First of all, what is a Cuatro? Well, of course “Cuatro” is Spanish for “Four” (as in uno, dos, tres, cuatro!), the number of strings the instrument has commonly had for quite some time. And while it is an American instrument, to confuse matters a bit, there is also another American Cuatro, the Puerto Rican Cuatro, an instrument strung with 10 steel strings paired in five courses; a different animal altogether. The more common 4-string Cuatro is what this letter will focus on. It’s similar to the Ukulele in lot of ways; so much so that any Ukulele player can pick up a Cuatro (or vice versa) and play it straight away. We’ll discuss the similarities as well as the differences in a bit, but first, some history. While the Machete and Rajao came to Hawaii from Portugal in the 1890s, and were melded into the Ukulele within a couple of decades, one could say that the forebears of the Cuatros came to the Americas from next door in Spain four centuries earlier. And when we say the Americas, we don’t mean to say that the Cuatro spanned the continents from Canada to Tierra del Fuego. Rather it was played within the first, the oldest areas of European influence, an area that has been called the Corredor Cultural Caribe. In the beginning, Spain controlled almost all of the European settlements, but even after other Europeans crossed the Atlantic, individuals moved where they wanted with little regard for national boundaries. The mix of cultures, Native, European & African in the beginning, was the hallmark of the American experience. Still, there was a trade route followed by the Spanish merchant ships, and a lot of the movement between settlements occurred along that route. Below is a short video about a program to revive the Corredor produced by the Costa Rican government. It is all music with captions in Spanish. The first map shows only the program’s current participants; it is the second map that shows the old principal trade route. Havana was also a main port in that route, left out by what we would guess to be political reasons; but note the importance of the final link in the circle. New Orleans became the last port in that main route when Louisiana was transferred from France to Spain in 1763; it is the only part of the Corredor located in the present day United States. That is the point in the video when the Louisiana State song (“You Are My Sunshine” by Governor Jimmie Davis) is played. And it is for this reason New Orleans is also known as the “northernmost port of the Caribbean.” With the rise of nationalism and the power of central governments around the world, peoples freedom and movement are much more restricted today; the Corredor is not as vibrant as it once was; something that diminishes the old American experience altogether. The desire to bring back awareness of our ties in some fashion and their contribution to the American character was the reason for the video. But while the links of the old world have been weakened they are not gone altogether. There is still intercourse in the area, even if it is now highly regulated. Our own little enterprise is one example: our furniture, and now our instruments have long been produced in that Corredor, ending up being sold at the northern link: New Orleans. And so this is the area where the Cuatro was played. We say that in some part as presumption rather than certainty. It was certainly was played in the areas where it is still often found today: from the Guyanas and northeastern South America through the Caribbean from Trinidad to Jamaica and along the Central American Caribbean coast. Here in New Orleans it was presumed to have been played as well, though only a small immigrant community plays today. For in addition to the constant movement of people along the Spanish trade route, people (apart from slaves) always moved freely outside the main trade route as well. There were mass migrations from the French islands north to New Orleans during the slave revolts of the early 19th century, Confederates moved south from the United States to the relative tranquility of Mexico after the Civil War and people from the Caribbean islands moved to the east coasts of Central America seeking work in the Banana Republics. And with the movement of people the influence of the varied cultures, including of course their music, traveled as well. Early New Orleans R&B traveled across the Gulf on our huge clear channel radio stations and had a big influence on Ska and early Reggae in Jamaica. During the 1880 Cotton Exposition here the Mexican pavilion was one of the most popular because of their military band. The local musicians who would soon invent the Jazz form soaked it in, and in turn the Mexican military is credited with being a big part of what is called the “Spanish tinge” in early New Orleans Jazz. On the southern end of the Corredor, was Henri Salvador, who many think of today as a French singer (and comic). But he claimed both French Guyana and Guadeloupe as childhood homes, and the rhythms in a number of his songs (here’s “Dans mon Isle”) were the inspiration for Brazilians like de Moraes, Jobim and Gilberto in the creation of Bossa Nova. Those are just a few select examples. The early 19th century has been pegged as the time the Cuatro was likely played in New Orleans. ***********************************************Most of those who know anything of the Cuatro today associate it with Venezuela. In that country it is the national instrument; ingrained in the cultural fabric of the country even more than with the Ukulele in Hawaii. For that reason you’ll sometimes even hear the instrument referred to as the Venezuelan Cuatro, or Cuatro Venezolano.The Cuatro has sometimes (derisively) been referred to as “the poor man’s flamenco guitar” and for most of it’s recent history