This Sunday, we and our friend Dennis, had a very powerful experience. We visited Master Artesano Don Jaime Alicea in Vega Baja. Don Jaime is a maker of the traditional instrument of Puerto Rico, the Cuatro. He welcomed us into his very modest home, sited up in the hills with the La Cordillera Central in the background and just a glimpse of the Atlantic. His workshop has an uneven dirt floor and wooden shutters for windows, and yet, from the ceiling were hanging some of the most magnificent musical instruments I have ever seen. In the center was his workbench with several unfinished cuatros in various stages of construction. The cabinet doors around the shop are fully adorned with some old, some newer signed pictures of world class musicians who have come to Don Jaime for cuatros which he has created for decades from native Puerto Rican woods.
Its difficult to convey in words the quality of the workmanship he puts into the instruments but I can give you a sense of how they sound. Check out this and this and this for a bit of heaven as played by Don Jaime. He passionate playing is of the tradition of the hills of Puerto Rico - powerful and with exuberance.
We felt honored to have the opportunity to see his taller and to handle and pluck the strings of his instruments. We shared an intimate hour with him, listening to him play his powerful songs, drinking the sweet coffee brought to us by his wife and simply basking in the warmth and gentle glow of his taller.
Visitors to Puerto Rico usually focus on the high rise mega hotels and beaches of the San Juan metro area or the beaches of Rincon and the west. What are often missed are the treasures of the hills and mountains. Up high, people have been living for centuries, buffered from drag of popular culture. Here the musical traditions of Puerto Rico's past continue. Musicians like Don Jaime and hundreds and hundreds more are called marquesetta (sort of like back porch) musicians. They are passionate players of Puerto Rican music and have unbeatable skills, yet are modest, religious, and steeped in family and the traditions of 500 years. It is through this music of the island that the cultural integrity of Puerto Rico continues to be lived.
Reflecting on our visit, I realized that it wasn't just the quality of the instruments or the passionate music that we left considering. We left realizing we had just met a great and gentle man. He isn't puffed up or boastful, he is simply a master artesano of the cuatro who continues to create them to be played by others who share his passion.