As a child, kids teased Fabiola Mari Méndez (not to be confused with cuatrista Fabiola Muñoz Ortiz) for embracing the Puerto Rican cuatro. According to Mendez, “They said it was ‘lame’ and strictly for ‘viejitos’ (elders).” Inspired by her father, a cuatrista, and mother, a guiro player, and percussionist, Méndez knew intuitively; the cuatro was part of her.
Today, the 24-year-old cuatrista vocalist from Caguas is the first Afro-Puerto Rican woman to study the cuatro and graduate from the Berklee College of Music. “At Berklee, guitar players and instrumentalists helped me to see the cuatro as a harmonic instrument. The experience inspired me to improvise and apply jazz techniques to the cuatro.”
Listeners can hear the results of her debut album, Al Otro Lado del Charco (The Other Side of the Pond). The title track includes jazz harmony, improvisation, odd time signatures, and beats, and the lyrics describe her musical journey and evolution. “Life in the United States is hard,” says Méndez,” but I wouldn’t have grown as much if I hadn’t come to this side of the pond.”
The cuatro was created in the 18th century by Jibaros (peasants, country folk) in the island’s central mountainous region. In days of old, the cuatro was played at wakes, harvest festivals, and political rallies and was an indispensable part of daily life. Not surprisingly, most cuatristas, traditionalists, and “gatekeepers” are men who feel the instrument should be played a “certain way.” Nevertheless, a new generation of cuatristas, a few women, are injecting new blood and making inroads.
Case in point, Méndez’s most recent recording, titled Afrorriqueña, celebrates her Afro-Puerto Rican roots and draws inspiration from poets Carmen Colón Pellot, Angelamaría Dávila, Ana Teresa Toro, Mayra Santos Febres, and Yara Liceaga. “The Afro-Rican culture needs to be more visible and appreciated,” says Méndez” Afrorriqueña is the first step towards doing that. It’s an honor to work with women poets I love and admire and join forces to create beauty.”
Méndez has also collaborated with The Puerto Rican Symphony Orchestra, Totó la Momposina, Pedro Capó, Victoria Sanabria, Cucco Peña, Eddie Palmieri, El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico, Danny Rivera, Edwin Colón Zayas, and Los Rayos Gamma, among others.
In 2011, the Mapeye Festival (a gathering of Puerto Rico’s top troubadours) was dedicated to Méndez. Also, she is a recipient of the Quincy Jones Award (2016) and a commendation from the Puerto Rico House of Representatives for being the first Puerto Rican cuatro player to graduate from The Berklee of Music. In 2018, Méndez was the ambassador of the Puerto Rican Day Parade.
In a recent interview, Méndez described herself as a “freelance musician and teacher’ who divides her time between Puerto Rico and Boston.
Not surprisingly, many of the kids who teased Méndez as a child are singing her praises!
Personnel: Cuatro, Voz: Fabiola Méndez, Aidita Encarnacio; Flauta: José L. Rodríguez Enchautegui; Saxofón alto: Engrique “Kalani” Trinidad; Bajo eléctrico, bajo: Jonathan Suazo; Guiro: Jesús Colón; Bongo: Neftali “Tali” Ortiz; Bongo, Conga, Maracas, Timbales, Cajón: Enrique “Kike Serrano; Batería: Luis “Manolito” García, William H. García.
Temas: Dedicatoria, Hacerte la paz, Trigueña, El Dibujo, Mulato, Flor de Agua, Sueño, Bomba pa ‘la diaspora.