As a child, kids teased FABIOLA MENDEZ for playing the Puerto Rican cuatro (the island’s national instrument). They said it was a “lame instrument” and strictly “for viejitos (elders).”
Today, the 24-year-old from Caguas, Puerto Rico, is taking the instrument to places it has never been, physically and sonically. Also, she is the first student at the Berklee College of Music to study the instrument. Before Fabiola, her Berklee instructor, John Baboian had never heard of the cuatro. So, the question became, “Can you do that on the cuatro?” More often than not, the answer was, “Yes!” The experience helped her see the instrument with new eyes. “I wanted to improvise more, and I felt like jazz was the way for me to apply a different language to the cuatro,” says Fabiola.
Méndez incorporates the unique rhythms in her debut recording titled, “Al Otro Lado Del Charcho” (The Other Side of the Pond). For example, the title track includes jazzy harmonies and odd time signatures and uses five beats per measure rather than the classic four beats. Also, the song describes her journey and musical evolution. “The lyrics speak about ‘living on the other side of the pond.’ According to Mendez, “Life in the United States is hard but in the end, I learned how to live, love, and learn. I wouldn’t have grown as much if I hadn’t come to this side of the pond.”
Méndez aims to channel her experiences and bring the cuatro into the twenty-first century, which, given its long and storied history is no easy task. The cuatro was created in the 18th century in the central mountainous region of the island by the Puerto Rican ‘Jibaros’ (peasants, countrymen). Though its popularity has waned, it is Puerto Rico’s national instrument. In its heyday, it was an indispensable part of Puerto Rican daily life and played at wakes, harvest festivals, and political campaigns. Also, the vast majority of cuatristas (and “gatekeepers”) are men: Edwin Colón Zayas, the late, great Yomo Toro, Christian Nieves, Tomás Rivera Morales, and Ladislao Martinez among others. Lest we forget, the cuatro has come a long way but there are staunch traditionalists who believe the instrument should be played “a certain way.”
Mendez’s most recent recording titled, Afrorriqueña is inspired by the poetry of Carmen Colón Pellot, Angelamaría Dávila, Ana Teresa Toro, Mayra Santos Febres, and Yara Liceaga, and includes eight original compositions. “As a black Puerto Rican woman, I grew up inspired by those who represent my roots and my culture. ‘Afro-Rican’ work needs to be made more visible, appreciated, and valued. It has been an honor to work with poets that I love and admire, joining forces to create beauty,” says Mendez.
Mendez is a graduate of the Home of the Puerto Rican Cuatro, the Humacao Musical Institute, the Antonio Paoli Free School of Music in Caguas, the Conservatory of the Arts of the Caribbean, and the Berklee College of Music, from which she graduated in 2018 as the first cuatrista. She has performed with the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra, Danny Rivera, and Pedro Capó, among others.
Despite the fact that Mendez is on a mission to take the cuatro to places it has never been and demonstrate “it is an instrument like any other,” Mendez never loses sight of that fact, that it represents Puerto Rico and who she is.
Personnel: Cuatro, Vocals: Fabiola Mendez; Vocals: (5) Aidita Encarnacio; Flute: Jose L. Rodriguez Enchautegui; Alto Saxophone: Engrique “Kalani” Trinidad; Electric bass, bass: Jonathan Suazo; Guiro: Jesus Colon; Bongo: Neftali “Tali” Ortiz; Bongo, Conga, Maracas, Timbales, Cajon: Enrique “Kike Serrano; Drums: Luis “Manolito” Garcia, William H. Garcia.
Tracks: Dedicatoria, Hacerte la paz, Triguena, El Dibujo, Mulato, Flor de Agua, Sueno, Bomba pa’ la diaspora.
Artist Website: www.fabiolamendezmusic.com
- The Cuatro Project – http://www.cuatro-pr.org/node/83
- El Adoquin Times – Cuatrista y compositora rinde homenaje a sus raíces africanas con su nuevo disco (April 8, 2021)
- Thompson, Khari, WBUR – Fabiola Mendez Brings Puerto Rican Cuatro Music To ‘The Other Side Of The Pond (October 25, 2019)
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