The nearly eight million people who have left Venezuela in recent years have taken with them a key piece of Venezuelan musical culture: the cuatro, a four-stringed instrument that at first glance can be mistaken for a guitar.
The history of the Venezuelan cuatro starts with migration and continues to this day. Although there is no exact date for the creation of the instrument, the study “The Venezuelan cuatro: continuity and evolution of the Renaissance guitar (El cuatro venezolano: continuidad y evolución con respecto a la guitarra renacentista)” by Oscar Battaglini Suniaga indicates that the first four-stringed “guitarrillas” arrived in the now uninhabited Venezuelan city of Cubagua in 1529, sent from Seville by Italian merchants.
The cuatro is heir to the four-stringed Renaissance guitar and was already born by the end of the eighteenth century. However, its first references arose in the second half of the nineteenth century, when Venezuela was already a republic.
Those first direct references to the cuatro came from foreigners such as the French-Danish painter Camille Pissarro, who between 1852 and 1854 painted the watercolor “Tocador de cuatro” (cuatro player), currently located in the collection of the Central Bank of Venezuela. Just as the early history of the cuatro is closely related to the history of the world, its current transformation goes hand in hand with migration.
Singer-songwriter and poet Simón Díaz, one of the most famous figures of Venezuelan folk music and winner of the 2008 Latin Grammy Award, used the cuatro as a synonym for the Venezuelan Llanos. The Llanos are plains, a predominantly agricultural and cattle-raising region located in the center of the country.
This notion was perpetuated by figures such as Jacinto Pérez, “the King of the Cuatro,” who became popular during the 1950s for slightly varying the tuning of the instrument and perfecting its soloist use. After Pérez, figures such as Freddy Reyna and Hernán Gamboa continued to expand the techniques used in playing the cuatro, always maintaining an image associated with the purest folklore of the plains.
However, in recent years, a mixture of migration and identity revival has slowly led to a shift in that perception.
Artists such as Jorge Glem have played a fundamental role in the transformation of the cuatro's public image. Originally from Cumaná, a small city in eastern Venezuela, Glem has given concerts with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the San Francisco Symphony, as well as leading a solo career and participating in projects such as Jorge Glem & Sam Reider or C4Trío.
C4Trío is a crucial stepping stone in the history of the globalization of the cuatro. The quartet, formed by Edward Ramírez, Héctor Molina, and Rodner Padilla along with Glem, has collaborated with popular figures in Venezuelan music such as Desorden Público and has toured throughout the United States and Europe.
The movement does not end with a handful of names, however. Musicians like Rafael “Pollo” Brito, Ángel Fernández or José Lunar (“Cuatro Sideral”) reinvent this unique instrument on a daily basis, be it from Miami, Caracas, or Europe.
The current movement of the Venezuelan cuatro does not stop at borders: quite the contrary, borders are its cradle. An example of this is TuCuatro.com, a website created in 2010 to promote the Venezuelan instrument. A short visit to the LinkedIn profiles of its founders, Adrian Toro and Adriaan Van Nieuwkerk, shows the multicultural nature of the project.
Toro is based in Canada and Van Niewkerk in the Netherlands: likewise, a simple glance at the profiles of some of the teachers offering courses on TuCuatro.com allows us to conclude that the cuatro goes beyond the Venezuelan plains.
Japanese luthier, teacher, and performer Yasuji D'Gucci describes himself as a “Japanese guy desperately crazy about the Venezuelan cuatro” on his Facebook page. His YouTube channel, CuatroTube, has more than 3,000 subscribers and 150 videos dedicated to Venezuelan folk music.
The internationalization of the cuatro is not limited to folklore: in this respect, Abraham Sarache is a pioneer. Based in Amsterdam, his website describes his musical style as “modern prog rock” and calls the cuatro “a new tool for rock.”
Even though migration has been a catalyst for a change of paradigm of the Venezuelan cuatro, the scene continues to evolve back home. A few years ago, initiatives such as Rock and MAU connected the local rock movement with folk music with three albums featuring prominent performers from both genres.
However, local artists face many challenges. Twelve years ago, it was still possible to gather local Venezuelan rock stars at the Trasnocho Cultural, a renowned cultural center located in Caracas. Today, the picture is different.
The last Rock and MAU album was released 8 years ago and the performers who participated in that edition are now spread around the world, mainly in Mexico, the United States, and Spain.
Venues for events are also in short supply. The Trasnocho Cultural has been closed on several occasions in recent years due to electricity and air conditioning problems, while the Aula Magna of the Universidad Central de Venezuela, a World Heritage Site, remained closed for three years.
Hope for the future
Even though the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela continues unabated, the cuatro continues to leave its mark on national and global culture.
In March, for example, C4Trío performed in eight cities across the country after five years without playing in Venezuela. Jorge Glem recorded an NPR Tiny Desk session with Sam Reider that has almost 100,000 views on Youtube in less than 7 months.
Initiatives such as Cayiao keep the essence of the cuatro and Venezuelan folklore alive within the country, performing in different Venezuelan cities and leaving a touch of modernity through an instrument that, two decades ago, would have been considered exclusively folkloric.
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The Venezuelan cuatro is more than a wooden box with four strings. It is the expression of a culture forced to migrate, but faithful to its origins.