The cuatro is Puerto Rico’s best-known stringed instrument. It is used mostly to play música jíbara, the island’s country music. This guitar-like instrument is unique to Puerto Rico, although it has musical cousins across Latin America. The modern cuatro usually has five double-strings, although some Puerto Rican musicians have revamped the cuatro and added up to six metal strings to allow for heightened virtuosity. In this unique example, the dried, woody fruit of the native higüero tree, a material more commonly used in the fabrication of maracas or güiros (a musical scraper), makes up the main body of the instrument.
Most of the migrants who left Puerto Rico at the end of the 1800s and into the 1900s had rural roots and traditions. Through the sound of the cuatro they preserve and pass down a tradition from home, whether on a Hawai’ian sugar plantation or in a Chicago neighborhood. Today the cuatro gets played in Puerto Rican communities in New York City, Honolulu, Minneapolis, Orlando, and elsewhere. The instrument has gone along with millions of Puerto Ricans on their migrations outside the island to almost every corner of the United States. In New York City, Puerto Rican musicians such as Chuíto El de Bayamón and Ramito first recorded the earliest cuatro music records and distributed from there to the island and other Puerto Rican communities in the United States. While the cuatro is mostly associated with música jíbara, it is also often featured in plena music, a popular Puerto Rican genre associated with dancing and political protest. During the salsa music boom of the 1970s, the cuatro was sometimes played alongside brass instruments to reinforce salsa’s Puerto Rican flavor.
This cuatro is part of a landmark collection of objects of Puerto Rican popular culture and fine art at the National Museum of American History. It was donated to the Smithsonian by the Puerto Rican collector and research Teodoro Vidal in 1997, making it one of the first and largest Latino collections at the institution.
Bomba Dance OutfitThe clothing, movement, and songs of bomba music reflect the history of Puerto Rico’s enslaved and free Black communities. This bomba dance outfit belonged to acclaimed dancer Margarita “Tata” Cepeda. It is one of several outfits that represent the impact Puerto Rico’s diverse music and dance traditions have had in the United States. Other outfits displayed on rotation in the gallery include bandleader Tito Puente’s tuxedo jacket and DJ Charlie Chase’s tracksuit.
The Cuatro in 3D
Explore this large hand-held drum, known in Puerto Rico as a pandereta!