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 A short history of the Puerto Rican cuatro and its music
by William Cumpiano, coordinator of the Puerto Rican Cuatro Project                            


The Cuatro is Puerto Rico's "national instrument." Smaller than a guitar and larger than a mandolin, the cuatro's distinctive, nasal twang has been loved by Puerto Ricans since the early days of Puerto Rico's colonial past.

In its earliest form, it was quite different from what it is today. The "early" cuatro or cuatro antiguo once had a peculiar, keyhole-shaped soundbox and was strung with four single strings made from animal guts--hence it's name cuatro-- or "four." Its tuning and stringing-- originally derived from a primitive modal form of tuning dating back to 15th century Spain-- remained unchanged on the Island for centuries. In this form, the jíbaro country folk living in the remote central hills of the Island, preferred it. The early form of the cuatro persisted across the Puerto Rican countryside up until the middle of the 20th century--and then faded away. 

At the end of the 19th century, however, a different stringing was adopted on the keyhole-shaped instrument. The change first occured among Puerto Ricans living along the more urbanized coastal regions of the Island. It appears to have been an effort to keep up with modern times. Spurring the change was what had become popular all over the Americas at the time: string orchestras (called estudiantinas) from Italy and Spain, touring the United States and Latin America. Their players dressed in brightly-colored costumes and  played loud, strident wire-strung plucked stringed instruments. The Italian groups played mandolins (tuned in fifths) of all sizes and the Spanish played their bright bandurrias and laúdes (all tuned in fourths): all of them jangling with paired courses of wire strings. These bright, impressive stringed orchestras swept through Latin America as a vanguard of modernity and many countries besides Puerto Rico reconsidered the ancient, limited gut stringing of their own native stringed instruments--delicate, quiet things which had remained unchanged for centuries.

Puerto Ricans, predominantly those along the northern coast of the Island "modernized" the limited old cuatro by stringing it with 10 shiny new wire strings--as the transitional 10-string keyhole cuatro seen above in the hands of Eusebio González. His instrument now was arranged with 10-stings arranged in 5 pairs and tuned to the same intervals as the fancy Spanish Nuevo Laúd which many had seen when the Spanish estudiantinas on tour stopped by the Island.

Later in Puerto Rico, around 1915, artisans in the Arecibo region changed its traditional keyhole shape into one reminiscent of a violin, which had become a symbol of upper-class sophistication. In this configuration, the new instrument was heard across the Island. It was during the earliest days of Puerto Rican radio, and the cuatro was heard Island-wide played by the great composer and instrumentalist Ladislao Martínez. His captivating style of playing the cuatro in duo with Sarriel Archilla precipitated its popularity to soar and it soon replaced the older now-obsolete four-gut-string form. The new 10-metal-string instrument with a violin shape kept its ancient name cuatro, however, and in this configuration it has endured to this day as the "national instrument of Puerto Rico."


Modern 10-string Puerto Rican cuatro made by Cuatro Project co-founder William Cumpiano at his shop in Northampton MA


From early colonial times Puerto Ricans also created other different--and equally beautiful--stringed instruments, but they have largely disappeared from public view. These instruments-- the various small tiples, a vihuela and the large bordonúa-- are just now beginning to enter the public sphere once again, as a result of the efforts of rescue groups such as ours and others on the island.

Traditionally, the cuatro is never heard alone in public as a solo instrument. Its musical role is to always to provide the melody voice in a traditional instrumental ensemble, sometimes called an "orquesta jíbara." Today, the cuatro is usually heard accompanied either by another cuatro (cuatros a dúo) and/or a guitar. While the cuatro playes the melody, the guitar usually plays chordal accompaniment. In the traditional ensemble, the rhythmic percussion is always carried out by a scratch gourd called variously güiro, guícharo or carracho. Today we often hear a set of bongos included in the percussion section, although that is a relatively recent addition, the bongo being Cuban in origin.

     The cuatro was originally made and played by the jíbaro, Puerto Rico´s iconic "mountain-dweller" and subsistence farmer: the original creator of Puerto Rican country music. From its early beginnings, the social function of Puerto Rican "mountain music" was mainly for the accompaniment of religious observances, such as promesas a la virgen [promises to the Virgin Mary], florones or baquinés [wakes for dead children], patron-saint festivals, and rosarios cantados [rosary songs]--as well as during secular events like end-of-harvest celebrations (acabes) and even political campaigns. Those old customs are rarely observed today and the only remaining, truly traditional usage of the cuatro and Puerto Rican mountain music is during year-end celebrations of the Nativity and January observances of the festival of Epiphany. But over time, the cuatro's usage spread into the world of secular mainstream, popular music.

     In the 19th century, the cuatro was heard both in the countryside and the city: in Puerto Rican coastal cities it played the counterpoint in formal salon orchestras during performances of light classical and European figure dance music for the city elites and middle class, while in the countryside it was heard in early "orquestas jíbaras" -- ensembles comprised by the cuatro playing the melody line, the tiny tiple playing the accompanying chords and the large bordonúa playing the deep bass line. These country "orchestras" played creolized versions of that long-hair music the jíbaros could hear emanating from within the fancy salons and theatres in the cities, when they went to the towns and cities to sell their produce at market.

     But the principal role of jibaro instrument string ensembles was to accompany a singer. Since the island's earliest days, the traditional singer or trovador sang lyrics that in reality were poetic verses following the ancient rules and patterns of the ancient décima and decimilla.

     The poetic form known as "décima" has been an ancient form of popular expression in Puerto Rico, recited and song by not only countryfolk of limited formal education, but also of high-literacy city dwellers. But the décima--its verses  adding up to 10 eight-syllable lines--hence its name-- is not native to Puerto Rico: it first became popular in 16th century Spain, and eventually it was adapted--and adopted--by many of the colonies of Hispanic America. In Puerto Rico, the décima was converted into a sung lyric form, usually accompanied by a solo guitar or a traditional cuatro grouping of cuatro and guiro; o cuatro, guitar and guiro. The singer sings his décima to the rhythm of an ancient musical melody and dance form called the seis, played by the traditional instrumental ensemble group. The seis has many variants, each usually named after the region where the variant originated or named after a distinctive characteristic that it may have.

     A form of the décima, but with verses of only 6 syllables, known as the decimilla (small décima) has also been popular across the Puerto Rican countryside through the centuries. When traditional singers strike up a song with its lyrics made up of a decimilla poem the accompanying musicians, instead of a seis, strike up another rhythmic form called aguinaldo , of which there are also many styles which vary with the region of origin. The aguinaldo, with its decimilla lyrics is popularly--but not exclusively--heard during the Nativity and Epiphany seasons.

     One of the ways that Puerto Ricans enjoy their sung décima poetry is during performances where the singer-poet, or trovador, improvises the verses on the spot after being just handed a slip of paper with the expected topic written on it. This requires great mental acuity, because as the trovador sings the improvised lyric, he must follow the strict and complex rules of the décima rhyme structure and syllabification. On top of that, the improvised poem must conclude with the given topic as its last line. This tenth line is called "pie forzado" (obligated ending, or "forced foot"). During the public performance of an improvised décima, the accompanying musicians play a slow seis, in a tempo that gives the improviser time to compose the lyric in his mind as he sings it.