The Puerto Rican cuatro, (not to be confused with the Venezuelan cuatro) is a unique stringed instrument hailing from the beautiful island of Puerto Rico in the caribbean sea. It is officially the national instrument of the island and deeply linked to it's Jibaro people and rich culture. The Jibaro are the proud self-sustaining farmers from the countryside in the mountains of the island. Without getting into too much history about the evolution of the cuatro, it is likely to have descended from the Spanish vihuela which was a common instrument during Spain's reign over the world when they were colonizing many of their territories in the 15th and 16th century and beyond. The name "cuatro", is simply the number four in Spanish. But anyone who has taken a gander at the cuatro will quickly notice there are five double strings on the instrument. This is because originally there were 4 double strings, and later a 5th was introduced to add more range and bass capability to the instrument, however we decided not to call it a cinco! (the number five in Spanish). Although 4 double string cuatros are still in existence, they are not sought after as the modern player much prefers the modified version which is fairly standard nowadays.
The cuatro is a shorter string scale length and body size than a guitar, about 25% smaller. It is set up to be a melody machine, capable also of chords, arpeggios and also very virtuosic performance. The island and diaspora has at least 25 or more top notch virtuosos who will dazzle you with their technique, rich improvisations, and exciting/interesting embellishments. The Jibaro music itself consists of many genres which was absorbed into the repertoire over several decades. The Jibaro musicians are considered to be troubadours. Groups of musicians gather in homes during Christmas time, (parrandas) and perform Christmas music, as the Jibaro genre cannot be separated from this high holiday on the island.
My grandfather was born in Jibaro country, in the town of Caguas, and was the first to tell me about the cuatro and Jibaro music when I was young. He sang and played the Puerto Rican percussion instrument known as guiro in church and in small groups throughout his life in Puerto Rico and when he moved to New York. He had a postcard on the wall with the cuatro, and this is how I came to know it by it's distinct shape, having tight C bouts on the body like a violin. I heard recordings of Jibaro music come from his room, so that's where I first heard the sound of the cuatro and it's music. But it wouldn't play a big part of my life coming up in the Bronx as a kid and being estranged from the culture like many Nuyoricans (term used for Puerto Ricans from New York). I started my musical journey at the age of 14 when my mother bought me my first guitar. The action was about a mile high from the fretboard, and it was very difficult to play. I knew nothing else, but I was so excited to have a musical instrument. There was something truly interesting and enchanting about having a real musical instrument available there. I practiced all my scales, and chords while learning all my favorite heavy metal and rock music on that guitar.
My grandfather came to know that I was suddenly entrenched in music, and was very excited about this discovery, even though I wasn't playing cuatro.... yet! There was a time I recall being in the car with him as he was taking me to school and I turned on the radio to my favorite band at the time, Nirvana. I kept the volume low so as to not disturb the old man.. to my surprise, he increased the volume! As the years progressed, so did I with my music. I became interested in Classical music, Flamenco, the oud and more. I even became interested in other kinds of Latin American music on guitar such as Venezuelan harp music transcribed to guitar. I brought my guitar to my late grandfather's house and played him a beautiful Venezuelan pasaje called, "Los Caujaritos". I was happy I could get through this piece without error in front of the old man's watchful eye, and when I was done, he praised me and said it was so beautiful. He asked where it was from. I said, "Venezuela". Suddenly and justly enraged he shouted at me in Spanish, " iPor qué no tocas la música puertorriqueña!, mijo?" ("Why you don't play the Puerto Rican music!, my son?!"). I lacked a sufficient answer, but the true answer was.. because I was an asshole. (Arguably still am).
Most of my life up until that point I had studied and played various kinds of music, on various kinds of instruments, even travelling and living in Lebanon to study the oud. It would be some more years later until I would actually get to that point. But it took my grandfather's death to get there. About a week after he left this earth behind him, a cuatro came to my shop for repair. I remember looking down at it on my bench in the silence of my workshop and I began to cry. I overheard a story that he was telling my grandmother that I was doing this and that with music, but eventually I would return to my own roots and would be involved with the cuatro. And even some years later, it turns out he was right. I began listening to many videos on YouTube of Jibaro musicians, living and dead. I started to seek out the active musicians to build a report with them, and learn as much as I can. I began to see the depth and richness of this music and it's forms. I became mind boggled at the level of musicianship and diversity the genre had to offer. I still didn't start playing any cuatro, but was just listening and absorbing while I was working.
Finally in 2019 I was able to clear some time to actually start making my first cuatro. Building cuatro obviously wasn't my intention as a luthier either. It really started out with wanting to make guitars, then violins, then ouds and more. But now I was totally compelled to make a cuatro for myself during my off time as I dedicated my regular working hours to orders and repairs. It took me about a year to complete my first cuatro, and was really enchanted by its existence once it was finally conceived on my workbench. During the outbreak of Covid19, life took a sudden change of pace. I decided to start taking the cuatro more seriously building up repertoire and improving upon playing technique. I began a project with a vetern of Salsa music and luthier, Tony Velez where we are recording many Jibaro songs, and trying to gather enough material to hit the stages once Covid19 begins to dwindle.
The cuatro featured in this story is slightly unique in that it's standard shape on the body differs now from the common violin-like shape cuatro with the 2 C-bouts. I found a photo of cuatro legend, Yomo Toro featuring a cuatro with this kind of shape. I also noticed some other photos circulating online depicting early cuatros utilizing the same shape. Maybe some purists would reject this as a "traditional" cuatro, I don't know. However if they did some research, they might come to realize that this is a historically legitimate shape. Otherwise the scale length remains the same along with the other critical dimensions on the neck. This cuatro features a spruce top, mahogany sides, back, and neck. Ovenghol head plate, a highly figured burly maple rosette and my favorite feature about this cuatro would be the pale moon ebony fingerboard.