Edwin Colón Zayas, the internationally renowned Puerto Rican cuatro player, was the featured performer at the 43rd Kent State Folk Festival last week. He is a master of the cuatro, a small guitar with five-double coursed strings, a staple of música jíbara (peasant music) performers. Zayas performed with his brother Billy and “blew the crowd away” with an energetic medley of ‘Magdalena,’ a Brazilian samba played as guaracha on a double necked instrument known as siames. It combines the cuatro with the high-pitched notes of the tiple for a dynamic fusion of sound that transforms the listener to the mountains of Puerto Rico. José ‘Pepito’ Reyes custom made the siames for Colón Zayas in 2006. He dedicated section of the performance to the Puerto Rico’s legendary composer Don Tomás “Maso” Rivera saying the legacy lives in the notes.
Colón Zayas, the recipient of a 2009 NEA National Heritage Fellowship, 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.”
You can hear the sound of the cuatro played by Colón Zayas here: