Diomedes Matos has been referred to as the "master's master" cuatro maker. The cuatro, a distinctive 10-string guitar known as the national instrument of Puerto Rico, is played by jibaro musicians from the mountainous inner regions of the island. Matos was surrounded by instrument makers where he grew up in the Puerto Rican village of Camuy. By the age of 12 he had built his first cuatro and from that time has worked to perfect the construction of a wide-variety of traditional stringed instruments. Today his cuatros are sought after and played by the premier Puerto Rican musicians, including the world-renowned Yomo Toro.
An unselfish teacher, Matos has participated in the New Jersey Folk Arts Apprenticeship Program. Popular singer Paul Simon asked Matos to build him an instrument and accompany him on the soundtrack for the Broadway show The Capeman. Matos continues to recognize both the practical and spiritual importance of the instrument. He says: "I've come to understand that strumming the cuatro once has the power to attract and unite the people of Puerto Rico and even other cultures. The cuatro has at least three hundred years of history to the people of Puerto Rico and like many other people have said before, the cuatro to me is like the flag."
NEA: Congratulations on your award. How did you feel when you heard the news?
MR. MATOS: I felt such pride. You know, when [NEA Director of Folk & Traditional Arts] Mr. Bergey called me, I didn't know what was going on. I thought somebody was playing a practical joke on me.
I'm so excited. I have been doing this for so many years. It's a very good thing.
NEA: Tell me a little bit about how you were attracted to the tradition of making these instruments?
MR. MATOS: My younger brother is a luthier, too. On my mother's side of my family there are a lot of musicians -- my uncles and my other brothers play guitar and cuatro and they know how to work with wood. They are craftsmen, too.
What really inspired me was a cuatro-maker named Roque Navarro. He passed away some years ago. I used to walk from my house to school every day and on the way I'd see Mr. Navarro working on guitars and cuatros in his workshop. One day, when I was about 10 years old, I was watching him from the fence in front of his house and he invited me in and showed me what he was doing. I knew from that first visit that's what I wanted to do.
We were neighbors, but he didn't know me or my family. We became good friends. And he became a family friend. He was a great musician, too. I watched him and learned from him. He was the person that inspired me to do this.
NEA: I'm sure it takes a lot of time and patience to build an instrument. Do you get attached to the instruments you make? Is it hard to send them off when you're finished?
MR. MATOS: Yes! That happens to me all the time. I'm very fortunate in this work, you know. When I finish a cuatro and test the sound and see the finished details, oh my, I fall in love. I don't want to get rid of it. But because I'm making it for somebody else, I have to. But I don't want to let it go!
NEA: Can you tell me a little bit about how you feel when you're playing cuatro?
MR. MATOS: When I'm performing in a big show for a lot of people and they're clapping for me, and when I see the happy faces, sometimes it just makes me cry. I feel so proud because I am doing it with my heart, with my soul.
NEA: I know that you have several apprentices working with you.
MR. MATOS: I really like to teach. Teaching people is very serious and very important to me. I like teaching more than cuatro-making itself, especially when I see a student's progress and maturity. It's a very important part of my life. I put a lot of dedication and love into teaching.
When the students come to my shop for the first time, the first thing I do is teach the safety rules and how to use the machines safely. The most important thing is to work safely. And then I teach them to be patient, to not get frustrated. Every cuatro maker has problems once in a while. If something happens to the wood or something else goes wrong, I tell them not to get too frustrated -- it's part of the work. We laugh a lot about these things. If you get frustrated it's only going to make things worse.
NEA: What goes into making a good cuatro?
MS. MATOS: There are a lot of components that ultimately make up the quality of the finished product. The quality of the wood. The details of the inlay. The shape and the size of the instrument. The construction inside, especially the straps. The thickness of the sound board and the rest of the body, too. Sometimes the sound board has to be thicker on one side than the other. The are many factors.
I ask each musician I make a cuatro for whether they want the instrument to sound with more bass or with a higher pitch. I then make it to their specifications.
NEA: What advice do you have for young cuatro makers and players?
MR. MATOS: I always tell them to keep the tradition going, don't lose this knowledge. And try to do what I do -- teach other people. Keep learning and become a teacher, too. I also tell them to try to be as best as possible. The more they learn the better they get. It's a process that requires a lot of patience -- don't stop after making one or two. Keep making cuatro after cuatro because the more experience you have the better you'll become at it and the better the finished products will become as well.
NEA: A final question. How does it make you feel to be continuing this strong tradition?
MR. MATOS: Like I told you before, I take this job seriously, because this is the most important part of my life. I have a job that not everybody has. Not everybody gets to make a cuatro, make a musical instrument. This is something very, very important. I think that a lot of people wish to have this.