that description would be somewhat accurate. Much of what is heard today does indeed have strumming as a primary element. But while the Cuatro is wonderfully suited to that sort of playing, to think that style defines its limits is to overlook what a truly versatile instrument it can be. So let’s now see some of its history.Take a look at short film below entitled Venezuela en Cuatro Cuerdas (Venezuela in 4 strings). The video is all in Spanish, but the introductory part is a fascinating display of some of the collection of Dr. Rafael Casanova and doesn’t need much translation. Briefly, here is what you’ll see and hear. He first shows two forms of the ancestor of the guitar, the Vihuela; reproductions from sketches taken from a friar’s document in 1555. The smaller one was also known as the “Renaissance Guitar”. These would have been the instruments first brought to the Americas. He then proceeds to show how they gradually lost strings. The Vihuelas shown were six course instruments like the modern guitar, but with some courses doubled (all 6 courses, in other words 12 strings on the larger instrument; generally one or two doubled courses on the smaller). In the Americas the instruments went quickly to 8 strings (doubled), at which point they then became four course instruments or “Cuatros”. There are some five course instruments, called “Quintos” shown as well. Think of them as a Rajao with some courses doubled. But the 8-string Cuatro then shortly became a four course 6-string and finally with fuller sound from the string material, moved down to the four string configuration prominent today. The other segment of the video worth noting (at this point, at least) follows Dr. Casanova. Luthier Claudio Lazcano has a segment showing the typical build elements of a modern Cuatro. Skip to the end of this, however, (unless you speak the language) and listen to him play a work from the renaissance. In listening to this piece you realize what sort of playing was going on when the instrument first came into being. And that sort of playing, melody in large part, continued through much of the instruments history. The flamenco derived style gradually took over, but Flamenco didn’t come into being in Andalusia until late in the 18th century; didn’t hit its full stride until the 19th. By that time, the Cuatro had already been in existence in some form for close to two hundred years. As with the Ukulele, today the Cuatro is strung in both reentrant and linear forms. And as also with the Ukulele, the reentrant form is the older. Different from the Ukulele, however, is that with the Cuatro we know when the linear form first came into being, and compared to how long the Cuatro has been around, linear tuning is a very recent development.One of the most legendary of Venezuelan artists (in various forms of art), Fredy Reina was the first to string a Cuatro in linear fashion, somewhere in the 1950s. As Segovia did with his shift in style on the classical guitar, Reina’s playing turned the Cuatro from an instrument that had descended to a rural folk status to one that was played to sold out concert halls. In this letter, however, we’ll confine the discussion to the reentrant form. For more on Fredy Reina, including a fabulous subtitled documentary, see the series on the Tips page called “Tuning Your Ukulele”; the discussion of Fredy and the documentary are in Part 10: “Tuning for the Maestro”.For a little while it seemed like linear tuning just might take over from the traditional reentrant form. But then came a fellow named Hernan Gamboa. He was important to Latin music and especially the Cuatro in many ways. He was a founding member of the group Serenata Guaynesain 1971, a group whose mission was to rescue the almost forgotten folk music of Venezuela, starting with the Calipso of Spanish Guyana. He went out on his own in the early 80’s and as a soloist developed a style called rasgapunteo. It would translate literally as “strum solo”, but what he presented was a way of playing where chords, melody notes and percussive elements such as tapping the body and hitting muted strings are all combined, allowing a Cuatro to sometimes sound like a small instrumental group all by itself. Since then, the pendulum has swung back strongly to reentrant tuning.Hernan passed in January of 2016, but he has a godson, a fellow named Che Hurtado, who is now equally as prominent. Here is Che himself, sticking mainly to chords, in a tribute to Hernan Gamboa. But Che is not only a master of the rasgapunteostyle of playing, he also began a festival in the early 1990s called Siembra del Cuatro (the sowing of the Cuatro), where juried competitions in performance and composition for the Cuatro are held annually. The attention it receives on a national level is similar to the sort of attention that international piano competitions once attracted. And as a result of the festival academies for the study of the Cuatro along with other traditional instruments have sprung up. If you are interested in seeing more of this style, then go back to the Cuatro Cuerdas video, where the academy practices are in the background of much of the dialogue and interspersed are short performances by many of the recent winners of those competitions. As you’ll see, this formalized training in Venezuela has produce scores of virtuosos with advanced technical skill. Among those playing are Miguel Angel Bosch, Liceth Hernandez, Francisco Conde, Luis Pino w/ Orianes Cedeno, Jorge Glem and Marcel Montcourt. It is obviously a style where the percussive elements are emphasized, and Che himself has often said that right hand technique is what he considers to be the defining element of this modern Cuatro style. But of course the Ukulele has never been played in this sort of way. Or has it?