New York City is a compilation of hundreds of cultures that have chosen to make it a new home. Just as scores of Irish immigrants traveled to the city in the mid-19th century, Puerto Ricans emigrated during the 1950s. The US’s Great Migration peaked in 1953, when nearly 70,000 islanders came north from the American territory, bringing with them their music, culture, and the cuatro – Puerto Rico’s national instrument.
Avant-garde residents on the island’s north side created the cuatro at the turn of the century, inspired by the wave of mandolin and bandurria orchestras prominent in Europe. Similar in shape, but smaller than a modern, standard acoustic guitar, it features five sets of double-stings, resulting in a more resonant tone.
The instrument retained its prominence within the Puerto Rican communities of New York City, but has seen a dramatic drop in popularity in recent years.
Yomo Toro, a master player of the cuatro, lived for more than 40 years in the New York borough of The Bronx. Toro died of kidney failure at the age of 78 in June 2012, and the neighbourhood community board unanimously voted to name the avenue where he lived “Yomo Toro Place”.
But the three young Puerto Rican men, gathered outside a grocery store at a corner of Yomo Toro Place, say they have never heard of Toro. Nor are they familiar with the instrument he came to represent. Toro’s death was just one of many among the ‘grandfathers of the cuatro’ in recent years, says William Cumpiano, co-founder of the Cuatro Project, a Massachusetts-based preservation group. As the old guard passes on, Puerto Rican musicians in New York City worry that part of the nation’s heritage may be fading away at an irreversible rate. Younger generations in New York, home to the largest Puerto Rican population outside its capital, San Juan, seem less eager to take up the instrument, despite its revival in cities like Chicago and Los Angeles.
Toro rose to prominence during the first “cuatro crisis” in the 1960s. As salsa became the most popular genre among the youth, elder players who were well-versed in the traditional Jíbaro folk music of rural Puerto Rico worried that the new style would squash interest in the cuatro. Toro, already proficient in the traditional style, joined salsa star Willie Colón for the Christmas album Asalto Navideño. The record ‘truly changed the perception of the cuatro,’ says Bobby Sanabria, a Bronx percussionist who recorded and produced Toro’s last album of new material in 2007.
‘Yomo was kind of a bridge,’ he says, recalling when he listened to the album as a boy. ‘It’s not any big thing, adapting cuatro to salsa. But Yomo was the one who did it. He made the cuatro hip again. The concerns with the future of the instrument are different now, however. Whereas the issue then was reinvigorating the cuatro, the issue now is reintroducing it,’ Sanabria admits. ‘Hip-hop and reggaeton, genres based on words and not instruments, have hurt interest among the youth. Most kids don’t know what the hell it is.’
‘La Casa de la Herencia Cultural Puertorriquena, a non-profit organisation dedicated to preserving Puerto Rican culture in New York City, is the only place that offers cuatro classes in the city,’ says Leticia Rodriguez, the group’s executive director. On Saturday mornings, students head to La Casa’s headquarters, a large converted classroom three floors above El Museo del Barrio in East Harlem. Luis Rodriguez, a native-born Puerto Rican who plays the Cuban tres guitar and works as a mechanic, teaches the group, which ranges in both talent and experience.
‘You have to split the class,’ he tells us. ‘Some already know how to play guitar. Someone may know how to play the saxophone, so they know music, but the guitar is new to them. Some don’t know music.’
Rodriguez represents the days when cuatro guitarists learned the instrument not in a classroom, but from the players before them. As a boy, Rodriguez watched his older friend Alberto craft a homemade cuatro, carving the body out of solid wood. Alberto, who Rodriguez said didn’t know how to read music, taught him how to play by ear. Toro also learned from his father, beginning to play at the age of six.
‘New generations are just picking up less and less from their elders,’ admits Aurora Flores, a music writer and friend of the Toro family.
Rodriguez has significant experience with the instrument. He has played with renowned percussionist Tito Puente, Paul Simon, and filled in for Toro at a Japanese performance of the Fania All-Stars, a long-running supergroup that featured the best Latin American instrumentalists in New York. He can play both left- and right-handed.
