The cuatro is an instrument native to Puerto Rico that is considered a symbol of Puerto Rican nationality. It is a string instrument that is mainly used in traditional Puerto Rican music (danzas, seis, guarachas, etc.), although it is also used in popular music and, occasionally, in formal music.

Very little is known about the origin of the Puerto Rican cuatro, but it is known that it was derived from the Spanish string instruments. Some researchers believe that its origins lie with the lute, while others say that it was created by removing the double strings from the tiple.

The oldest known cuatro that has been documented was built in the late 18th century. During the 19th century, it was a very popular instrument that was used in both religious and secular festivities. The oldest known cuatros were of rustic construction. They were carved, had four strings (thus the name) made of animal gut, and the tuning pegs were made of wood. The old cuatro, like the modern ones, was made of local wood, preferably guaraguao for the body and palm for the face.

In the late 19th century, the cuatro evolved into a double-stringed instrument with mechanical tuning pegs. According to historians of the instrument, such as Efraín Ronda (1898-2003), the tune of the cuatro, from first to fourth, is D, A, E and A. In the 20th century, cuatros with five sets of double strings, in other words, ten strings in all, began to appear. The first string, or primera, as it was commonly called, was tuned to so, which widened the instrument’s range of high-pitched notes. The fifth string began to be tuned to B, and added a completely new tone.

In the early 20th century, both cuatros coexisted, but the evolution of the five-string cuatro took root among musicians and, at the same time, gained popularity through radio. In the mid-20th century, the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture, under the direction of Ricardo Alegría, embarked on a program to revive the Puerto Rican cuatro, which included contests for building the instrument and preparation of a method for teaching it, which was created by singer and musicologist Francisco López Cruz.

The stringing of the modern cuatro is five sets of double strings and the tune, from first to fifth, is as follows: G, D, A, E and B. In the fourth and fifth order, a thick wrapped string is used along with a thinner, unwrapped one. In this way, the thicker string plays a high note and the thinner string plays one octave higher. The music of the cuatro is written in the key of G, although its sound is an octave lower than it is read on the scale.

Adapted by PROE Editorial Group
Original source: Francisco Marrero Ocasio, Los instrumentos de cuerda en Puerto Rico, 2003. CD Vuelvo a mi Estrella. Taller Musical Retablo.

Author: Grupo Editorial EPRL
Published: August 28, 2014.

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