just the chorreao, and perhaps the con décimas styles. The mapeyé came later.

Were those used for the Round Table?

No, never for the Round Table.

How was the winner chosen?

Actually, there was never any distinction or prize given to a winner. They would applaud and comment among themselves. But among the watchers, they would say, "the winner was so-and-so". But few of the people observing knew the histories, or what the décima symbolized. So no one could truly judge who the winner was but themselves. And what was interesting was that some troubadours would invent words that didn't exist.

On the average, how many troubadours sat at the table?

On one occasion, I was at the house of Pim-Pam, when there were thirteen troubadours, around the table. There were people like Victor Lluveras Rios, and don Vicente Montes, from Ceiba was another, the maestro Conde was there, but he no longer sang. He just listened. Don Plácido Figueroa, don Pedro Ríos, don Julio Monel, don Pedro Rivera. There were thirteen troubadours at that Round Table. A historical note was that on that day, the father of don Julio Monel had died, who was also a troubadour of the Round Table, don Juan Monel, who was gravely ill. And they interrupted the cantata with the news that his father had died. And we all ran over there, to don Juan Morel's house. 
      But in that region, in Fajardo, which was known as the Cradle of the Singers, there were the greatest number of decimistas who improvised on historical subjects. There were rarely Round Tables with just two or three, they were always well-attended.

How did they sing, standing, sitting?

Many, most of them sang while sitting. But Vicente Montes, if he was smoking, would stand up, snuff out his cigarette and begin to sing.

Were there other important aspects of the Round Table? Important details that shouldn't be forgotten?

We must say that in addition to the Round Table being a poetic circle, made up of troubadours who had achieved such great artistic heights, to be able to improvise poetry on the spot, it gave each of them the opportunity to broaden their knowledge by the histories that the others brought, but not only to them, to the troubadours, but also the listeners and the people around them, many of them would learn the histories that the troubadours shared. Because none of them had read. It would stimulate those who could to get books so they could participate on the Round Table and to have the ability to evaluate what they had heard, not only about the décima, but also the histories. It was a form of acculturating, a form of polishing both the listeners and the singers, as they sang. How many arrived at a Round Table only to cabestrear [put on a halter, i.e. to be stumped] yet after attending five or six events, were then able to make the others cabestrear, because the theme brought to the table was their own?

Why didn't the tradition of a Mesa Redonda expand beyond Eastern Puerto Rico?

Ah, very well, it's clear that we have been growing in an evolution where cultural interruptions that Puerto Rico has had during it's life, especially musical ones, have been so great, that our plena, our bomba, our danza  which was identified with our great musical masters, died. What then would be the fate of the trova which was identified with poor people, with humble people, with simple people of the Puerto Rican countryside? The cultural invasion that arrives with the twist, with the cha-cha-cha, with the mambo, with the bossa nova, with the tango, with the Mexican ranchera, invades that cultural flow of our people. If they had to resort to a Mesa Redonda to be heard, because otherwise there were no other opportunities to be heard, then they are invaded with those cultures, what was the result? They felt even more humilliated, more ashamed and they unable to continue forward. The ones that remained, kept doing it hidden, up there. Nobody was interested. If the media, if the empresarios that produce spectacles could have made a breakthrough, a beautiful thing...for ignorance or lack of cultural and patriotic sentiment, they never did.

When was the last Round Table held?

Then penultimate one was that one I told you about at my home, and then not many years ago, some five years ago, don Miguel Rivera, one of the Mesa Redonda participants, who lives in the barrio Jerusalem of Fajardo, was very sick, and the remaining troubadours gathered, like Pedro Rivera who is still alive, like Pedro Rios, Agustín Ramos Ladrillo, Juan Beceril, we invited other troubadours like Mario Millán, and we went to don Miguel. And we sang for him, we applauded him, we oriented him and then we promised him that we were going to hold a Round Table in his name, and then in the Paraíso area, in a place called Riverside, those same troubadours, in don Miguel's name, held a Round Table. No others have since been made.

Nonetheless, I never lose hope that I can do one on television, to get young people, give them a them to choose, let them learn about the theme, and then give them a live example of what a Round Table is, with those young troubadours. We have the facilities, we have all the raw material. We have the music, we have the troubadours. We have the media, and above all we have the good will.