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Chicago Tribune

Cuatro Festival 10-Stringed Guitar Is An Instrument Of Cultural Pride

By Aaron Cohen, Special to the Tribune.

4 November 2004
Copyright © 2004 Chicago Tribune. All rights reserved. 

At first, Music Express Inc. looks like any other instrument store in Chicago. Guitars, horns and percussion are displayed behind the counter, which David Rivera runs, while his brother, Orlando, offers music lessons to children and young adults from the surrounding Humboldt Park neighborhood. But when Orlando Rivera takes a short break, he opens the door to a slightly hidden temperature-regulated and humidity-controlled room filled with Puerto Rican cuatros -- 10-string guitars that have become the brothers' mission to promote.

"The cuatro is the instrument of expression for everybody in Puerto Rico," Orlando Rivera says. For the Riveras, teaching local students how to play the cuatro at their shop on Armitage Avenue instills not just musical skills, but a sense of cultural pride and connection to the island. The Rivera brothers are also aware of the instrument's legion of enthusiasts. Chicago has become a hub for this movement, especially through the annual Puerto Rican Cuatro Festival taking place Friday.

One measure of this small instrument's increasingly higher profile is the expansion of this event. When the first local cuatro festival was held at Roberto Clemente High School's auditorium in 1999, about 700 people attended. Gradually, it moved to larger venues, including the Field Museum and the Gateway Theatre. Each relocation brought more corporate sponsors. This year marks its first time at the Chicago Theatre.

"We've noticed that all kinds of people come and join us," says Carlos Hernandez, executive director of the Puerto Rican Arts Alliance, which presents the festival. "The Puerto Ricans, in particular, feel like they're one big family when they're in that audience. Because our culture is so embracing, we have other audiences coming and feeling like part of our family."

Many styles

Like a family, the festival brings together cuatro players (cuatristas) who have their own ideas. Pedro Guzman includes jazz improvisation, while Alvin Medina adapts the works of classical composers for the instrument.

Rivera will perform the traditional repertoire with the Chicago Cuatro Orchestra. As in previous years, onstage speakers and program booklets will describe the history that these distinctive cuatristas share.

The Cuatro Project ( is conducting much of the research on its origins and evolution. This endeavor is coordinated primarily through William Cumpiano, a Massachusetts instrument-maker, and Juan Sotomayor, a retired New York Times photographer.

Cumpiano said the project began 14 years ago when he visited Puerto Rico and found that, "the entire body of the tradition had never, ever been documented."

That tradition stretches back to the stringed instruments that traveled from Spain to Puerto Rico in the 1600s.

In the mountainous interior, rural people, who were called "jibaros," (in the U.S. vernacular, "hillbillies") created their music on four-string guitars.

By 1875, these cuatros had evolved into the modern form of five sets of double strings. Through migration across the island, jibaro music and the cuatro became national symbols. Some recent musicians, including Yomo Toro, have brought the instrument to such urban genres as salsa.

But, as Cumpiano discovered, the historical narrative is cloudy.

"There wasn't a cuatro; there were many cuatros on the island, and they all varied by region and according to time period," Cumpiano says.

"It was the isolation and difficulty in traveling from region to region that made everybody thinks theirs is the real cuatro." Even the name of the instrument has no definite origin.

"We're very careful not to claim that the word `cuatro' comes from the fact that the instrument once had four strings," Cumpiano says. "When you find chartar is a Persian word for stringed instrument, we don't jump to the conclusion that the Spanish word for the No. 4 is why the instrument is called the cuatro."

1st festival in '98

Part of the Cuatro Project's mission includes hosting performances. Chicago photographer/cultural advocate Carlos Flores heard about these events about 10 years ago and sought something similar for this city. In the mid-1990s, Flores, Hernandez and Edward Maldonado (curator of the Clarke House Museum) explored how to set it up. They incorporated as the Puerto Rican Arts Alliance in 1998 and held the first cuatro festival the following year.

"The Chicago cuatro festival is the biggest outside of Puerto Rico," Medina says from his home in Florida. "It's awesome that all the way up in Chicago there is a whole mess of Puerto Ricans keeping true to the culture and the music."

While the cuatro festival is the alliance's signature event, Hernandez says its success has helped the alliance expand to present a wide range of cultural programs. He is particularly proud of The Taino Project, which is an effort to teach students about the Indians who lived throughout the Caribbean before the Spanish arrived.

