His Cuatro 5

A Local Photographer Travels to Puerto Rico to Document Her Grandfather’s Musical Legacy

I remember visiting my grandparents as a young girl. My grandmother’s sauté of pepper, onion, garlic, green olive and tomato seasoned with sazón wafting through the morning air, waking my sister and I from our slumber. My grandfather’s practiced, intricate jíbaro riffs acted as an alternative alarm clock.

Hailing from the mountain regions, jíbaro style is the authentic folk music of Puerto Rico, and it was my grandfather’s connection to his home. The lyrics are a form of poetry to remind natives of the homeland they promise never to forget. His playing was special—a gift. At three years old, he made his first guitar using hair from a horse’s tail and taught himself how to play. His perfect pitch allowed him to mimic any tune he heard. He plucked the strings of his Cuatro, Puerto Rico’s guitar-like national instrument, like they were the strings of his own heart.

My grandfather, Felipe Neri Orta, was the ultimate example of talent, creativity and focus. He was a master Cuatro player, famous in both Puerto Rico and New York for his contributions to jíbaro music. The tone of his Cuatro and voice were so distinctive that he could easily be identified amongst a talented crowd of musicians. In his time, he recorded dozens of albums.

Now almost 100 years old, his Cuatro is the rarest of its kind: hand-carved from one solid piece of wood. Its slightly concave back makes a bell-like sound which complimented my grandfather’s voice.

When my grandfather passed in 2012, even more than missing him, I grieved the loss of his Cuatro. We sent the instrument home to Puerto Rico in the arms of a bandmate, but I felt the Cuatro’s vulnerability. The possibility of never seeing or hearing his instrument played again formed a constricting knot in my throat.

Five years later, my grandfather’s memory returned when I needed it most. My career in corporate America seemed tenuous, tied with thin strings that were already being cut by restructuring in Charlotte. I wanted to focus on my creative outlet, photography, but felt tied by my own strings of fear.

It was then that I saw an old video of my grandfather playing with his band on a Facebook post, and commented, “That’s my Grandpa! I needed to hear him play today, thank you for sharing!” Moments later Ramón Vázquez Lamboy commented, “Hi Anitra. I have your grandpa’s Cuatro.”

Sharing Neri’s Legacy

My grandfather was happy to share everything that he knew with the up-and-coming musician, Ramón Vázquez Lamboy, through a lengthy 30-year friendship and mentorship. Through his humble introduction, I learned that Ramón is part of a Grammy-nominated band and that the Smithsonian Folkways label recently produced and released their second album and has plans to submit it to be considered for a Grammy this spring. But more importantly, I learned the fate of my grandfather’s Cuatro: it never leaves Ramón’s side.

The friendship that suddenly formed between myself and Ramón felt like a sign from my grandfather to focus on my talent for photography and to give myself permission to live out loud—just as he had with his music. When Ramón heard that it was my dream to reconnect with my grandfather’s musician friends, camera in hand, we agreed that I should schedule a trip.

It was like visiting an old friend and picking up where we left off. I recognized the details of his Cuatro immediately: its distinctive shape and color, the sweet sound it makes, the fragrance of its old case with a broken buckle. Ramón was proud to share that he keeps it in pristine condition; the only adjustment he’s made since his ownership are the new tuning pegs.

I discovered that my grandfather’s creative legacy lives on—in the plucked strings of his Cuatro and in my own blood.

Anitra Thompson, local portrait and lifestyle photographer at Anitra Photography, plans to photograph more legacy projects like this one with her grandfather’s Cuatro, both locally and abroad. Additional photos from her journey to Puerto Rico are available at AnitraPhotography.com/Legacy.