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The Cuatro Project interview with Nieves Quintero

Nieves Quintero in his apartment in Bayamón, PR, en 1996                                                       Photo by Juan Sotomayor

Interviewed by Juan Sotomayor. Transcribed and edited by William Cumpiano


I was born in Corozal on the 18th of April, 1931.


I began playing the cuatro at the age of eight.  I picked the cuatro because since my daddy played the cuatro, I was always taking it out and playing it and I liked its sound.  Simply put, I liked the sound, and I watched my daddy playing and it would inspire me. But I ended up playing it on my own.  I never had a teacher. No, I always created my own arrangements.  I did everything on my own.

This has been cost me a lot of toil.  The process (of learning); yes, imagine.  In those times you had to show that you were good.  Yes,... I experienced certain disappointments, but it was made up for later on.  When I began to get to known and they found what I could do on the instrument ... I became, thanks to God, what I am today.     

It happened that I had a little group in Corozal named, El Conjunto Ideal.  We were playing a dance in Rio Piedras and when we finished, we went to a famous restaurant of Juan Roman's to eat.  Then, in walks Ramito. Then Ramito...in those days, well, imagine ... what a name he had!  He saw us, and we had our instruments with us ... and <he said> "you want to accompany me on guitar?"  "Yes, why not!"  Well, from there, I accompanied him on the guitar and he said to me, "Tomorrow, I'm going to go look to Corozal to look for you." I said to him, "No, well, you see, it's that I'm studying and I can't."  That was about in '48.  And then <he said> "no, no, tomorrow, I'm going to go pick you up. I need you, so you can work with me."  And that's how it happened.  He went to speak with my parents, and he pulled me out of school.  I was sixteen years old.  Ever since then, well, I continued working with Ramito.

I made a few programs with German Rosario as well...Ruth Fernandez, KBM, and Radio WITA, over here at La Hora del Volante <The Steering Wheel (Driving) Hour radio program>, as well ... we worked in Bayamon, where WENA was.  We worked in Mayaguez, in Fiesta en el Batey <Backyard Party radio program> of WKJB for many years there.  We played "La Caravana Real" <Royal Caravan radio program>

Then, during that time, about a year later, there was the trip to New York with Canario, around '50.  Then, when we went to Teatro Puerto Rico, well, there Claudio {Ferrer} asked me if I wanted to stay with him.  For certain, there was a discussion between Claudio and Manuel Jimenez Canario, because they were in-laws.  Claudio's wife was Canario's sister. There was a discussion because Canario wanted me to stay and Claudio said: "yes, he's going to stay with me" and they had the discussion.  And I, I wanted to stay there.  I stayed and I worked at the radio <station> about nine or ten years in that group.

<Sotomayor: Well, I, in the <year> '53, would sit in front of the radio listening to you..>

Yes, during that time, we were playing at WWRS with Alicia de Cordova.

<Sotomayor: There was el Gran Junior also, and ... >
Yes, over there in New York, the most they used was the guitar.  I used the cuatro for recordings, whenever we would go to play accompaniment for traditional music and in the theaters, when the jibaros came and you had to accompany them. 
After '59, which was when I recorded <Nieves' hit polca Roll up the Barrel> El Barrilito, that's when the cuatro became more prominent, when I created a different style and it was then that the cuatro picked up a good response ... yes.

<Sotomayor: I love the chords you used...>
Yes, Because i'd give it a certain American feeling... I gave the cuatro another flavor.  And I always said, in my mind that I would play the cuatro differently than the way Ladi and Archilla my cousin played. Well, I had that in my mind..yes, it's true, "I am going to create a style that sounds different."  What inspired me was that I listened to a lot of American music over there. And I listened to lot of the guitarists and I liked what they were doing such that ... when I heard something ... that I would have played in a typical way, I'd remember something that they'd done, certain parts, you know..and I would include that style in there as well, yes, yes, that, for that era, I'd stick jazz and all those things and on guitar as well.  

I own a cuatro that's about to be sixty-five years old.  It belonged to my father.  It's a relic and I keep it like new. It was the only <object of> value he left me.  Well, I don't use it because I'm afraid of having it stolen or something .. sometimes one becomes careless...

I prefer a single-pieced cuatro, <Made of one single piece of wood> because it has more quality.  It has more of a solid sound. Of course, the instruments made from separate pieces sound pretty, but in time, they warp because they have two separate plates and so forth... Now, the single-pieced cuatro will give you that special sound and also it will last forever.  The cuatro made from separate pieces, sometimes, sounds more like a tres. <The sound of the single-piece cuatro> is much more typical. The instrument that I have which belonged to my father, which no one makes anymore, it has a top made from yagrumo hembra and the bridge was carved onto the same top <from the same piece of wood>, with no separate pieces.  Nowadays, they fabricate it and they add the top and afterwards a bridge there. No, no, the other one comes all complete.  He used to say: "to make a good cuatro, so it will last", you have carve the bridge onto the same top so that it would stay on forever.

To say, "cuatro" and this land of ours...is like saying "our country," because it is genuinely ours. Yes, yes, same ours as is The Danza.  It's as jibaro as the coqui [native tiny tree frog] <laughs>.  In the old days, the cuatro was known and it was given merit.  But not as much as nowadays. But now the cuatro has arrived in the salón, where it ought to be. I was in New York, I was there for thirty years. But according to what I've heard, in Puerto Rico during those days there was no push given to traditional music...the radio stations didn't want to play it, and that scene decayed a lot. The cuatro was being used for other musics, and only during Christmas time...you could only hear it for a month out of the year.

I am a purist when it comes to traditional music.  As long as it is being performed by someone who wants to preserve it. So, that this way it can reach the sentiments of the public, of what it is, and of what we own. Yes, the cuatro is going in a very good direction.  

Indeed, in Hawaii, there are Filipinos playing cuatros.  Filipino-Puertoricans!  The music is all beautiful, and it all has its merit.  I'm enchanted by it, and in fact I'm enchanted by American music.  But the cuatro now travels...forget about it! The public everywhere already asks for cuatros and recognizes them.

Of the music I play, the public really likes the mazurkas, las danzas.  Oh, yes, I have some very pretty joropos which are often requested.  I have a bambuco like "Besame Morenita"... yes, I play styles like that.



When I was in New York I worked a lot with Tito Puente*, Charlie Palmieri (may God keep him in his glory) who past away and Joe Coco, who also past away. I, yes, used to work with different musicians and I don't have a preference.  I work with those that are better than I, thanks to God, I make the grade and here we are, yes.

My instrument is my life.  It's my inspiration, all of it.  Yes, The instrument is like my wife, imagine. I used it to work, I make a living from it.  For me it's something, that I don't know how to tell you...it's something that lives in my heart. Oh yes!