So to keep the cuatro festival going for future generations, the alliance offers lessons on the instrument (and Spanish guitar) at the Humboldt Park Fieldhouse and in various public schools. The Rivera brothers teach the classes, and Orlando Rivera recruits the best students for his ensembles. Usually, the cuatristas play the lead melodies and the guitarists provide the accompaniment.

Two young cuatristas who are already performing in Rivera's groups are Anissa Vega and Grace Garriga, both 8. Vega's grandmother, Sonia Vega, also started studying music to keep up with her granddaughter.

"I would like to play and travel all over the world," Anissa Vega says. "Puerto Rico, Mexico, Japan . . . "

Grace Garriga cuts her off to insist, "You have to learn the language first!"

Medina, 29, is a cuatrista who has become a role model to these students. He grew up in Philadelphia and began playing Christmas folk melodies that his father showed him when he was 6. Today, the conservatory-trained musician is transposing Johann Sebastian Bach's preludes and Ludwig Beethoven's familiar compositions for the cuatro. Medina is also adding salsa rhythms to the European art music of that earlier century. A few weeks ago, he was completing his recent disc, which he hopes to have available at the festival.

"You're not supposed to have picked up on the tradition as strongly as I have," Medina says. "You're supposed to be an American -- into rock, rap or whatever. All that music is great, but for me, for some strange reason, my favorite music is from Puerto Rico. In my house, the fear of losing the culture and the instrument disappearing would never happen as long as I'm alive."

Orlando Rivera, who studied the classical bass in San Juan, says he is working toward the same goal through the cuatro orchestra.

Exposed to a higher class

"Nobody was playing the music publicly in Chicago [about eight years ago]," Rivera says. "Maybe once a week in a nightclub that you wouldn't even want to go to. And I wanted to take the cuatro from down there to a higher class. Because I knew that was happening in Puerto Rico."

Along with Rivera, Flores believes that the potential for future cuatristas is limitless.

"We can have students make their own cuatros and have a competition for the best one," Flores says. "The ultimate goal is to take it to Symphony Center to give the cuatro its proper respect."


The 2004 Puerto Rican Cuatro Festival will be at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State St.; $25-$75; 773-342-8865 or

- - -

Amateur attempts to master the cuatro

Just before my first cuatro class at the Humboldt Park Fieldhouse, I had to stop by the office of the Puerto Rican Arts Alliance on the building's second floor to pick up my instrument. Carlos Hernandez, the alliance's executive director, pulled out two cuatros from the closet, opened their cases, and told me to make my choice while his staff gathered around the table.

On the left was a sort of jewel-encrusted cuatro that would not seem so out of place at the Grand Ole Opry. I opted for the other one, a plain model that looked as if it would be sturdy and not bring me undue attention. No glam for this amateur.

"That choice says a lot about you," Hernandez said while his staff giggled. "Good luck!"

For more than 10 years, as a critic, I've been dishing it to all kinds of instrumentalists and singers. But because the cuatro is treated with such reverence, it made sense for me to try to get something of an insider's feel while working on this story. When the Wednesday night class started, I briefly thought about my own past as a music student. There were about seven years when I studied the piano -- a time that is becoming increasingly distant. Recently, I briefly picked up the accordion in a futile attempt to re-create Parisian cafes in my living room.

As more students filled the room, they reflected the community outside the fieldhouse. One man a few seats away from me clearly had considerable instrumental training as he was running guitar scales up and down the cuatro. But the families who were probably attending their first music lessons were even more striking. Young boys and girls sat patiently waiting for class to begin with their parents and grandparents by their sides. In halting Spanish, I explained to one curious grandmother that I was there simply because I loved the music. Which is true, but I also said it because I'm don't really know the Spanish words for "undercover music critic."

Because I'm left-handed, I believed that I would have a natural advantage on the instrument. The left hand performs the ostensibly difficult picking of notes on the frets while the right hand does the strumming. At least that's what I thought before I began playing.

Rivera instructed us to grip the cuatros without using the palms of our left hands. That way, we'd have more mobility on the frets. But somehow, I had a difficult time gliding from one note to the next. Sounds that should have been easy to hit kept getting flubbed as I quickly developed a habit of pressing down at all the wrong moments. Gradually, the thin strings started to hurt my fingertips -- which became acute as I sat down at my computer keyboard a few hours later.

I spent the next few days practicing and brought my cuatro with me when I went to interview Rivera for this article. Patiently, he guided my fingers on the frets to crank out a semi-recognizable version of "Three Blind Mice."

Taking a break, I said how much I admired the young Anissa Vega and Grace Garriga.

"Yes," he said holding up his hands, "those girls are not afraid of developing calluses."

I have much to live up to.

-- Aaron Cohen

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