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What happened to the old Vihuela?

Is a fourth native Puerto Rican instrument hiding in plain sight?

A stringed instrument called the vihuela existed in 19th century Puerto Rico. We know this because it is mentioned repeatedly in the contemporary accounts of the customs of the time. The poet and playwright Alejandro Tapia y Rivera remembers having seen it when he was a child around 1835; the writer Manuel Alonso described it in 1849 and the newspaper journalist Luis Marín in 1875; and the writer Francisco del Valle Atiles described it in 1887. Today, the instrument does not appear on any list of native Puerto Rican stringed instruments. In other words, Puerto Ricans have forgotten about their vihuela jíbara.

Alejandro Tapia y Rivera remembered having seen a musician playing vihuela in a grouping of “rustic or rural” instruments, which traveled from house to house around the city caroling in the early evening. The writer Manuel Alonso described a vihuela he saw "requintando" (playing the higher voice) in the fields during riotous baile de garabato [a native dance], while the newspaper man Ramón Marín mentioned the “obligatory vihuela," accompanied by a cuatro and a güiro, backing some troubadours during a singer’s contest in Ponce. Fifteen years later, the writer Francisco del Valle Atiles described a diversity of countryside instruments, explaining that “depending on the choice of the maker,” the vihuela could have “up to ten” strings. Without a doubt, vihuelas existed in the 19th century, but today no one talks about them.

It’s probable that the vihuela jíbara was derived from the efforts of native craftsmen to emulate the Spanish vihuelas that were imported into Puerto Rico from the 16th century. During that and successive centuries, the term vihuela included the large six-course courtly vihuela as well as the four-course Renaissance guitar and the five-course Baroque guitar. We can suppose that the vihuela jíbara shared not a few traces of these instruments, including their shape, size and stringing. Indeed, the Spanish guitars of the 17th and 18th centuries were all strung diversely with eight, nine or “up to ten” strings.

Nowadays no one talks about the vihuela jíbara, even though it was identified in 19th century literature. Also, no one speaks of the six-single-string bordonúa although it also was repeatedly identified during the 19th century. What the cobwebs of time yield up to us today consists of barely a handful of instrumental relics in museums and private collections that are generally presumed to be bordonúas. They all share a deep body, a guitarlike shape, they carry multiple courses of single and doubled strings, their arrangement and tuning being quite peculiar. However, when you take into account their use, their musical range; their different stringings and tunings; the musical intervals between their open strings; and other details (the bordonúa is often seen with multiple sound holes cut into its top, just like the ancient Spanish vihuelas), the 20th century bordonúa is more like the ancient Spanish vihuelas and Baroque guitars, than it’s namesake, the “deep-voiced” 19th century, six-string bordonúa.

The similarities between the vihuelas jíbaras described in the 19th century and the bordonúas of the 20th are so striking that the Puerto Rican Cuatro Project recently proposed that the latter instruments do not descend from the 19th century bordonúas, but rather from the old vihuelas jíbaras. The Cuatro Project argues that when the old six-string bordonúa fell into disuse at the end of the 19th century, the vihuela became known as bordonúa.

The phenomenon is not unique. In Puerto Rican musical history—as it is also in the history of European instruments, there are precedents of this phenomenon: not only can one instrument adopt the name of another similar one, but the name of an older or out-of-fashion instrument can also fall upon its successor. This can occur not only when the instruments are similar in appearance, but also if their uses are similar. There are also cultural motives for these instrumental changes. We can infer that the name vihuela brought to mind the resented and deposed Spanish regime and the more native-sounding name bordonúa became available after its old six-string owner fell into disuse.

Memories of the vihuela persisted into the 20th century. Around 1938, the educator María Cadilla de Martínez noted that the vihuela was still being constructed on the island in a rustic fashion, with the same shape as the tiple, but larger; and that it had ten strings. The distinguished elder cuatro-player Roque Navarro (1913-2002), described the vihuela as twice the size of the tiple and “with a little belly...like the bordonúa". The elder cuatro-player Efraín Ronda (1899 - 1995), remembered that the vihuela had the shape of a guitar, but had ten strings, and that its rustic form was disagreeable to look at. Finally, the elder builder and player of bordonúas, resident Yabucoa Tito Ramos (b.1922), said about his instrument, “everybody called it vihuela. That was its name. But to sound better, they gave it the name bordonúa”.

It’s worth noting that in the same way, the name cuatro was originally given in Puerto Rico to an very old instrument with four single gut strings, and that same name eventually was also eventually given to a new instrument with ten metal strings which appeared in modern times in other regions of the Island. These instrumental name changes have been the source of much confusion among musicologists throughout history. The mix-up becomes evident, for example, when someone asks, how is it possible that an instrument with ten strings be called a cuatro? In the same way, any one can wonder how the name bordonúa came to fall upon an instrument so different to the early bordonúas, but so much like the old vihuelas and Spanish guitars.

Summing up, according to the evidence presented by the Cuatro Project, the bordonúa of actual times descends from the vihuela jíbara of the 19th century, and not from its 19th century namesake. A case can be made that the instrument that today we call bordonúa is little more than the old vihuela jíbara. What follows is that the old vihuela still lives among us, but with a different name.