I vividly remember how I became interested in learning how to play the Puerto Rican cuatro. I was 7 years old and watching a Saturday variety TV show on Puerto Rico’s Telemundo channel with my family. It was the kind of show where people played games to win prizes. Although it was fun to watch adults competing for home appliances such as blenders and trendy microwaves, what I enjoyed from this TV show was the live music performances. The musical guests were usually the popular salsa or merengue orchestras that visited the show to promote their most recent musical hits.
The guest on one particular episode captivated my 7-year old attention by performing the Puerto Rican cuatro. The TV appearance of the iconic cuatrista Maso Rivera was definitely a “one man show.”
Maso Rivera started his performance by playing his regular size cuatro. Then he proceeded to play cuatros of all sizes and shapes that he pulled out of a wooden box. When Maso was concluding his musical segment, plucking a baseball bat with strings (and a Roberto Clemente autograph!) I was already telling my mom that I wanted to play a cuatro. (A similar performance to the one described can be watched here.)
That was the beginning of a musical journey that, more than being about becoming a professional cuatrista, has been about meeting amazing cuatro players, learning from them and trying to understand the magic of a cuatro performance.
In 2003, while studying at the University of Puerto Rico, a friend asked me to join a small group of musicians who were accompanying a Puerto Rican folkloric dance troupe that had an invitation to perform in Hawaii. I immediately accepted and, with the other musicians, began to sell chocolates in order to raise money for the plane tickets to Hawaii.
The experience in Hawaii was an eye-opener. While studying cuatro in Puerto Rico, I perceived the tradition to be limited only to the island. The cuatro pioneers that I knew of were established on the island and the nationalist sentiment surrounding the instrument was nurtured by the cuatro players that I got to see playing. Cuatro players tended to reaffirm the Puerto Rican nature of the instrument and its uniqueness. In Hawaii, we played at the United Puerto Rican Association, and there I discovered the cuatro’s rich and extended history away from the island. When I heard my fellow cuatristas in Hawaii playing the cuatro in a fashion that I never heard before, a performance that involved fast, improvised solos in the also new to me kachi kachi genre, I noticed that they were preserving a style of cuatro performance that they probably learned by oral tradition. I realized that Puerto Ricans on the island were somewhat disconnected from Puerto Rican musical expressions that were in constant change and evolution beyond the island limits.
In Hawaii I met superbly talented cuatro players. I also made a lasting friendship with Hawaiian-Puerto Rican cuatro player Mike Balles and his familia of musicians, and ultimately I discovered ethnomusicology as a field of study.
For the past few years I have been researching the ways in which cuatro players are shaping and preserving the “cuatro tradition” in the United States. The fact that Puerto Ricans living in the U.S outnumber those on the island presents new challenges to the consideration of migrants as carriers of traditions to different places. Migration has expanded the traditionally adopted ethnomusicological frame of reference of studying music in its cultural context and in a specific geographic location. This shift in emphasis poses new questions about the survival of elements of traditions in new contexts, the ability of music to retain its identity away from the culture from which it sprang and the construction of what is “traditional.” Essentially, “folk music depends on a community to shape it and give it voice.”[i] Just like Puerto Ricans, the communities of cuatro players may be dispersed but national ties are still dominant in cuatro performance.There are some institutions in the United States that have been dedicated to the advancement of cuatro performance and to the education of a new generation of cuatro players.[ii] Each year cuatristas, aficionados and cuatro music fans attend the Cuatro Festival in Chicago. The Chicago Cuatro Festival, this year officially renamed as the National Cuatro Festival, has become the emblematic event that brings together renowned cuatristas as well as Chicago’s own cuatro talent. I recently had the chance to interview Carlos Hernandez, director at the Puerto Rican Arts Alliance, to learn more about the festival and its history.
Noraliz Ruiz: When did the cuatro festival begin?
Carlos Hernandez: It began in 1998 at the Roberto Clemente Community Academy High School located in what was once the heart of the Puerto Rican community.
NR: Has the Puerto Rican Arts Alliance (PRAA) been the festival’s organizer since its beginning?
CH: Since the beginning, PRAA has been the organizer of the Cuatro Festival. However, there were many community volunteers in its early years that played a key role in launching this effort. Originally the festival served as one of PRAA’s principal programming efforts to promote Puerto Rican culture. The idea of the festival was brought to PRAA by a group called the Chicago Cuatro Orchestra whose focus was to create a Puerto Rican Cuatro Orchestra that could perform at such an event and have PRAA establish a yearlong cuatro educational music program that could feed into those efforts. Many years have gone by and PRAA now continues to teach youth and children how to play the cuatro, guitar and violin. We have also created an ensemble of our own called Taller PRAA and have partnered with many other music groups.
The Chicago Cuatro Orchestra
NR: What does the cuatro mean to the Puerto Rican community in Chicago?
CH: Prior to PRAA National Cuatro Festival efforts, cuatro simply meant folk music to the Puerto Rican community in Chicago. Today, the meaning of cuatro has expanded beyond Puerto Rican folk music that is typically played during the Christmas holidays. PRAA has been a catalyst for cuatro music to be appreciated more profoundly by younger generations of Puerto Rican and non-Puerto Rican children. Our interest has always and continues to be one of offering a music forum that allows cuatristas to expose Puerto Rico’s national instrument to our community and other Latinos and non Latinos. We have played a major role in the United States to revolutionize what cuatro means for everyone beyond our traditional borders.
NR: Can you expand on the types of community and educational services of PRAA in Chicago? Are cuatro lessons part of your educational program?
CH: PRAA provides a number of arts and music educational programs. Among them are The Taíno Project, Studio Arts and Exhibition Program, The Three Kings Festival and our Latin Music Project program. It is through our Latin Music Project that we offer annually cuatro lessons to 300 Chicago Public School students and our community. All of our programs are free and open to the public.
