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Rhythm four strings.

Ask any Puerto Rican to name the typical musical instrument most identified with the island, and the answer will be immediate: the small guitar known as the cuatro. But press the same person to provide any details about the instrument's origin, and the response is likely to be silence. Only in recent years have musicologists begun to probe the history of the enigmatic string instrument, but the studies so far have proven little more than what all Puerto Rican's take for granted. The cuatro and the Caribbean island's folk-loric music are so intertwined they are all but one and the same.

Some may envision a homesick sailor aboard one of Christopher Columbus' ships on the 1492 voyage, strumming a small Spanish guitarra. The romantic notion that some form of guitar was among the first objects of European culture to be introduced to the New World may or may not be historically accurate; but there is not doubt that within a few years of the Spaniards' arrival, the guitar was a part of everyday life in such growing settlements as Havana, Santo Domingo and San Juan.

Most certainly, those first guitars were not what we associate today with the classical Spanish guitar tradition. The Spanish guitar of the fifteenth century was a much smaller instrument, endowed with just four (cuatro) strings. It matters little that the shape has changed over the centuries or that the cuatro may now have as many as ten strings. The personality of the instrument and the role it plays in Puerto Rican life remains much the same today as it has been for almost five centuries.

While Puerto Ricans defend the cuatro as exclusively their own, Venezuela claims its particular version, as well as a strikingly similar instrument called the tiple. Indeed, throughout Latin America, and the world, cousins of the cuatro have evolved, each finding its own form and distinctive high pitched voice.

The cavaquinho is as revered by Brazilians as the ukulele is by Hawaiians. In the interior of Panama, campesinos strum the mejorana. High in the Andes of Peru and Bolivia, native craftsmen use the shell of the armadillo as the sound chamber for their distinctive charango. Mexicans call their version of the armadillo-based string instrument a mandola de concha. In the outback of Brazil's northeast, the vaqueiros, or cowboys, favor a small guitar with a short neck called the viola sertaneja. Even Cuba's tres and the banjo of the rural U.S. South owe their lineage to the same family of small string instruments dubbed by some as "the poor man's guitar."

In this day of assembly lines, the cuatro and its kin remain major exceptions to the standards of mass production. The best cuatros are still crafted in much the same manner as they were hundreds of years ago. In small villages throughout Puerto Rico, local artisans who learned their skills from their fathers, work with materials as old as the mountains of El Yunque to fashion instruments as individual as the towns from which they come. From trees with names as magical as the titles of folk ballads come special ingredients, each suited to a particular part of the cuatro's body. Guaraguao, jiquey, maju, laurel, tulipan and yagrumo woods all come together in rich harmony to craft the cuatro's finished form.

"The cuatro is my blood," says Puerto Rico's internationally known guitarist, Yomo Toro. The rotund musician, now a resident of New York, has expanded the use of the humble folk instrument far beyond the customary role it plays in Puerto Rico's jibaro (country) music. Toro, who has spent years in the service of such legends of tropical music as Celia Cruz, Willie Colon, Tito Puente and Ruben Blades, has also performed with mainstream pop artists like Paul Simon and Linda Ronstadt. When the music calls for that perfect touch of typical Puerto Rican flavor, Toro is usually the first to be called.

When Toro started using the cuatro in tropical music groups, he surprised a lot of traditionalists, but he proved that the instrument adapts easily to many styles. "You can use it to play salsa, or classical music, or anything you want. It sounds beautiful," he says. Toro recalls the day a cuatro was first placed in his hands. Like many Puerto Rican children with a knack for making music, his small hands could make sense of the miniature fret and closely spaced strings. By the time he reached adulthood, with hands so large they enveloped the instrument, Toro's fingers had been trained to negotiate the cuatro's delicate neck with all the skill and confidence associated with the world's great classical guitarists. His experience is not unique. In fact, such early exposure is almost a requirement if one is to achieve any degree of expertise on the instrument. "You must start very young," Toro states. "Even an accomplished guitarists will know he has met his match if he picks up a cuatro for the first time as an adult."

Making the instrument all the more difficult to play is the fact that, in reality, the cuatro has become a cinco. Not that anyone calls it that, but most modern cuatros have five strings, or actually, 10 strings, five sets of two with each pair tuned to the same note.

Where Yomo Toro has found popularity adapting the traditional cuatro style to the world of tropical music, others have expanded the instrument's potential into very nontraditional styles. Edwin Colon Zayas, a young Puerto Rican who has impressed even the veteran Toro, has set out to prove the cuatro has no limitations. He has brought the finsse of a classically trained guitarist to cuatro interpretations of compositions by Chopin and Rimsky-Korsakov (the demanding Flight of the Bumble Bee), the seldom heard Argentine zamba rhythm, and even the very Polish Beer Barrel Polka.

Taking perhaps even more liberties, a Puerto Rican group called "Jibaro Jazz" has proven the cuatro is as adept at pure improvisation as is the most modern electric guitar. At the other end of the stylistic spectrum, a group called "Mapeye" is a self appointed keeper of the flame. "Mapeye is respect to tradition and history," writes Puerto Rican critic Gloria Paniagua. "Mapeye is indigenous, the evocation of the black earth and reddishness of our mountain land--a lesson of nationhood, of resistance, of love to those who deserve to be loved." Such is the range of emotion the music in its purest form evokes.

Across the Caribbean, Venezuelan Mauricio Reyna has devoted himself to broadening the base of interest in his country's version of the instrument, the cuatro Venezolano. Son of famous cuatro soloist Freddy Reyna, Mauricio has been kept busy by the Venezuelan Institute of Culture and Cooperation spreading the message of cuatro to islands throughout the Caribbean with a series of workshops. He has also introduced the sound of the cuatro to motion picture audiences through his score for the Venezuelan film Un Domingo Feliz, a screenplay by Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Reyna's passion for the instrument is not unlike that of his puerto Rican neighbors. "It is the purest," he notes, making reference to the cuatro's similarity to the original Spanish guitar.

But even as master artists like Toro and Colon Zayas continue to seek new ways to challenge the capabilities of the cuatro, the instrument will continue to find comfort in its traditional role around the plazas of small Puerto Rican towns. That is where the men who cut and craft the native woods into the finished cuatro live next door to those whose talents will always ensure a ready audience. In those unpretentious moments, under an open sky, when the simple folk tunes of many generations are enjoyed once more, the cuatro renews its true soul.

Contributing editor Mark Holston, a lifelong musician, writes about jazz and Latin music for a variety of publications.
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Title Annotation:the Puerto Rican cuatro
Author:Holston, Mark
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Article Type:column
Date:Jan 1, 1991
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