The Puerto Rican Cuatro Project
Puerto Ricans searching for their own lost culture
The Puerto Rican Cuatro Project was begun in 1991 by a small band of New England/Puerto Rican artists, artisans, technicians, teachers and writers. They shared a passion for the cuatro and the concern that crucial links to the cuatro's story are disappearing--surviving as they do in only the fading recollections of the Puerto Rican people. The Puerto Rican Cuatro Project provides a means to rediscover, document and preserve this "lost history" and then return it to the Puerto Rican people in all the ways that are accessible to them.
The Puerto Rican Cuatro Project is a volunteer-based, non-profit organization based in Northampton, Massachusetts and Moca, Puerto Rico, which has dedicated itself sindce 1992 to study, preserve and promote the musical and musical-craft traditions that surround our "national instrument"--the cuatro--and besides, the traditions of the family of musical instruments created since the 18th century in the central mountainous region of the Island by the Puerto Rican jibaros.
As Luis Manuel Alvarez has written, the inheritance of the centuries is deposited within a common memory which is activated and manifested through music. All our human behavior, all our social behaviour, the way we make and create things, all this is reflected in some way in our music.
For complex reasons, Afro-Puerto Rican musical traditions such as the plena and bomba have been amply studied and promoted throughout Puerto Rican ethnomusicology. But the study of our mixed-race music, our música criolla, the jibaro music of the Puerto Rican hills, received scant interest or attention from academia. As a result the musical heritage of the Puerto Rican jíbaro was never compiled or preserved in an adequate or comprehensive way.
The Puerto Rican Cuatro Project was born as a response to this state of affairs, from a conviction that the responsibility had thus to be taken up and carried forward by concerned citizens themselves. If we couldn't serve as scientists, we'd nonetheless serve as amateurs.
The Puerto Rican Cuatro Project is the product of the conviction of all its participants that culture builds community. Cultural education is a powerful tool that furthers community development and health. Culture creates a vision among people, a sense of who they are and a sense of their own history. Self-knowledge become a source of strength and a storehouse from which a people draw resiliency, hope and a sense of interconnectedness.
We consider this goal to be particularly crucial to the survival of Puerto Ricans as a people. Paraphrasing the words of the poet Ina Cumpiano, how else can an island nation of six million people define itself, if it is not homogeneous in either its racial or national heritage, if it retains few traces of its indigenous past, and if it perceives itself as having little other than slavery and colonization around which to crystallize its national memories? How does it record it's past in a way that assures the future? How does it create a vision among its people, a sense of who they are, a sense of their history?
One way is for it to recapture its long lost cultural memories. Music itself is a form of memory. For Puerto Ricans, the rediscovery and re-ownership of its lost musical past will lend coherence to its present and future.
A new Golden Age
Since the beginning of the last century, the delicate native music traditions of Puerto Rico were repeatedly eclipsed by compelling mass-market media from the United States and Cuba, and so they slowly retreated to the isolated rural enclaves from which they originally came. Then, the eventual decline of the Puerto Rican rural lifestyle over the next fifty years—the disappearance of the music’s natural habitat, so to speak— seemed to seal the fate of all these precious cultural memories. Throughout most of the century these defining manifestations were ignored or dismissed, even scorned.
Today, it’s another story altogether. The proliferation of cultural festivals and concerts, community cuatro orchestras and schools, young cuatristas, cuatro makers, cuatro superstars and cultural paraphernalia for sale are evidence that Puerto Ricans once again are enthusiastic over the persisting traces of their own native music traditions. Yet, tragically, Puerto Ricans have also discovered that none of these essentially oral traditions were ever documented in a methodical or comprehensive way. Instead, what remains for popular consumption are romanticized, trivialized, commercialized—indeed, distorted, traces of what was once a complex and voluminous storehouse of cultural ingenuity. For decades, Puerto Ricans themselves so sorely misjudged the value of their own native culture that the need for its preservation had received little attention—until recently.
Almost two decades ago a serious, methodical exploration of the body of Puerto Rican musical and musical-craft traditions was begun by Juan Sotomayor and William Cumpiano, as a concerted exercise in community research. The aim was for Puerto Ricans themselves to piece together the available traces of this story, since academia and the government had simply dropped the ball, and not done the job adequately. The duo, later to be joined by media expert Wilfredo Echevarría, gathered the traces of the tradition, wherever traces could be found: in the memories of elders who recalled the music’s earlier times; in the memories of the people who made the music, players and instrument-makers alike, within the works of a handful of authors and researchers who attempted to study discreet pieces of the story; within the scant pages of the surviving bibliographic accounts of the musical scene of the last century; within the anatomy of the few musical artifacts and relics that had been preserved; from the recovered sounds and photographic images which resided in private collections; and finally, from the expressions of affection for these manifestations and preoccupation over their loss from the Puerto Rican people themselves. The effort, purely voluntary and largely self-funded, was called the Puerto Rican Cuatro Project.
The Puerto Rican Cuatro Project was begun in 1991 by a small band of New England/Puerto Rican artists, artisans, technicians, teachers and writers. They shared a passion for the cuatro and the concern that crucial links to the cuatro's story are disappearing--surviving as they do in only the fading recollections of the Puerto Rican people. The Puerto Rican Cuatro Project would provide a means to rediscover, document and preserve this "lost history" and then return it to the Puerto Rican people in all the ways that would be accessible to them.
For several years, giving their time freely, they identified and interviewed almost two hundred members of a special group of people: the living embodiment of the tradition. The Project identified the most revered players and instrument makers, active and retired (and living descendants of those deceased), and the most knowledgeable scholars, cultural promoters and collectors. Their commentary and recollections formed the basis for the compiling of a massive, unprecedented knowledge base of oral history of Puerto Rican music and musical-craft traditions.
Then a search began of the published record, the historical bibliography, the musical instruments, the recorded sounds and photographic images. Having compiled these into collections, the next phase was to publicize the existence of the Project to attract support and resources for its goals. Through public appearances, private home gatherings, live traditional music concerts and cultural festivals—usually organized and facilitated by the members of the Project itself—the Project was able to rally a remarkable fund of interest and encouragement, notably from the National Endowment for the Arts, from the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture (an agency of the Government of Puerto Rico), and from the music, anthropology, and communications departments of several New England universities--such as the University of Massachusetts, Hunter College and Rutgers University--and recently, from the Smithsonian Institution.
Juan Sotomayor, cofounder and principal researcher of the Cuatro Project interviews the nonagenarian Joaquinito Rivera jr. (1910-1995) , whose father was Joaquín Rivera, "el Zurdo de Isabela." His father was the first Puerto Rican to ever record on the cuatro in 1916 in the Victor recording studios of New York City.
William Cumpiano, cofounder and coordinator of the Cuatro Project, as well as a master stringed instrument-maker, is seen here measuring the dimensions of an original "early cuatro" in a collection located in Florida, PR.
William Cumpiano is seen here again behind the great Jazz cuatrista Pedro Guzmán during the filming of the Cuatro Project NUESTRO CUATRO video documentaries. To the right are Project members, the video director Wilfredo Echevarría and to the left, the famed videographer Pedro Rivera.