Fabiola Mendez’s elementary school classmates made her well aware that they thought she’d chosen an uncool musical instrument when she picked up the Puerto Rican cuatro, the guitar-like national instrument of the island territory. “I was 9 or 10, and everyone was into hip-hop and urban music, and I was playing folk music on this instrument,” Mendez, now 26 and living in Quincy, recalled in a Zoom interview. Its reputation was similar to the banjo or the accordion: “Everyone was like, ‘You’re like an old person!’” she said and laughed.
But Mendez, a native of the central Puerto Rican city of Caguas, was undeterred. She may not have had any classmates who played the cuatro, but she participated in a children’s cuatro ensemble, Rondalla de Humacao, through which she performed with the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra several times. In 2018, she became the first student to graduate from Berklee College of Music with a specialty in the instrument. And this summer, she’s an artist in residence with Boston Landmarks Orchestra, with which she’ll perform two free concerts next week featuring some of her original music.
From its name, which means “four” in Spanish, one might expect the cuatro to have four strings. It actually has 10, arranged in five pairs, or courses: the lowest two courses are typically tuned an octave apart, and the rest of the pairs are tuned to the same notes. There are several types of cuatro throughout Latin America, Mendez explained, each with unique qualities. Her Puerto Rican cuatro looks like a miniature guitar at first glance, but she describes its sound as “if a mandolin and a guitar had a baby.”
Guitar was the nearest point of reference for the faculty at Berklee College of Music when Mendez attended a summer program as a teenager, so she was assigned to jazz guitarist John Baboian, who became her primary teacher when she enrolled as an undergraduate. Baboian gave himself a crash course on the cuatro to work with her more effectively. “She was interested in developing her skills as a jazz player, so I worked with her in improvisation, and how to make contemporary music” that extended beyond her background in Puerto Rican folk music, Baboian said.
During her senior year, when she was studying with a different teacher, Baboian recruited her to play a guitar/cuatro duet with him at a festival celebrating the work of jazz manouche guitarist Django Reinhardt. “The cuatro actually works really well for that, because it’s a nylon-stringed instrument,” Baboian explained. “So it has the qualities Django had in the guitar he used.”
Mendez’s approach to music-making was transformed by her experience at Berklee. In Puerto Rican folk music, the cuatro usually plays melodies, but most of her guitar-playing peers were playing “chords, chords, chords,” she said. “I feel like a lot of my sound now as a cuatro player was developed in that stage of my life at Berklee, because now I play a lot of chords in my songs and I sing as well. Playing with the tradition but then breaking away from it is a lot of what I do.”
And now, she’ll be introducing the Landmarks Orchestra musicians to a style of music some may never have encountered. The groove is “definitely” the most important aspect to translate to the orchestral arrangement, she said. “The folk tunes are very simple in terms of chords. So it’s all about thinking of where you’re going to accent, where you’re going to have rests.” If the classically trained musicians have trouble connecting with that groove, she said, leading them in dancing to the music would do the trick.
Outside of the Landmarks residency, Mendez’s recent projects include her 2021 studio album “Afrorriqueña,” which celebrates her own Afro-Puerto Rican heritage through lyrics by female Afro-Puerto Rican poets; a short documentary film about Afro-Puerto Ricans in Boston, “Negrura,” which she produced with director Monica Cohen and released earlier this year; and music for a handful of children’s animated series, including PBS Kids’ “Alma’s Way” and the Sesame Street spinoff “Mecha Builders.”
“In the end, it all connects to my mission as an artist, which is to get the cuatro to new audiences, use the cuatro to explore new sounds, and to bring a little bit of my culture so that everyone can learn about it,” Mendez said.
Intentionally or not, Mendez also set a precedent at Berklee. In the four years since she graduated, several Puerto Rican cuatro specialists have enrolled at the school.
“Somehow I ended up being the cuatro guy at Berklee,” Baboian said. “Once Fabiola opened the door, that really opened the possibility of these others coming in . . . looking to expand their horizons. They want to become Charlie Parker of the cuatro. Well, I’m not sure that’s exactly it, but they’re looking to expand their jazz chops on cuatro.”
LANDMARKS ORCHESTRA WITH FABIOLA MENDEZ
Aug. 18 (new date due to rain), 7 p.m. DCR Hatch Memorial Shell; Aug. 20, 7 p.m. Bethel AME Church, Jamaica Plain. Free. 617-987-2000, www.landmarksorchestra.org
A.Z. Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten.