does not describe me fully
it is where to start

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Puerto Rican Culture - El Cuatro

The cuatro [kwah' tro] is Puerto Rico’s national instrument. It belongs to the lute family of string instruments. Its origins are unclear, though it is believed to have existed on the island in various forms for about 400 years. Its name derives from the original four-stringed instrument, which over time evolved into the current version of ten strings paired in five courses.

The cuatro is the uniquely identifying sound of the island’s folkloric music. Always popular in Puerto Rico, cuatro music is experiencing a surge of popularity on the mainland, with cuatro festivals, schools, and concerts now appearing across the U.S. In addition, the cuatro has expanded its range beyond its traditional folk sound into Latin big bands, soloist performances with symphonic orchestras, and even into hip-hop, pop, and jazz. Its traditional sound, though, is still beloved and is represented in the background music of the following video about the fabrication of a cuatro.

The soloist CDs of accomplished cuatro artists like the standard bearer Pedro Guzmán and the gifted Prodigio Claudio are still mostly available through specialty websites such as In the following appearance at a Puerto Rican community center in Holyoke, Massachusetts, Prodigio Claudio demonstrates his virtuosity and range. I apologize for the “home movie” quality of the video but, after viewing all the available YouTube cuatro music clips, I am convinced that the mainstream world is still not paying attention and therefore not generating the polished videos one might hope for.

I end with a personal note about my own experience with the cuatro. Like so many things Puerto Rican, my introduction to the cuatro was at my childhood Pentecostal church. Most of the parishioners of my father’s church were first-generation Puerto Rican immigrants to the mainland. It is not surprising, then, that church music would incorporate the traditional sounds of the cuatro, guitar, maracas, güiro, tambourines, and drums. The music was no less lively or seductive than its secular counterpart. As a consequence, I need only hear the first bars of cuatro music to be carried back, as if I’d never left, to my childhood church. In the process, I am reminded that music, possibly more than any other genre, seems particularly capable of piercing the cognitive barrier that daily living erects.


melissashook said...

I actually liked that prodigious playing...poor visual quality or not...I live in a tiny city, tiny, mainly hispanic and hope that the Spanish language course at the local school has enough students enrolled so that it will be given. There's far more demand to learn English...but in my day, 100 years ago, French was forced on the obedient high school student.

Nevine said...

"...I am reminded that music, possibly more than any other genre, seems particularly capable of piercing the cognitive barrier that daily living erects." How eloquently you put this. It is so true. Music, more than any other medium, sound or otherwise, is capable of transporting us to another place and time. I might add that fragrance comes a close second... sometimes we smell something and it has the effect of a memorial barrage. But music is quite something else!

I love your "Cultural Identity" posts because I learn from them about a culture I know so little about, but which I find particularly intriguing. Thank you, Judith.


Judith Mercado said...

Melissa: glad you like the music. After having watched all the YT videos I ended ordering a whole bunch of cuatro CDs.

Nevine: Thanks for reminding me that smell is also very evocative as well.

A Cuban In London said...

You have 'el cuatro' and we have 'el tres' in Cuba. Loved the second clip. The sound is pure and clear. Many thanks for this beautiful lesson on Puerto Rican music. I was completely unaware of the existence of this wonderful instrument.

Greetings from London.