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The enigmatic Puerto Rican Bordonúa

The lowest-voiced member of the old Puerto Rican country string band vanished
early in the 20th century.

Recent evidence suggests that the curious, large folk guitar that survives into modern times with
the name bordonúa--is not the 19th century bordonua--but rather descends from another
Puerto Rican stringed instrument, forgotten for over a hundred years, called vihuela.
This page describes the "true" 19th century Puerto Rican bordonúa, which disappeared,
leaving scant memory behind.

Above we see the replica of a "true" bordonúa, commissioned by the Puerto Rican Cuatro Project--a luthier's impression of what it may have looked and sounded like--based on the accounts of 19th century observers and iconographers. It was said to have 6 single strings, appeared like an elongated guitar and had a solemn, low-pitched voice [voz grave]. This matches the meaning of the root of the word bordonúa, (bordón) which means "a large bell or thick, low-pitched string."                                                                                         Photo by William Cumpiano


The only contemporary illustration that exists of the 19th century bordonúa shows one hidden in a 1894 painting by the great Puerto Rican oil painter Francisco Oller called "El Velorio"

Francisco Oller’s 1893 painting, El Velorio, may be the most recent document of a nineteenth century bordonúa to be had, if it is true (as the musical historian Pedro Malavet Vega concludes) that the instrument seen at the left of the cuatro player in the painting is indeed a bordonúa.[i] What can be seen in the painting of the instrument in question is the upper part of its sound box, a short neck with six frets and a nut. On its headpiece we can see two string pegs on one side, with a third covered by the players shirt; and three pegs on the other. So it can be deduced that as such, this 1893 bordonúa was made for six single strings, precisely as Del Valle Atiles described it in his 1887 writings. The neck of this instrument coincides with the description that the nonagenarian Efraín Ronda (1899-1994) gave us in 1992: “it had a short little neck. Not more than six inches long.”[ii]

So the written record confirms that in the nineteenth century, the bordonúa was a large guitar with six single strings. The only twentieth-century testimony we have about the nineteenth century bordonúa came from ethnomusicologist Emmanuel Dufrasne, who told us that in the southern city of Ponce, his relatives made six-string bordonúas that fit the description of “guitars of large dimensions,” that is to say, guitars that were larger than common guitars:

Yes, the bordonúa was also made of a single piece of wood, for that is the way that my relatives described it. The González’ of Ponce described the bordonúa and made the bordonúa from a single piece of wood also. They would carve the bordonúa’s shape—which was a very large guitar, larger than the usual one—they would hollow it out and put six single courses on it, that is, 6 single strings, just like the current guitar.[iii]

The scarcity of available data does not allow us to specify how this bordonúa was played. Notwithstanding, some information exists that permits us to make some deductions. In his commentary on the “jíbaro waltz” Fernando Callejo reveals that the old bordonúa was used as an instrument that provided the accompaniment.

The jíbaro waltz has a form different from that of the common waltz. The melodic phrase is short and has few variants; and the harmonic accompaniment is exclusively based on dominant and subdominant tonic chords, called natural chords. Frequently the accompanying bass note, on the first beat of each measure was omitted and was substituted by a knock with the hand on the sound box of the bordonúa.[iv]

We can infer from this that the bordonúa ordinarily provided the “accompanying bass notes,” but in this instance instead of plucking the low note on the waltz’s first beat, the bordonúa “frequently” produced that familiar note with knock on its sound box.


[i] Malavet Vega, Pedro. 1992. Historia de la canción popular en Puerto Rico (1493-1898). [History of the Popular Song in Puerto Rico],
Ponce, Puerto Rico: P. Malavet Vega.

[ii] Ronda, Efraín. 1992. Interview recorded in1992 with John Sotomayor. San Juan.

[iii] Interview with professor Emanuel Dufrasne at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras PR, in 1998

[iv]Callejo Ferrer, Fernando. 1915. Música y músicos portorriqueños [Porto (sic) Rican Music and Musicians]. San Juan. Cantero, Fndez. & Co. p. 47. Reprinted with the corrected title Música y músicos puertorriqueños. 1971. Ed. Amaury Veray. San Juan de Puerto Rico: Editorial Coquí


Artist's impressions of the old bordonúa:

 Is this a recording of an old bordonúa?

