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"national instrument:" the cuatro
At the center of Puerto Rican musical traditions we find the cuatro, the island's beloved traditional stringed instrument.
The small, stridently voiced string instrument is carved out from slabs of native hardwoods such as guaragao and yagrumo, according to traditional craft techniques that date back to the middle ages. Its curious shape results from a confluence of aboriginal taino, West African, and Spanish cultures: precisely the same influences that joined together to form the Puerto Rican people. Over the centuries, a rich body of musical craft traditions were accumulated by Puerto Ricans, some of which are lovingly observed to this day: particularly the ones celebrating annual religious rites. The rest -- too many -- have been lost or forgotten, overwhelmed by the dominant popular cultures of first Spain, then the United States.
From isolated communities deep in the island's interior to the cosmopolitan cities of San Juan, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Miami and Los Angeles-- as far even as Hawaii--the cuatro reminds Puerto Ricans of the common bond which unites them across distance and experience. Thus the cuatro has come to command a central position within the Puerto Rican cultural iconography, much like bagpipes have served the Scot and harps the Irish. At key moments in the island's history the cuatro served as a compelling symbol of national identity. To many, the cuatro symbolizes Puerto Rico itself.
If you'd like to listen to a 12 second sound clip of a Jaime Alicea, master cuatro
maker and player, playing a cuatro lick (and don't mind waiting two minutes at 14.4kbs) press here.