Puerto Rican Cuatro
A Puerto Rican Cuatro
|Tiple (Puerto Rico), Bordonua|
The Puerto Rican cuatro is the national instrument of Puerto Rico. It belongs to the lute family of string instruments, and is guitar-like in function, but with a shape closer to that of the violin. The word "Cuatro" means "Four" which was the total of strings of the very first Puerto Rican Cuatro. The current cuatro has ten strings in five courses, tuned from low to high B3 B2♦E4 E3♦A3 A3♦D4 D4♦G4 G4. (note that the bottom two pairs are in octaves, while the top three pairs are tuned in unisons).  The cuatro is the most familiar of the three instruments which make up the Puerto Rican jibaro orchestra (the cuatro, the tiple and the bordonua).
A cuatro player is called a cuatrista.
Note that cuatro is a name also applied to a number of other somewhat differently-configured instruments, including the Venezuelan Cuatro, the Cuban cuatro and some small Spanish instruments.
Very little is known about the exact origin of the Cuatro. However, most experts believe that the Cuatro has existed on the island in one form or another for about 400 years. The Spanish instrument that it is most closely related to is the vihuela poblana (also known as the Medieval/Renaissance guitar), which had 4 courses, 2 strings each for 8 strings in total as well as the Spanish Medieval/Renaissance 4 course and the Spanish Laúd, particularly in the Canary Islands.
There was a 'cuatro antiguo', which had 4 single strings, then 8 strings in 4 doubled courses, and then the modern cuatro with 5 double courses. Despite the name, however, the origins are not clear.
Types of Puerto Rican cuatros
There are three main types of cuatro: cuatro antiguo of 4 orders and 4 strings, the "Southern" cuatro of 4 orders and 8 strings, and the cuatro "moderno" of 5 orders and 10 strings.
- The 4-string "cuatro antiguo": This is the original Puerto Rican Cuatro. It was made from a single block of wood and used 4 gut strings. This instrument may have evolved from the Vihuela Poblana. It was used to mostly play Jibaro music.
- The 8-string "Southern" cuatro: This Cuatro evolved from the old 4 string cuatro. It was made like a guitar and had 4 pairs of steel strings. It was used to play salon genres like the mazurka, danza, waltz, polka, etc.
- The 10-string cuatro "moderno": This cuatro evolved from the baroque era 10-string Bandurria and Laúd from Spain. It is made from a single block of wood and it has 5 pairs of steel strings. It is the most common used today and is used to play jibaro music, salon genres, salsa, pop, rock, classical, jazz, and even American bluegrass and many more styles.
Cuatros shapes, sizes and variants.
Sound Box designs:
- The antiguo design: This box resembles a medieval keyhole, also known as cuatro cuadrao, or cuatro araña. This shape has been found on some old dotars and citolas. 4 string, 8 string and 10 string Cuatros were made using this design. This was the very 1st design and the oldest and it might be 400 years old, sometimes some 10 string Cuatros are still made with this design.
- The aviolinado design: This box resembles a violin. It is the most common shape used today and most cuatros made today use this design. 8 string and 10 string Cuatros were made using this design starting in the 19th century.
- The dos puntos design: This box looked like some old mandolinas made by Martin in the US during the 20th century. However it was first used in the 19th century in Yauco, Puerto Rico. 8 string Cuatros were made using this design.
- The tulipán design: This box looked like the antiguo design but with no straight lines and all curves and thus resembled a tulip. 8 string and 10 string Cuatros were made using this design during the 1900s near Yauco and Ponce.
- The higuera design: This is the rarest design. This box was shaped like an organic oval. This was because the soundboxes were made from domed gourds instead of wood. 4 string Cuatros were made using this design in the 19th century in Puerto Rico by enslaved Africans on the island. Now they are made with 10 metal strings and often have designs carved onto their backs.
- Besides these, many other lesser known and one of a kind designs also exist.
In the 1950s there was an effort to produce a "classical" ensemble of cuatros, with various-sized instruments taking on the role of the violins, violas, cellos, and double bases in a classical orchestra. To meet these roles cuatros of the aviolinado style were produced in four different sizes and tunings: Cuatro Soprano, Cuatro Alto, Cuatro Tradicional (the standard instrument, also called Cuatro Tenor), and Cuatro Bajo (Bass Cuatro): all have ten strings and are tuned in fourths. The project met with only limited success, and today most of these variants are rare, with the cuatro tradicional surviving as the standard instrument.
There is also a Cuatro Lírico ("lyrical cuatro"), which is about the size of the Tenor, but has a deep jelly-bean shaped body; a Cuatro Sonero, which has 15 strings in 5 courses of three strings each; and a Seis, which is a Cuatro Tradicional with an added two-string course (usually a lower course), giving it a total of 12 strings in 6 courses.
Cuatro orchestras of Puerto Rico
|You may watch a segment from "Nuestro Cuatro" about the "Cuatro" with Tomas "Maso" Rivera here|
The original cuatro orchestra was the orquesta jibara, which consisted of various number of:
- Puerto Rican Tiple
- Cuatro Tradicional
At least two configurations of "classical" cuatro orchestra were formed in the 1950s and 1960s:
- Primero Cuatro Concertino
- Segundo Cuatro Concertino
- Cuatro Bajo
- Cuatro Rítmico
- Cuatro Tradicional
- Cuatro Soprano
- Cuatro Tenor
- Cuatro Alto
- Cuatro Bajo
As noted, most of the instrumental variants are now rare, as are these classical groupings. There have, however, been modern efforts to revive the orquesta jibara, notably the Cuatro Project's Orquesta Jibara Antigua, which has made several recordings and given many concerts since 1992.
"The Puerto Rican Cuatro Project"
William Cumpiano and Christina Sotomayor founded the Puerto Rican Cuatro Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to fostering the traditions that surround the national instrument of Puerto Rico, by means of gathering, promoting and preserving its cultural memories of Puerto Rican musical traditions, folkloric stringed instruments and musicians. The Cuatro Project is also dedicated to the promoting and preserving the Puerto Rican décima verse form and the traditional song as created by its greatest troubadours, living and past.
Cumpiano, together with Sotomayor and Echevarria, wrote, directed and produced twoDVD documentaries for The Cuatro Project. They are:OUR CUATRO Vol.1, the first feature-length documentary about the cuatro and its music and OUR CUATRO Vol. 2: A Historic Concert. Cumpiano and cultural researcher David Morales produced another DVD documentary THE DÉCIMA BORINQUEÑA: An ancient poetic singing tradition, directed by Myriam Fuentes. The proceeds of these recordings were to be used for the research and documentation activities of the Puerto Rican Cuatro Project.
- "Nuestro Cuatro: Volumen 1", The Puerto Ricans and their stringed instruments. An unprecedented documentary that reveals the emotional story of the development and the history of the music and stringed instruments traditions of Puerto Rico.
- "Nuestro Cuatro: Volumen 2", Un Concierto Historico/ A Historical Concert. The conclusion of video documentary Nuestro Cuatro, a cultural and musical history of the Puerto Rican cuatro and Puerto Rico's stringed instruments.
The Puerto Rican cuatro has been mistakenly labeled by Jon Anderson (of Yes) since the late 70s. He used it for the album Tormato where it's labeled as an Alvarez 10-string guitar. For this reason, it has been almost impossible for many Yes fans to find out more about this instrument for decades.