Fabiola Méndez picked up the cuatro in her youth and has been playing Puerto Rican folk music, both traditional and modern, ever since. On Monday, Sept. 19, she will play on the main stage of the Boston Arts Expo on the Rose Kennedy Greenway. She joined Morning Edition hosts Paris Alston and Jeremy Siegel in the GBH News studios to talk about the cuatro and play a few songs. This transcript has been lightly edited.
Paris Alston: So Fabiola, you play the Puerto Rican cuatro, which is in the guitar family, but it does have some differences. Tell us more about it for folks who may not be familiar.
Fabiola Méndez: Yes, the cuatro is a national instrument of Puerto Rico, the Puerto Rican folk guitar. And it takes the name cuatro because when it was developed by the people in Puerto Rico, inspired by all these different European instruments, it started off with four strings — quatro. And as people developed this instrument on the island and explored with different string combinations and tunings and shapes and forms, they ended up agreeing on five double strings. So the Puerto Rican cuatro, the modern cuatro, has five double strings, and it's used mainly for Puerto Rican folk music. So I always say that the cuatro is like if the guitar and a mandolin had a baby. So it's like a mixing between those two instruments that we're familiar with.
Jeremy Siegel: What goes through your mind while you're playing it?
Méndez: You know, I think about just the sound of Puerto Rico. I feel like I'm bringing a little bit of the warmth of the mountains, of the flavor, of the resilience of our people. Even having this piece of wood, I feel very connected to the craftsmanship of this instrument. It is handmade in the island. Feeling like I carry this piece of wood that, you know, is related to my roots and my ancestry is really powerful. And knowing that especially Puerto Ricans around the world, when they hear this instrument, it's like home. It's powerful and and a big responsibility in a way as well, to educate and to represent my culture.
Alston: You were pretty young when you picked up this instrument, right? How old were you?
Méndez: I was six years old when I started playing this instrument.
Alston: And that was kind of a point of teasing for some of your friends, right? Why was that?
Méndez: Well, this instrument, just like any folk instrument in different traditions, is related to the countryside, to old people, to boring music. And sadly, when I started playing this instrument — a lot of people in my family played it, and I was very supported by my family. But my friends were like, "That's so lame, so, like, uncool." But thankfully, again, I had the support of my family and I was able to be musically trained in a music school in Puerto Rico where there were other young cuatro players. So I had kind of like a support group.
Alston: I'm curious if there are any young people who you know now who are starting to pick up this instrument?
Méndez: Yes. There are a lot of especially — you guys know the song Despacito? That song? The intro of the song is a cuatro. And after that song came out, it was such a huge impact in the cuatro community in Puerto Rico, because everyone saw the instrument as being more cool than just folk music. So there are a lot of younger players now, and I'm feeling very hopeful about what this instrument is doing and what people are doing with it. Because I feel like the young players, we respect the tradition and we want to continue playing the traditional music. But we're also looking at this as an instrument like any other. How can we expand it and keep it relevant?
I started singing when I was very young, but I never I would perform with the cuatro and sing at the same time. And when I moved to Boston in 2014 to study at Berklee, I started including a couple of songs and covers. And I realized that whenever I would sing, it would attract more people to the music that I was making, even if they didn't really understand the lyrics. And I started understanding the power of the voice in general, and me.
Siegel: You mentioned studying at Berklee. You're the first person to graduate from the Berklee College of Music with a specialty in this instrument. And now you're bringing it to such a large stage, including on Monday at the Boston Arts Expo. What does it mean to be bringing this music that's so close to home for you to a big stage?
Méndez: It's always, as I say, a big responsibility. It's a big honor, but it's also — I have to make sure that everything that I bring has an educational aspect, just so that people can connect to it and learn from it because it's something so foreign for so many of us. So I'm very honored, very excited. And the cuatro is part of me. So everywhere I go, I'm going to bring the cuatro, I'm going to bring a little bit of Puerto Rico.
Alston: So when you bring it to the Boston Arts Expo, what are you going to be looking forward to the most?
Méndez: Definitely connecting with the audience. I think that one of the most important things or most special aspects of being an artist is to be able to connect with others. Sometimes people come to me and say, Oh, you really brightened my day. You made me dance, you made me smile. Even you made me smile, to me, that's just so powerful and so beautiful. So I'm really looking forward to connecting with other people and with other artists as well. There's going to be so many different artists from other disciplines and other styles of music, so really looking forward to connecting with the artistic community.
Fabiola Méndez will be performing Saturday at 3 p.m. at the Arlington Street Church, 351 Boylston St., Boston; and at Monday at 7:30 p.m. on the main stage of the Greater Boston Arts Expo on the Rose Kennedy Greenway, near the corner of Atlantic Avenue and Milk Street.