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The two Puerto Rican cuatro traditions

 


The distinguished master builder Jaime Alicea of Vega baja
Photo by Juan Sotomayor

The popular account that seeks to explain the Puerto Rican cuatro's evolution goes something like this: the cuatro first appeared  as a rustic four-stringed instrument--hence it's name-- and as the centuries passed, Puerto Ricans progressively added more strings to it, culminating ultimately in the modern ten-stringed instrument. The explanation appears to have a neat logic to it, but we have discovered that this is a myth.

Our research during the last decade has led us to a different conclusion: that it is more precise to summarize the cuatro's history as the evolution of two distinctive, unique instruments which coexisted during the first half of the last century, each with its own form tradition and native geography. We could name these two instrument traditions the early cuatro and the modern cuatro. This new assesment of the cuatro's history is based on findings indicating that within each tradition, the two cuatros differed dramatically in the number of their

strings, their tuning, their size, their shape, their musical function, their musical and geographic range and their ancestry. The differences are such that it is difficult to explain how the two instruments came to share the same name for so long, but folk memory on the Island has fused two traditions into an apparently logical explanation.

It is this confusion that gives rise to the frequently-asked question: "How come it's called a cuatro if it has ten strings?" As we shall see, the name "cuatro" originally described a four-string Puerto Rican instrument born perhaps three hundred years ago which gradually disapperead around the middle of the 20th century. Its name, however, was  transferred in popular usage onto a new ten-stringed instrument, developed in the late 19th century in northern towns and cities of the Island. The new instrument, carrying the old name, passed into the 20th century, and largely due to the skill of a very famous cuatro player, Ladislao Martínez (Maestro Ladí) and his ubiquitous presence over early Puerto Rican radio, became our cherished modern cuatro--the Island's "national instrument."  Here are the details of our findings:

Read about other interesting cuatro variants

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  


 


The ancient tradition:

The four-string Cuatro

 

The great four-and-eight string cuatrista Tuto Feliciano as a child playing his first "cuatro antiguo" According to Feliciano, who backed the famed singer Ramito, the instrument was still being played in 1950 by himself and others exclusively around the Yauco region He complained of its musical and technical limitations and admired the versatility of the modern ten-string form, although he didn't cross over to the ten-string form until Ramito himself demanded it of him.
                          
Photo from the personal collection of Tuto Feliciano

The early tradition of the cuatro begins with the four-single-string cuatro, the oldest form of the instrument. The instrument's four strings--usually made of dried strips of small-animal guts (or strips of rawhide) were usually tuned,

A  E  a  d

from low to high, separated by intervals of 5-4-4. The earliest way to play the instrument was to only fret the top three strings, E a d, relegating the fourth, the lowest pitch string, as a "pedal," that is, constantly playing in the background unchanged in pitch, like a drone. Its was a modal technique that dated to the 13th century. It is believed that the cuatro can be traced back in this configuration to the earliest days of the Spanish colonial times.

This is an early cuatro that was recreated by the Puerto Rican Cuatro Project by Vicente Valentín, made as a copy of a 19th century relic.  Today this form, which hails back to the early days of the formation of the jíbaro people, is largely unknown and forgotten. It was tuned and strung in ways that were similar to the plucked instruments of 16th century Spain.

Over the centuries rustic cuatros tuned this way with a keyhole shape were usually seen in the towns of the Island, brightening up both religious ceremonies and secular events. The instrument most often heard in the hills and remote outskirts was the tiny, simple tiple. In time, the cuatro's presence spread to all corners of the Island.


  The four-string cuatro--its strings made of gut--often played the part of the bombardin (a small German tuba--also called Euphonium--which regularly soloed portions of the Danza in interludes called the bombardino) in big-city Puerto Rican Salon orchestras of the 19th century, and at the same time was played by jibaros in the Island's most isolated communities.  Above we see the cuatrista of the Salon orchestra directed by the composer Jose Ignacio Quintón (1881-1925), playing a cuatro that we today call the "early cuatro."  The photo was taken in 1909.

Later, when the cuatro was included into the  orchestras playing in the upscale city salons, the more skilled cuatro players developed techniques that included all four strings. But they nonetheless had to overcome the considerable technical limitations of the ancient tuning scheme, which created formidable difficulties in it's execution. These undoubtedly led to the instrument's ultimate demise in the 20th century, despite efforts to modernize its stringing as we will see below.




The modern tradition:
The ten-string Cuatro

The great maestro Ladislao Martínez, to whom we can attribute turning the violin-shaped ten-string cuatro into the "national instrument" of Puerto Rico.

The ancient cuatro tradition was alreay established across the Island when during the last half of the 19th century a new form of the instrument appears along the northern coast. The new form adopted many of the characteristics of contemporary string instruments visiting the Island from Spain, Italy and the United States. These new instruments, also called "cuatro" borrowed the visitors' doubled-up metal strings.

