FOUR STRINGS A-STRUMMING
It was from its inception, like the steelband, an instrument of freedom; for the cuatro, as Jose Hernandez, folklore music teacher at the Venezuelan Embassy's Cultural Institute explains, it was invented in the early nineteenth century in Venezuela, quite spontaneously, after the liberation from Spain.
The new music had emerged in Simon Bolivar's homeland and the instrument on which it was played was equally new/the cuatro. Perhaps there was a need for a simpler instrument, one cheaper to make, suggest Hernandez, and easier to play.
Since then the cuatro has become Venezuela's national instrument, lending its distinctively high and tinny sound to every style of music there: joropo, castillan, bambuco, golpe, polo, galeron, merengue. Some cuatros, without losing their characteristic voice, have even added another two strings?the additional ones being paired with but an octave higher than the two bass strings.
Usually, the back and face of the cuatro are made of pine and the sides of
cedar. Because the instrument is small, it requires a soft, light wood shaved very thin to bend around the sharp curves of the box. This makes the instrument light and fragile, and possessing a disposable aura about it.
The frets separating the notes used to be made of bamboo, and the strings of porcupine or cat gut, but now it's steel frets, like those on the guitar, and nylon strings. And factories in Venezuela make hundreds of these instruments a day, each one selling for around 800Bs ($TT80), and in Cumana alone there are over a dozen such assembly lines. But some go for 20,000Bs, the elaborately decorated concert instruments whose wood is better cured and whose frets are accurately placed. A craftsman might make four of these in a day and put his name on one.
The most gifted cuatro maker in Trinidad, Louis Jules, died in October, ending a family tradition going back three generations. He marked the frets with a stick which his father had measured out and passed down to him, for accurately-placed frets are one of the most important features of a good cuatro. When the frets are out by the smallest degree, perhaps because the bridge has shifted slightly, perhaps because the frets just weren't placed exactly right in the first place, then the lower chords will be out of tune. Bandleader Syl Dopson uses a Venezuelan cuatro to play in public, keeping his Jules (made of purple heart and mahogany) safely at home.
With only four strings, the cuatro can't give you the extended chords of a guitar. Furthermore, because its neck has to be short, it can only accommodate 14 frets; a guitar having at least 18, which further restricts its tonal range. Desmond Waithe, music teacher and steelband arranger, doesn't think this limits the musical capacity of the instrument, though. "You could get three octaves of a chord," he argues, "and you don't really
need more than that".
Waithe, who arranges for the T&TEC bands?Powerstars, Motown and, in Tobago, Eastside?does so with a cuatro. "It has chords, not like a flute, for instance, so I could get anything on it," he says. "I could go through chords and get melodic lines for all the instruments on the side, or vice versa."
The cuatro's strings are tuned naturally in the key of D Major to A, D, F
sharp and B. The first three follow the same progression as a guitar's third, fourth and fifth strings, but the last string differs. The cuatro's low B is very different from a guitar's high E, the former sounding like a full stop whereas the latter is a question mark.
Dopson, whose band uses two cuatros to play in a wide range of styles?jazz,
Spanish, bolero, calypso?suggests why the cuatro's strings are tuned in this up and down fashion. "I prefer it that way," he says, "because that last B string, if you tuned it to an E, it would be too high, too pronounced."
Actually, one of Dopson's cuatros, because there are two in his band, is tuned like a ukulele, with the first string an octave higher. This way the two cuatristas harmonise rather than merely increase the volume. Munro, on the other hand, uses the more important alternative mode of tuning his instrument: that is, like the bottom four strings of a guitar. This is necessary for finger-picking and classical playing. It means, however, that
you can strum only the top three strings.
The traditional A-D-F sharp-B tuning is especially for the traditional way the cuatro is played, that is, strumming. "We use it for rhythm," says Dopson. "There's a bass and a shak shak too, but we use the two cuatros to hold the rhythm and give it liveliness."
Calypso was originally accompanied by string bands of cuatros, guitars, violins and shak shaks, and in such an ensemble the cuatro is a better rhythm instrument than a guitar because it is louder, more boisterous, and perhaps that's why it was born in the New World whose music has such definite African syncopation.
Not only does it have a higher, more showy pitch than a guitar when used as a rhythm instrument but, for strumming purposes, because of the soft nylon or cat gut strings it's also easier on the fingers and thus more responsive. "Holding your thumb and forefinger together you move your wrist quickly," explains Waithe, "or use all your fingers for a rolling effect". Such control is more difficult with a plectrum or "pick", which
the guitar's metal strings require.
Using your fingers also facilitates the whipping and slashing effect
popular in Venezuela. "You use your nails to hit the strings so they whistle," explains Munro. "If you hit the correct spots you get the harmonics coming into play and the string chimes an octave higher."
Such an extension of the cuatro's repertoire only began in the 1950s in Venezuela. Now, Munro, one of its greatest exponents, has carried it beyond what even the Venezuelans believed possible. This entails tuning and playing it like a guitar, but having only four strings to work with. Furthermore, unlike the virtuosos down on the Main, Munro tunes his cuatro a tone lower than a guitar; G-C-E-A. Normal cuatros can't go so low down to the G: the strings being relatively slack to make the deep notes, they make a slapping rubber-band sound. Hence his need for a top-of-the-line instrument.
No music is written for the cuatro, so you have to transcribe guitar music into a different key. if you're playing low down on the fret board, you have to do so as you would a violin?without frets.
But the results have been stupendous, as anyone who saw Munro at the last Pan Jazz festival would testify. There he improvised with the Rudy Smith Quartet, following the other players all the way down the fret to the edge of the hole in his instrument, making a long overdue marriage of pan and cuatro. In so doing he showed that the cuatro is indeed a fairly recent instrument now discovering its voice, and strangely enough its not surprising that a Trinidadian should be the one to show the instrument what it can do.
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