The cuatro is the national instrument of Puerto Rico. The cuatro that means “four”, which is the total of strings it had when originated made, is the most familiar of the three instruments that make up a Puerto Rican jíbaro orchestra. The Cuatro looks a lot like a guitar except only smaller and with a different quantity of cords. Most experts believed that the cuatro has existed on the island in one form or another for about 400 years, but is a little unsure about the exact origin. This amazing instrument is most likely listened around Christmas time in Puerto Rico Since its Christmas and I hear a lot about this instrument from my father, I wanted to search a more about its history and the way of its creation. A beautiful instrument that every Puerto Rican should know about, because of its not only beauty and lovely sound but also for the culture and history, it holds.
Rafael Aviles Vazquez is a well know luthier and proud to say my great uncle. In his long career as a luthier, he has represented Puerto Rico in exhibitions and lectures on the art of making string instruments; like in the celebration of Quinto Centenarian in Puerto Rico, at the Expo Center in Boston, Expo 2000 in Berlin Germany and in the National Museum of American History Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, where some of his creations are still on display. UNESCO awarded him in 2004 as the best string instrument manufacturer at the international Handicrafts Fair held in San Juan Puerto Rico. Although I have not met him in person, he has inspired me to learn more about the art of making this extraordinary instrument, and the story behind it. This essay will show you how years of history become together in one little instrument. Rafael’s process, as a recognized luthier, Rafael’s process is the making process of the Cuatro chosen for this essay.
Rafael’s Cuatro making process starts by a tree, you choose a tree and you take it to saw, because the wood required for musical instruments cannot be saw the same way as sawing for furniture. To make a Cuatro, the best trees are the Oak, the Guaraguao, the Cedro Hembra, Maria and Juey; each one has a different effect on the sound. The older the tree the better. Each tree has its own ideal time to be saw, usually around January and February. These months are picke because in that time is where the tree is preparing for spring and the things that termite want are at the bottom. First in the sawing process, you will have to be sure to be getting the middle of the tree, the heart of the tree. This part of the tree is s3elected because of its porosity; the porosity is the quality of being full of little holes. The porosity of the tree will give more sound reproduction.
Most time the trees are donate by coffee farms. It takes about three years for the wood to dry. When the wood is ready is time to cut it and give the body a form. The body form can vary, although there is a basic form, you can choose how to alter it. Rafael has his own design, it consist on making the bottom part with the closes part of the center of the tree; this will give more porosity to the bottom making it sound even better. The piece of wood is collect on small boards of 3/32″ thick, already jail. The wood is very delicate; carefully the form is giving by sawing the borders and giving it the shape.
Second, the arm is about half an inch thick and at least ¾” wide near the box. The ends have to be reinforce because the cords make a lot of pressure; they have to be extremely stretch. The lid is made using yagrumo, which is a tree kind. It is prefer to use two pieces, because of the physics, the tension is produced in two different directions is less likely to crack. The lid is about 1/8″, and carries two beams in the box, running the bow in both directions, trying the sides. The helmet, in Spanish “el Casco del Cuatro”, is made from hardwood its leave at 3/6″; if it’s a soft wood its recommended to leave it at four inches.
Reinforcement is important before finishing a Cuatro, the pressure that is going to be given its unimaginable; from the stretched cords to the enthusiastic jibaro’s hand that are going to played it. After the reinforcement comes the polish and making the wood the smoothest possible. Last comes the fun part for most people, the paint. Is given with a rag so that it penetrates enough into the porosity of the wood, it needs to be given a sanding sealer until it has no porosity left, and then thrown three hands of lacquer. Then it has given rubbing compound, with a cloth afterwards to make it shine. The Cuatro is ready to frolic with at a Puerto Rican’s Christmas party.
The making of one simple instruments takes so much effort and time, and Puerto Ricans including me do not appreciated enough. This research is inspire by art of an instrument and the traditions of this island that are not hear anymore. In 1995 Rafael’s classroom where full of students that wanted to learn and participate in the story and cultured of our Puerto Rico. Now two decades after the concept of cultured and tradition is getting lost because of the internet and technology. The saddest part is that we do not even care of Puerto Rico’s cultured that much anymore, because we are trying to make ourselves more like other countries. Maria gave us a huge opportunity to remind us how Puerto Rico was and how strong we actually are with though many things like signal we thought where priority. But as soon as the power in many places where back on most people went back to technology and making things easy again, when we can learn more about our cultured and get to know more people around your neighborhood. Just take out you Cuatro and go have fun in our best traditional way, and one of the many thing that makes us unique a “parranda”. I would actually love to have the experience of making a Cuatro in a future, to reconnect with my roots and have something so beautiful design by myself in Christmas: also it would make my father cry if he saw something so especial for him made by the hands of his daughter.