This is the form that has endured as the modern cuatro today. Elder musicians we interviewed from the Southern coast of the Island refer to the modern cuatro pejoratively as the "Spanish cuatro," saying "that cuatro isn't from here..."
    The modern cuatro evolves with a shorter string length and as a consequence, with a slighly higher-pitched range than the early cuatro's. It's lowest-pitch string is tuned a whole-step higher than the early cuatro's lowest string, and the remaining strings are tuned in intervals of 
4-4-4-4, from low to high

                           B   E   A   D   G

The modern cuatro's intervals are similar to (and thus we mantain, link them to) the Spanish bandurrias and laúdes. Also, in contrast to the early cuatros, the modern form is strung with ten strings that--just like the laúdes, bandurrias, and the American and Italian mandolins--are made of wire and strung in pairs. 

   As we can plainly see, the early cuatro and the modern cuatro are two very different instruments. It is hardly likely, and probably incorrect to suggest that one derives from the other.
  Durin the first quarter of the 20th century, this new Puerto Rican instrument spreads along the Northern coast of the Island, while the four- and eight-string cuatro remain active, though moribund, in the Central and Southern regions.

    We've theorized that during this same period the cuatro that was strung in the modern configuration (which had from its inception been built with the same keyhole shape as the early cuatro) adopts its new violin-shaped outline in the larger Northern cities of adopta su nueva forma aviolinada (parecida a un violín) en las principales urbes norteñas de la isla.
   This new violin-shaped cuatro, with its ten wire strings arranged in five double-string courses, spreads throughout the Island, largely as a result of its distinctive sound being heard on the radio during the 30s, in the hands of the great cuatrista from Vega Baja, Ladislao Martínez. To his marvelous skill; to the pervasive impact of the new radio medium; and to the severe musical limitations of the tuning and stringing of the early form of the instrument, we owe the eventual ascendancy and the universalization of the modern cuatro in Puerto Rico.
   It's a mystery how the violin-shaped, ten wire-string instrument retained the name cuatro, even though it shared hardly any legacy of the early cuatro, be it in its form, tuning or stringing. On the other hand their similarities are not insignificant: they were both played with a pick; the both usually play the melody voice in musical ensembles; and the two shared the same intermediate size between the tiple and bordonúañ and because both were usually heard in the performance of native Puerto Rican music; and because both were uniquely made in Puerto Rico. Perhaps because they shared all these similarities, Puerto Ricans bequeathed the same name cuatro to two instrument that were so very different.

The Early Rural 10-string cuatros

After jíbaros came from their remote villages and into the cities during the nineteenth century, they transformed some of their cuatros to the tuning intervals of the cítaras and laúdes (which the colonists had brought from Spain).

The result was the ten metal-string cuatros like the one in the hands of Eusebio González, "the Indian from Sábana Grande" seen in this 1898 photo immediately above. These were the earliest cuatros with the modern tuning and stringing, yet they still retained the early cuatro's keyhole shape.


Early 10-string cuatro recreation by Eugenio Mendez, 1999

Today's "Cuatro Moderno"

also known as the "Cuatro Aviolinado" [violin-shaped cuatro] "Cuatro Español" [Spanish cuatro] 


A photograph of a rare relic of a very early violin-shaped 10-string cuatro found in the United States. It's owner, a self-proclaimed expert on American Civil War artifacts, claimed that it was brought to the United States at about the time of the American Civil War. If this were true it would upend many of the assumptions of the time-line of this instrument.

We believe that the modern form of the cuatro which is so widely used by Puerto Ricans today, a ten-string instrument with 20-inch metal strings and a violin-like outline, appeared early in the twentieth century in the northern-center coastal towns of the island. The form gained universal acceptance during the mid-thirties largely as a result of the skill and popularity of its greatest exponent, Ladislao Martínez--after he played it for years on Puerto Rico's first radio music program, Industrias Nativas. 


A modern cuatro made by webmaster William Cumpiano

 The Eight-String Cuatro:
the early cuatro's
attempt at modernity

A eight-string cuatro made by Juan Olivera in Yauco during the 40s, property of the family of the late, great eight-string cuatro player Norberto Cales                                         Photo by Juan Sotomayor


Listen to an eight-string cuatro in a late-twenties recording of the guaracha Adios Mojica by Fausto Delgado and the Grupo Piñita


For a relatively short period in cuatro history, a small crop of extraordinarily beautiful instruments emerged in the southern coast of Puerto Rico, in the region including the cities of Yauco and Ponce during the decades of 1920-1940. Notably, they were played by skilled masters such as Heriberto Torres, Efraín Ronda, Norberto Cales and Tuto Feliciano. Although recordings exist of the eight-string cuatro playing popular music, the instrument was most commonly heard in performance of what has been called Puerto Rican classical music: mazurcas, danzas, valses, fox-trots, polcas, pasillos and other otros salon-music genres. Most of the eight-string cuatros made on the Island were product of great yaucano makers Efraín Ronda y Juan Olivera.
     This new instrument form retained precisely the same string scale and tuning as its four-string cuatro antiguo forebear. However, it differed significantly by its use of steel strings configured in four double-string courses.