 Above we see a selection from the registry of old ethnic recordings by American recording companies, compiled by Richard Spottswood. A recording made January 12, 1917 by the Victor Company appears on the list, of the Germán Hernández trio. The instruments listed are "bordona, g.(uitar) and güiro"--although its evident that what we have here is an four-string cuatro playing melody and a lower voiced instrument (presumibly the bordonúa) and a güiro. A song appears on the list with the title Nosotros which was furnished to us by the collector David Morales.


At the end of the 16th century Cervantes wrote that during his age the Spanish countryside teemed with guitars "of every possible size." One of them was a large guitar, call bajo de la uña or "thumbnail bass." 150 years later a guitar appears in Spain that was 7 inches deep and 4 feet long, described as "a deep voiced guitar." We believe these may have been the original instrument that inspired the creation of the large native guitars that appeared in numerous Spanish colonies of our Hemisphere during the following centuries. Many of these are still actively in use today, instruments such as the Argentinian, Chilean and Mexican guitarrones.
    The earliest reference we have found that establishes the existance of a large native guitar-like instrument appears in the book, El Gíbaro, written by Manuel Alonso and published in 1849. Alonso describes the bordonúa as a "guitar of large dimensions, made roughly, usually without any tools other than a knife or a small machete," which played the "deep voice" of the jíbaro string ensemble. In 1887, another observer, the chronicler Francisco del Valle Atiles noted that it had six thick strings.
     It's important not to mistake an instrument "with a deep voice" for a "bass" instrument. The bordonúa was never a "bass." That is it never was made large enough to produce the orchestral bass range, but rather, as it was described, it was a guitar somewhat larger than the usual one--with a playing range that was low relative to the range of the cuatro and the tiple when it was played. For example, the bombardino (a small tuba) played a familiar solo part in high-society dance orchestras of the 19th century. In the countryside, however, the lowly jíbaros loved to play the same dance music on their humble stringed instruments. 19th century chroniclers note that they formed string ensembles (which the Cuatro Project has called "the old jíbaro orchestra") made up of a bordonúa playing the bombardino part, the cuatro playing melody,  the tiple playing the chordal accompaniment and the güiro scratch gourd playing  rhythym.  That is why it was sometimes called "the jibaro's guitar"--because it was shaped like a guitar and it played a lower range in accompaniment with the cuatro. Indeed, early in the twentieth century it largely disappeared from the Island musical scene, along with the tiple, the two being replaced in string ensembles by the Spanish guitar.


The earliest record in existence regarding the three autochthonous Puerto Rican instruments that still survive in our times is found in Mis Memorias [My Memories] by Alejandro Tapia y Rivera (1826-1882). We can infer from the context that Tapia is referring to instruments he saw around 1835:

… singing songs to the sound of an orchestra of rustic or rural instruments as tiples, bordonúas, cuatros, güiros, maracas.

Another relevant document was written in 1849. Written within several years of Tapia´s narrative, it is a narrative of country customs by Manuel Alonso titled, El Gíbaro. Alonso describes the bordonúa as “a guitar of large dimensions.” Soon after, in 1851, the newspaper El Ponceño mentions the composition of a salon-music danza titled “La Bordonúa.” The next relevant document comes from the newspaperman Ramón Marín, who witnessed a troubadour contest on December 11, 1875 and described the contrasting sounds of the instruments:

…of the high-tuned tiple, the sonorous cuatro, the deep bordonúa and the cheerful güiro.

The following year we meet up with Tapia again in his novel, Cofresí (1876):

…all to the sounds of the tiple that by now was strumming and plucking up in the heights just as the bordonúa accompanied it down in the depths…

In 1887 in a prize-winning essay on the “intellectual and moral” condition of the Puerto Rican rural peasants, sponsored by the Puerto Rican Athenaeum, Dr. Francisco del Valle Atiles described the bordonúa as having six strings. The naturalist author Manuel Zeno Gandía, writing in his 1894 novel, La Charca, confirmed Atiles’ observations with a mention of a "large guitar"--presumably a bordonúa--included in an array of native instruments:

There were three instruments, a large guitar, the cuatro, a smaller tiple and a güiro.

Fernando Callejo Ferrer (1862-1926), in his description of the music and the musicians of his times, tells us of the “coquettish bordonúa” and commented on a certain “jíbaro Calderín” from Caguas who “concertized on the tiple and bordonúa” during the middle of the nineteenth century.