NORTHAMPTON—Since 1992, master stringed instrument-maker William R. Cumpiano has devoted part of his time to preserving and promoting his native Puerto Rico’s national instrument—the cuatro—whose history up until then had only been captured in the minds and music of Puerto Ricans.
The cuatro’s history is actually part folklore, and Cumpiano and his researchers say, part an evolution of two distinctive, unique instruments which coexisted during the first half of the last century . Those two instruments differed in the number of their strings, their tuning, their size, their shape, and their musical function.
The cuatro was once an “indispensable part of the Puerto Rican daily life,” including being played at wakes, harvest festivals and political campaigns, Cumpiano said. The instrument became iconic in Puerto Rico, much like the bagpipe and the harp were iconic for the Scottish and Irish, respectively, he said.
But while it had played a significant role in Puerto Rico’s history, its popularity was fading in modern times. Cumpiano wanted to preserve and promote the music and musical-craft traditions that surround what he calls the “national instrument” of the island, which was created in the 18th century in the central mountainous region of the island by the Puerto Rican ‘jibaros’, countrymen.
To preserve the cuatro’s history, Cumpiano created the nonprofit Puerto Rican Cuatro Project about 10 years ago. Its goal is to explore how the cuatro evolved, its role in traditional music, how its musical role changed over the centuries and why do Puerto Ricans love their cuatros?
He was joined by award-winning New York Times photojournalist Juan Sotomayor, who served as principal researcher, and Wilfredo Echevarria, a media communications expert, who handled the project’s documentary videos and graphic arts.
“When we found that literally there had been no field work done, we realized that everything about the cuatro only existed in the vanishing memories of a few elders,” said Cumpiano, 68, who lives and operates his studio in Northampton. “We resolved to find out where the cuatro came from, how it evolved, why it was shaped the way it was, why it was strung that way and what made it into an icon.”
The three founding members of the project were so committed that they used their personal resources to cover its early days. They have since received funding from several government bodies, such as the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture, the Massachusetts State Legislature and the National Endowment for the Arts.
The additional funding allowed them to capture a wealth of information which can be found on the project’s website. It offers a host of information including the history of the instrument, old recordings featuring the cuatro, other noteworthy Puerto Rican stringed instruments, famed cuatro players (both early and modern) and updates on cuatro-related news.
Cumpiano’s work on the project was also a process of his rediscovering his own Puerto Rican heritage (his father was Puerto Rican and his mother was from Boston), which had been lost after living in the United States for many years, he said.
Much of the information gathered by the project’s team comes from interviews they conducted with cuatro-makers, old and young players and academics and researchers, among others. That resulted in more than 200 oral history recordings, which Cumpiano painstakingly transcribed.
They also later collaborated on the project with historian Myriam Fuentes of Northampton. She has compiled all the transcribed recordings and other research and developed a manuscript which puts the information in historic context, Cumpiano said. The book, titled “Strings of My Land,” will be self-published (in Spanish) within the next month or two, he said.
“The cuatro had been fading, but in recent years, and I’d like to think it’s a result of some of our work and the impact of our website, it’s in a golden age now,” Cumpiano said.
To learn more about the project: http://www.cuatro-pr.org/node/5