The cuatro is enjoying indisputable prosperity. The recent North American and European tour of C4 (a core of three cuatristas – Glem, Molina and Ramirez – with prestigious guests) has rocked the halls, reaping the well-deserved fruits of an initiative launched some years ago by the maestro Cheo Hurtado – a great national movement he named “The Sowing of the Cuatro.” We all reckoned the strumming-picking style developed three decades ago by soloists like Hernán Gamboa and Alí Chirinos, among others, and brought to a climax in the celebrated pajarillos (brisk Venezuelan fandangos with variations) of Cheo Hurtado, was an individual expression developed to full personal potential by each soloist without forming a unified school. The Sowing of the Cuatro, a systematic but very free movement, multiplied prodigies and established a new foundation from which all its students begin. Suddenly the pinnacle of virtuosity, joropo music caught in a whirlwind of variations ceased to be the exception and become the minimum requirement of a school that studies all the styles of Venezuelan cuatro playing as living matter; an anti-conservatory of oral tradition.
The circulating commentary – highly positive, of course – is that they cloned Cheo, but fortunately this is just an impression conveyed by the high achievements of the younger generation. With the cuatro there is room to spare for individuality and innovation, amply illustrated by personalities such as Jorge Glem and his C4 companions. With the cuatro there has always been a dialectic between those who prefer picking and those who dominate the high-speed strummed melodies of parallel chords. Between the two extremes is considerable scope for personal combinations, as heard, for example, in the highly refined style of Pollo Brito, a master of rhythmic breaks and shifts in his style of accompaniment.
C4’s tour reminds us of the pioneering tours of the great Fredy Reyna, who took his cuatro around the world in the 1950s and ’60s with a style that has since vanished, perhaps because of its delicacy and refinement. No recordings make me more nostalgic than those left to us by this master, who seemed to place a third element between the song and the listener: the cuatrista as actor performing a role. This mannerism is perhaps what we have lost by adopting sheer virtuosity and constant, inflexible rhythm as the main objectives of the modern cuatro. The subtlety of the most intimate colors of our national instrument, a delicacy expressed in the art of restraining or accelerating time that Fredy handled better than anyone, along with his mischievous way of phrasing Venezuelan merengues sharply as if with a spoke, or caressing Venezuelan valses with delicate brushstrokes. Nowadays nobody plays songs like “Duilia” or “El Latigueado,” merengues such as “El Templete,” the unbearably sad motives of “El Tamunangue” or that unique “Danza” where the limitations of the instrument’s register are vanquished by an unmistakable mastery of prosody and character in the melodic lines and an incredibly flexible and varied accompaniment. Fredy Reyna dominated the grammar of Venezuelan style and passed on formidable cultural content that today’s cuatristas should study very seriously. There is much more than just forgotten songs in these recordings – there is the wisdom of the elders, so scarce in our excessively youthful country.
Translated from Spanish by Rosemary Holland