NR: Can you share the names of some acclaimed cuatristas that have performed at the festival’s stage?
CH: You name them and we have probably covered them all. Cuatristas that have honored us with a performance throughout the years include, but not limited to, Edwin Colón Zayas, Prodigio Claudio, Alvin Medina, Pedro Guzmán, Quique Domenech, Juradito, Luis Sanz, Yomo Toro, Christian Nieves, Modesto Nieves, Maribel Delgado and Emma Colón Zayas.
NR: What’s the main attraction of the festival? Do you always present cuatro players from the U.S? Is the festival also a platform for emerging cuatro talent?
CH: Yes, both. The National Cuatro Festival (NCF) is an opportunity for the public to go hear some of the best cuatro music from Puerto Rico and the United States. The main attraction of the festival is the high caliber music production that goes into executing a first class concert that has a mix of other cultural programmed elements that are intentionally part of the event. For example, this year we are dedicating the NCF to the Borinqueneers. Other years we have featured community leaders who have dedicated their life to an issue and/or activity that has advanced the Puerto Rican community. All of the advance planning that goes into producing an NCF leads to really rallying a Puerto Rican community that rarely has an opportunity to take part in a monumental professional setting that raises their cultural pride profoundly.
NR: Why did the festival’s name change to National Cuatro Festival? Is PRAA presenting a new vision under this name?
CH: This year, after a successful 15th Anniversary celebration in 2013, the festival is undergoing an update with a new logo, new name and expanded mission and audience. The addition of "National" to the festival title reflects the festival's growth since 1998 into a truly one-of-a-kind event. The Cuatro Festival is truly unique drawing audiences from New York, Miami, Puerto Rico and locations across the country. It is our belief here at PRAA that the name change is more in synch with the organization’s past, present and future trajectory.
NR: What should the audience expect from this year’s edition?
CH: On Saturday, November 8 at 7pm the audience should expect another pleasant surprise of great cuatro music produced by PRAA. Our talent includes Edwin Colón Zayas, Gabriel Muñoz, Los Cantores de Bayamón and Chicago Cuatro Orchestra. All of this and much more will make this an amazing unforgettable evening to enjoy in a first class Chicago downtown theater venue located in Chicago. For more information about the festival please visit us at www.praachicago.org/.
NR: How does the festival connect cuatristas from Puerto Rico and the United States?
CH: The festival brings cuatristas from Puerto Rico and the U.S. in a unique forum that is rarely done annually in any of our nation’s concert theater. We provide cuatristas the opportunity to expose their new works to an audience that appreciate their talents. Connecting the cuatrista to this audience is another magical component of the NCF.
NR: Could you share with us some of the accomplishments of the cuatro festival and in which ways it has contributed to the community of Puerto Ricans in Chicago?
CH: The NCF has really been a long journey for community. It continues to evolve as we look for new talents and production creativity. PRAA started with very little resources and continues to look for its audience to support this unique music program. PRAA estimates that since 1998 over 100,000 people has been exposed directly to our NCF. NCF has successfully expressed the Puerto Rican culture through its high quality artistic vocal and instrumental talents. We have raised the bar for others to follow us and understand that our community deserves first class theater concert hall experiences and nothing less. Our NCF has truly been a “game changer” and it is this legacy that we hope that others will aspire to build from and continue to raise awareness of the beauty of the Chicago’s Puerto Rican community and beyond!
The city of Chicago has become the headquarters for the stateside community of cuatristas. It is admirable to see that it is also serving as a main stage for young cuatristas from the United States to showcase their talent. New Jersey based cuatrista, Jose Gabriel Muñoz, in the bill for this year’s edition said: “I feel absolutely humbled to even be considered for such an event as the prestigious National Cuatro Festival in Chicago. I know there are plenty of other cuatristas that are probably more worthy, musically disciplined, and prepared than I am. So it is truly an honor for me to partake of this wonderful cause and program. It means the world to me at this point in my musical career. As a musician, you train for so many years dreaming of an opportunity like this and now that it has presented itself I can appreciate it for what it's worth. Which is practically a priceless opportunity!”
Gabriel’s favorite cuatro player is the veteran Edwin Colón Zayas. About sharing the stage with Edwin, Gabriel asserted: “I have mentioned in the past that Edwin Colón Zayas has revolutionized the Puerto Rican cuatro as we know it several times over. He is by far my all-time favorite cuatrista and a major inspiration. I was in disbelief when asked to open for Edwin. A musician of his caliber can be intimidating. But I am truly excited to share a stage with one of the greatest cuatristas of our generation.”
I opened this essay by sharing how I was attracted to the cuatro to emphasize the lasting impression that a cuatro performance I watched as a kid had in my life. I am certain that other young folks will get inspired by the virtuosity of our professional cuatristas. I also told my story as a Puerto Rican who grew up on the island not knowing about the contributions and innovations of cuatristas in the U.S. It is fulfilling to see collaborations between island based and mainland-based cuatro players in the preservation of the cultural elements we have defined as ours. I hope that the efforts of the National Cuatro Festival will motivate cultural organizations in Puerto Rico to also connect the Puerto Rican musical talent that is based and evolving in the United States.
[i] Philip Vilas Bohlman, The Study of Folk Music in the Modern World (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988), x.
[ii] It is important to mention the monumental work that the Puerto Rican Cuatro Project has done for the documentation, education and preservation of cuatro performance practice in the United States and in Puerto Rico. Their work is not only the most comprehensive research on the cuatro, but it has helped to define the trends in cuatro performance.
© Center for Puerto Rican Studies. Published on 5 November 2014.