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Notes on the tunings and stringing of the bordonúa

The shape, stringing and tuning of the bordonúa have changed over the last two centuries, and they way it is made today varies according to who is making it and what use they intend for it. Historically, the bordonúa variants and their tuning/stringing have fallen into the following categories:

The early bordonúas: From early bibliographic references, from interviews with elders and interviews with the descendants of bordonúa players and makers of the past, we learned that the bordonúa of the 19th century had either five or six single strings, described as "a guitar of large dimensions" with a "deep voice." Emanuel Dufrasne said his parents in Ponce made them, and they were larger than the "usual" guitars. If indeed it originally was a locally-devised variant of the guitar , we can presume that it was shaped and tuned like a guitar, with its single strings tuned in the guitar intervals of 4-4-4-3-4, and likely to be hollowed out of a single large block of wood in the traditional enterizo fashion. It is important to note that for much of the nineteenth century, guitars were notably smaller than modern guitars, so something called "a large guitar" at the time may not be much larger than a guitar of present times.

The bordonúas of Yuyo, Cando and Cundi: During the thirties, a regional bordonúa appears in the hands of two maestros: "Yuyo" Velázquez, and Candelario "Candó" Vázquez, tuned and shaped alike. But their stringing was truly different, even strange, consisting of light-gauge strings arranged in five courses: two single-string courses and three double-string courses. Interestingly, these were tuned in the same intervals as the small Canary Island timple, that is, in intervals of 4-3-4-4. There were significant early migrations to Puerto Rico from the Canary Islands. This form of bordonúa was not used as an accompanist's instrument, like we believe the early bordonúa was, but instead as a lead melody instrument, itself accompanied by a guitar or cuatro. It was tuned, from low to high,  A d f# b e' (la re fa# si mi). In Aguas Buenas, don Segundo "Cundi" Merced played a large, pear-shaped  bordonúa tuned to the same intervals but to G c e a d' (sol do mi la re). Unfortunately, when you place light-gauged strings on a large instrument, it can only produce a quiet, muffled and short-lived sound. Don Candó himself described is as "a hard to play instrument". The instrument apparently had few other promoters and was also difficult to make. This may explain why it fell into disuse before mid-century. That is, until...

Francisco López Cruz' midcentury bordonúa revival: Around 1955, Dr. Francisco López Cruz, the famed musician/folklorist, under the aegis of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture (Instituto de Cultura de Puerto Rico), undertakes the first "rescue" of the bordonúa. He commissions several artisans to make bordonúas of refined form, including a change of its silhouette and stringing for use in his Cuatro and Bordonúa Orchestra (which is still active today under the direction of Myrna Pérez). López Cruz recommends that the same string set be used as those used on modern cuatros, arranged in five double-string course but tuned to the bordonúas earlier interval scheme of  4-3-4-4 but in the form A d f# b e' (la re fa# si mi). This configuration places the instrument in a musical range that is similar to that of the cuatro--in other words, López Cruz recreation did not return the instrument to its earliest musical function as a deep-voiced instrument. The august reputation and influence of the late, great maestro López Cruz has been enough to keep the tuning and stringing of the instrument that he rescued midcentury as the standard of the present day.

The Cuatro Project's bordonúa tuning proposal:  The Cuatro Project, propelled by its findings about the instrument's earliest musical function, and by its interest in returning the instrument to the function described in the 19th century as being the deep voice of the traditional jíbaro orchestra (the "orquesta jíbara," that is, playing in concert with the tiple and cuatro).  commissioned several artisans to recreate a modern "bordonúa grave." It is strung in intervals of 4-4-4-4 --facilitating in this way its use by modern cuatro players---but tuned to the scheme E A d g c' (mi la re sol do). This scheme places it at a sufficient distance from the cuatro and the tiple enabling a greater contrast between all the instruments of the traditional orchestra. The Cuatro Project is actively promoting this restored usaget in its live presentations of jíbaro orchestras during public musical events and workshops.

At present, builders such as Aurelio Cruz Pagán and Vicente Valentín, among others, offer bordonúas tuned and strung to the requirements of their individual customers, usually in one or more of the ways described above. Recently we were made aware that Modesto Nieves recorded his recent important CD Orquesta Jíbara, with a bordonúa strung and tuned like a cuatro, that is, in intervals of 4-4-4-4.