Edwin Colón Zayas is known internationally as the master of the cuatro, the national instrument of Puerto Rico. The cuatro, shaped like a small guitar with five double-coursed strings, became the preferred instrument for performing música jíbara (music of the peasants), heard in the small central-island towns of Puerto Rico. Colón Zayas began playing cuatro at the age of five, learning from his father. He in turn tutored his brother and two sisters in several jíbaro instruments, and they often join him in his group Edwin Colón y su Taller Campesino. Today, Colón Zayas is recognized as an innovative improviser on the cuatro and, in addition to 17 solo albums, has performed on, arranged, or directed more than 250 recordings for Puerto Rican artists. His collaborations have incorporated classical music, South American and Latin popular music, and jazz. In 1991, he performed in the inaugural concert of the San Juan Pops Orchestra and participated in the International Guitar Festival held in San Juan. The year 2008 brought him a Grammy nomination for his album Reafirmación in the Mejor Producción Discográfica de Música Tradicional Tropical. Even though he has performed with Latin stars such as Marc Anthony and Carlos Vives, he remains committed to the cuatro makers and musicians of the Puerto Rican inland hills. Colón Zayas feels that the love of the music starts with the love of the cuatro, saying, "I have a sentimental bond with the instrument. Apart from my family, my parents, my wife, my daughters, that I love so much, my instrument has a special place in my life."
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NEA: You started to play the cuatro at an early age. What was your first impression of the instrument, what do you recall of that first encounter?
Edwin Colón Zayas: Well, from my childhood I heard the sounds of the instrument, because my father played a little cuatro and guitar. At home I always heard Puerto Rican folk music. At age five I became interested and picked up the cuatro and started playing little things. My upbringing led to my love for Puerto Rican music, folklore. When I first heard the cuatro it seemed an extraordinary sound, and ever since I've felt a commitment to make music with this instrument.
NEA: Puerto Rico has a very rich musical world, where many types of music are experienced, are practiced. Aside from traditional music, what other types have influenced your music, your career?
Edwin Colón Zayas: Well, I've had the influence of South American music, from Venezuela, Colombia, Argentina, Brazil. Even American music has influenced me, Classical Music, Jazz, Salsa. All of these have influenced me.
NEA: You are both a composer and a performer; can you tell us something about these two aspects of your career?
Edwin Colón Zayas: Well, I've always wanted to contribute to the instrument, to the cuatro, the tiple [small chordophone guitar] the bordonúa [large bass guitar]. I also play those instruments and I have done research on them. First I was a performer and later began composing pieces and lately I do more of that. I try to bring out what is inside of me, new ideas, things that will be picked up by new generations, so that they can learn about the instrument.
NEA: Could you tell us something about improvisation as it relates to Puerto Rican musical tradition, as well as in your own music?
Edwin Colón Zayas: Of course. Historically improvisation has been used in Puerto Rican music, especially in instrumental pieces, in solos and riffs. Also when accompanying singers that practice the decima or decimilla [the "decima" originated in old Spain as a poem with 10 lines and eight syllables per line] one is always improvising. Improvisation occurs in accompaniment for the different kinds of seises [The 'seis', which literally means 'six' is, in fact, a great number of different tune types, or melodic motifs each of which can then be used as the basis for sung poetic improvisation] and aguinaldos [folk songs based on Christmas carols] of which there are so many in Puerto Rico. There are some 150 seises and maybe 40 aguinaldos and each one of them requires improvisation.
NEA: A certain level of skill is required for improvisation, right?
Edwin Colón Zayas: Clearly, it has to be developed as one learns about the instrument and the music.
NEA: In general, is improvisation for people who have much experience with the instrument or is it possible for someone who is just beginning?
Edwin Colón Zayas: No. That has to be developed; you can't do it from one day to the next.
NEA: If you had to tell us about your musical life, what would be the most important aspect, what would stand out?
Edwin Colón Zayas: Well, it would be my contribution to the current generation and for those of the future, to the instrument and to Puerto Rican music.
NEA: Along the same lines, could you tell us who had the most influence on you as a musician? Did you a have a teacher, someone special who guided you?
Edwin Colón Zayas: Well there are different masters of the cuatro -- masters of old that are the foundation of Puerto Rican music, that I have found and that have influenced me through different periods. Some of the cuatro players: Maso Rivera, Nieves Quintero, Iluminado Dávila, Arturito Aviles, Yomo Toro. And there are singers: Chuíto from Bayamón, Ramito, and many others, but the most important ones, the most immediate ones are these.
NEA: Speaking about this, could you tell us how you see Puerto Rican music today and what you foresee for the future?
Edwin Colón Zayas: Today Puerto Rican music has reached a place that maybe 15 or 20 years ago it didn't have; it was a little behind, it wasn't given much importance. Through many years of struggle we have maintained the music; we have brought it to the high place it now occupies. Evidence of this is the great number of children and young people who have taken an interest in the cuatro and in Puerto Rican music in general. Although I think much more could be done. I think we are at a high spot but we still need more exposure, more help from the government, for example.
NEA: And what about the future? Is there a future for traditional Puerto Rican music?
Edwin Colón Zayas: Yes, yes there is. That is why we try to create a solid foundation of what is folklore. I have always thought that you can innovate, bring new things into the folklore, but there is always a root, an essence that cannot be broken. These cultural values, we try to make them strong, sustain them, so they may be passed on to the children, the young people coming up today. But I predict a very, very bright future.
NEA: You are a prolific musician with an ample repertoire, both on recordings and on stage. What inspires you to continue on and what advice would you give young people who are starting down this road?
Edwin Colón Zayas: Well what inspires me is to continue contributing to the instrument and to the music. I have to stimulate the younger generations to learn from the old masters. If I don't do this work, this research, the music of the old masters will not be known. That is my work -- to continue to bring to life the music, the legacy of all these masters, bring them to the present, bring to them new ideas, new techniques. All of this is my motivation to continue recording and offering new pieces to the audience.
NEA: The last question has to do with your award of the NEA National Heritage Fellowship. What does this award mean to you and what did you feel when first learning of the award?
Edwin Colón Zayas: Well, it's the most important award I have received in my career. It is a recognition of the work we do to forward Puerto Rican culture, folklore, the instruments. It is truly stirring.
I have had many satisfactions in my career but this is surely the most important, especially for the prestige attached to it. It is a reward for a lifetime of effort and it inspires me to continue on and I hope it inspires all Puerto Ricans to feel proud of this award.