On a mid-December morning, seven musicians, mostly of Puerto Rican descent, join Rodriguez for lessons. Delvis Perez, the youngest member present at 27-years-old, says he drives in on Saturdays from Long Island to play. ‘I moved up from Florida and went online,’ he said. ‘There were really no other programs in New York. It’s an art that’s just disappearing.’
‘Younger pupils have joined the class in the past but easily lose attention,’ Rodriguez says. Parents have brought kids as young as seven-years-old. They were distracted by the paintings. They were distracted by the squirrels in Central Park. It didn’t last long.’
La Casa charges $15 (roughly £10) for each hour-long session, a relatively good price for lessons from a professional musician.
If the class tuition doesn’t ward off potential players, those new to the cuatro will have to pay a four-figure sum for a quality instrument, according to several guitar makers.
William Del Pilar, a luthier from Brooklyn and one of the last to build cuatros in New York, makes a number of stringed instruments at his shop on Atlantic Avenue, the same location where his father built cuatros from wood cut at the piers on the East River. ‘The difficulty in tuning a cuatro, versus a traditional guitar, may keep new players away,’ Del Pilar says.
Cumpiano, a luthier himself, agreed that many of the cheaper instruments available may cause a struggle. ‘Many cuatros are difficult to tune because of the rusticity of their manufacture and the incomplete technical knowledge of its folk craftsmen, but a cuatro made by any of the five or six modern cuatro artisans on the island and in the US display consistently excellent intonation and tuning ease.’
‘The price for an instrument from one of those craftsmen can be pricey, especially for someone who doesn’t play professionally. Performance-quality cuatros are available in Puerto Rico within the $800-$1,200 (£500-£800) range, and $1,000-$2,000 (£650-£1,400) on the mainland,’ Cumpiano confirmed.
Del Pilar attributed the high costs for parts requiring particular specifications. He describes a $2,000 instrument that he built for a customer in The Bronx. ‘As there is no mainstream market for an instrument with 10 strings, finding classical-style machine heads, a series of knobs on the head of a guitar and other stringed instruments used for tuning, was a chore. The set he custom-ordered from an English company cost nearly half the instrument’s final price.’
‘There are two extremes,’ continues Del Pilar, who has filled only one order for a cuatro in the last three years. ‘Charge too much or charge too little, and the cuatro ceases to exist.’
Cumpiano doesn’t see the cuatro as an endangered instrument at all. Puerto Rican musicians in New York might be seeing a decrease in popularity for the instrument, but Cumpiano describes the cuatro as being in a ‘golden age’ throughout the rest of the country.
‘Young artists are following Toro’s habit of experimenting, incorporating the cuatro into genres like jazz and rock’, Cumpiano says. ‘The Puerto Rican Arts Alliance in Chicago offers free cuatro lessons, and more than 5,000 students have taken cuatro or Spanish guitar lessons through the program.’
The rise and fall of interest in the cuatro throughout the country widely correlates with the movements of the Puerto Rican population. In 1980, New York City had a Puerto Rican population of nearly 930,000, a number that dropped to less than 724,000 by 2010, according to the US Census Bureau. ‘The people and the instrument have spread westward,’ Cumpiano says. Cities like Chicago and Los Angeles, despite having much smaller Puerto Rican populations than New York, began hosting annual cuatro festivals in the late 1990s and 2000s. ‘The drop of interest in New York is, at best, relative compared to the interest nationwide,’ he says.
Demographics aside, all agreed that Toro’s death left New York’s young Puerto Ricans without a face to associate the cuatro with. Although Toro was nicknamed the “Jimi Hendrix of the cuatro” for his left-handed virtuosity, his relevance rests in his association with the instrument, Sanabria says. ‘Some young players are incredibly virtuosic, even more so than Yomo. But they don’t have the image,’ he said. ‘Now it’s an underground thing. That’s sad. We don’t have an iconic player anymore.’
Toro is credited with reviving the cuatro when salsa threatened to make it irrelevant, but Flores doesn’t have an answer for who could perform a similar resuscitation today. ‘I don’t know. It’s hard, man,’ she ponders. ‘It’s definitely an instrument on the endangered species list. Lessons are a good start, but it doesn’t mean anything if we don’t make people want to come, and make them want to understand the heritage.’