A A   DD    aa    ee

...from lowest to highest pitch. The eight-string cuatro also differed from the early cuatro in its shape, which we believe was inspired by the influx of North American mandolins that were currently in vogue across the Americas. Indeed its stringing was precisely the same as the mandolin: four doubled metal string courses tuned in unison. But just like its predecessor the early four-string cuatro, its ancient tuning scheme made the eight-string difficult to play by any but the most skilled players. So the instrument disappeared together with the obsolete four-string cuatro by the early 1950s.

 

 

Other interesting variants of the Cuatro...

Gourd cuatro

String instrument soundboxes made from dried gourds proliferated during remote times in cultures of ancient West African civilizations. As a consequence, it is reasonable to infer that the Puerto Rican tradition of making stringed instruments using the dried out shell of the fruit of the gourd bush is derived from the cultural memories of enslaved West Africans that were brought to the Island before the twentieth century. Although this configuration is rare nowadays, cuatristas still play it and even the late, great Maso Rivera recorded an entire record album on a gourd cuatro.

Cuatro de Higuera, colleción Teodoro Vidal
Gourd Cuatro in the Teodoro Vidal collection at the Smithsonian Intitution in Washington DC


Maso Rivera dedicated an entire recording of tunes
played on a gourd cuatro

 


Gourd cuatro made by
Graciela Quiñones-Rodriguez of Hartford, Connecticut

The soft-waisted "Southern" Cuatro

A small number of extremely elegant eight and ten string cuatros were made during a brief period (between the twenties and forties, we believe) by Yauco artisan Juan Olivera and others, that were based on the wedge-semicircular form but varied distinctively by have a soft waist, rather than the sharp waist of its early cuatro forebears. The Cuatro Project recently acquired a relic of a "southern cuatro" recently to add to its instrument collection, as seen below:


We have an article about another rare Southern cuatro we found here.

Tulip-shaped cuatro made by Juan Olivera of Yauco circa 1930-40

The Cuatro "families:" Cuatro Soprano, Tenor, Alto, and Bass

The concept of a cuatro "family" was the brainchild of a Maestro Jorge Rubiano during the early years of the Instituto de Cultura (1950s). He proposed that the folk instrument could be raised in stature to the level of symphonic performance by the creation of a cuatro "orchestra" that could play pieces of the classical repertory. Rubiano had already established in Puerto Rico a well-known and highly-regarded mandolin orchestra during the 30s and 40s made up of mandolin, mandola, mandocello and mando-bass, each playing the role of violin, viola, cello and bass. He interested the Instituto de Cultura to commission first Antonio Rodriguez Navarro, and then after he went blind, Cristobal Santiago, to make a symphonic family of varying sized cuatros to fill the individual roles of an orchestral string section. I believe they actually played several concerts at the Instituto, but as too often happens with the Instituto, the project died when the next election changed the political party in power.


jibarocuatrographic.jpg

A poster of the 1960s produced by the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture promoting the "familia del cuatro puertorriqueño"

 



The prizewinning maker Antonio Rodríguez Navarro holds a "cuatro lírico". Surrounding him are the soprano, alto, tenor and bass cuatros that were commissioned by the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture during the mid- 1960s.

The "Seis"
The Seis is simply the name the Cuatro Project gives the cuatros that it has seen, strung with six pairs of strings instead of five (12 total). They are not traditional instruments, strictly speaking, but rather contemporary variations of the instrument by makers asked to furnish a cuatro in this special way. Some musicians have asked for them because they want to broaden the instrument's range higher or lower. Others were guitarists who simply wanted to tune it and play it like a guitar without having to learn the cuatro's distinctive tuning. The sixth course is either an additional treble course or an additional course in the bass, accoding to the preference of the purchaser.

 

The "Cuatro Sonero"

The great prize-winning Puerto Rican cuatro master (master teacher, master player and master builder) Cristóbal Santiago includes among his many creations an interesting variant of the familiar cuatro that carries five triple-string courses rather than the usual five double-string courses. This adds up to fifteen strings, which as you can imagine, presents the player with unique challenges. In the video at right Santiago displays his skill on the difficult instrument as well as his mastery of the form.