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The Puerto Rican Cuatro Graduates From the Berklee College of Music

by Iñaki Estívaliz


Editor's note: The following article was first published by the website 80grados. To read the original Spanish version, [click here].

The Puerto Rican instrument par excellence, the cuatro, graduated this past Friday evening, February 23, from the University of Berklee in Boston, in the hands of Gurabo-native Fabiola Méndez, who, in her recital, “Al otro lado del charco” offered an unforgettable mix of jazz with Brazilian influences, and Puerto Rican poetry and folk music.

The first student in the history of the prestigious institution to graduate with the cuatro as their principal instrument, she began her graduation concert with a classic piece by John Coltrane, “Central Park West,” accompanied by a group of classmates, among which her boyfriend, Miami-native Zack Auslander, could be found, inseparable from his guitar.

Fabiola recounted how her boyfriend had been one of her best professors, encouraging her to transcribe a different jazz classic each week so that her bebop, when performed on the cuatro, “would sound authentic.”

One couldn’t tell whether Fabiola was prouder for having graduated from Berklee or for having had “the honor” of becoming the first to have done so while studying the cuatro, an instrument that some of her professors hadn’t even heard of before.

Her patriotic fervor led her to follow with “A Julia de Burgos,” a tribute dedicated to “a powerful Puerto Rican woman,” she noted of the great Puerto Rican poet.

Fabiola, who thanked her professors in Puerto Rico and those at Berklee “from around the world,” has been playing the cuatro since the age of six, when she began learning at the Instituto Musical de Manatí. She would go on to play at La Rondalla de Humacao and at La Escuela Libre de Música de Caguas.

With the brisa brasileña that Fabiola likes to infuse both her compositions and the pace of the musicians as they rotate to play different instruments for each song, because “each piece is its own world,” asserted the cuatrista, they continued with: “Return to Pluto,” “Tu cuerpo y alma,” (written for her love, the gringo guitarist) and “Canto mi melodía.”

From the beginning of the “Senior Recital,” emotion in the form of tears from the diaspora crept into eyes of the most sensitive in the audience. When the first chords of “Mamá borinquen me llama” were heard, very few in the Berklee Recital Hall, also known as Recital Hall 1A of the Berklee College of Music at 1140 Boylston St. in Boston, could contain their crying.

Hearts in the audience began to beat with violent nostalgia in response to Virgilio Dávila’s lyrics: “Mamá, borinquen me llama / Este país no es el mío / Borinquen es pura flama / y aquí me muero de frío”. This song is “very special for me. It speaks about the people that have left the island. How it makes you feel when you’re not there, and you feel like the island is calling out to you,” explained Fabiola.

And it’s that the same piece by Virgilio says it thusly: “Si escucho aquí una canción/ de las que aprendí en mis lares/ o una danza de Tavárez / Campos o Dueño Colón / mi sensible corazón / de amor patrio más se inflama / y heraldo que fiel proclama/ este sentimiento santo/ Borinquen es pura flama”.

Next came the most emotional part of the evening. Cuatro player Carlos Cabrera went up on stage for the occasion. Following in Fabiola’s footsteps, he had begun studying the cuatro at Berklee earlier this year. The highlight was a breathtaking duel between Fabiola and Carlos.

Fabiola, in the midst of a public that had thrown itself at her feet, humbly downplayed the moment by speaking about what happens when the song is performed in town festivals in Puerto Rico, where the duel involves between four or five cuatro players. “That’s really something,” she might have added. But for those of us that were there last night at 1140 Boylston St., two cuatros were more than enough.

The final piece of the concert didn’t lack emotional impact either. It was a composition by Zack, her boyfriend, the title of which was plainly suggestive: “Waiting in Fabi’s Lobby.” The Miami-native then gave a concise introduction to the piece: “it’s a love song.”

The dialogue, the flirtation, the discussion—all of it was beautifully maintained by the strings of Zack’s guitar and Fabiola’s cuatro throughout the love song. The solos of the Venezuelan kit player Mariano Escalona and the conga and cowbell player of Zayra Pola, a native of Bayamón, were also spectacular.

Watch the full concert:


Photos by Ivys Fernández.

© Iñaki Estívaliz. Published in Centro Voices 28 February 2018.