Jorge Glem and the Cuatro Revolution
Jorge Glem wants you to know that the cuatro is more than the sum of its simple parts. The Grammy-nominated musician is a master of the four-stringed Venezuelan folk instrument, strumming and palming and flicking its strings to produce the sounds of merengue, jazz, samba, and even American folk music for his audiences. He's on a mission to showcase the dynamic range of the cuatro, and ahead of his August 16 performance at the David Rubenstein Atrium, the ambitious cuatrista talks about his eternal love for the unique string instrument.
Amanda Gordon: Can you talk a little bit about why you began playing the cuatro?
Jorge Glem: The cuatro is a traditional Venezuelan instrument and you hear it in at least 90 percent of Venezuelan music. It's so much a part of Venezuela's musical identity, and it's very common for most people to own a cuatro. It was an instrument that always seemed to be present in my life, and growing up I was always exposed to it, whether it was seeing my father pick it up to play from time to time or hearing people playing it in parrandas (musical get-togethers) that were always taking place in our home.
As a child, I just saw the cuatro as an instrument that was part of every household, but soon I began to see its importance in music. It became very important to me not only to play it well, but also to understand and study it.
AG: When did you realize the versatility and potential of the instrument? What makes its sound unique?
JG: I truly realized when I entered my college years and attended music school. The mere fact that I was not able to choose the cuatro as my instrument, but had to choose the mandolin instead, showed that there was something very unique and uncommon about the cuatro, and that attracted me even more to it.
Whenever I played the cuatro, people's reaction to it was much better than when I played the mandolin. I really enjoyed taking songs that were popular on the radio and playing them on the cuatro. Other cuatro players responded well to what I was doing. Also, the reaction of people from other countries—who had never heard the cuatro—hearing a song they knew being played on this Venezuelan instrument was awesome.
For me, the cuatro has a very distinct voice, and the fact that it is a traditional instrument from my country makes it even more special. This, along with the incredible power of the cuatro to allow you to play percussion, a harmony, and a melody at the same time, although it is only a four-string instrument, inspired me.
AG: What is the #4CuatroMusic movement and how did it come about?
JG: The #4CuatroMusic movement emerged from the desire to see how many cuatro players are really out there. However, the movement went further than that because it tried not only to understand how the cuatro is played for traditional Venezuelan music, but also how it can be played for other genres. For example, Colombian accordionist Gregorio Uribe picked up a cuatro to play joropo, a genre from Colombia that is also part of llanero music, which is shared by both Colombia and Venezuela. The goal was to universalize the cuatro and show the world what can be done with it, by both professionals and amateurs, and share on social media using the #4CuatroMusic hashtag.
AG: You've been performing in New York City for a couple of years. Has living here informed your music? Have you found audiences to be receptive?
JG: New York City has had a great influence on me as an individual, on my music, and the way I play the cuatro. I have learned so much about making new music and fusing it with distinct styles. The audience reaction has been beautiful because they have embraced the sound of the cuatro, which is different and new to them. The work is hard, but I really hope to open doors and help pave the way for others who may want to start playing the cuatro.
AG: As a sort of unofficial ambassador for the cuatro, how do you think the traditional Venezuelan instrument can elevate the existing American music culture?
JG: I think to say that any instrument can elevate an existing musical culture that has taken years to form is not necessarily the best way to describe it. I think it's more about showing what the cuatro can do within the existing American music culture. It's more about an exchange of instrumentation and genres. I truly believe that music should have no boundaries, and the ability to use a traditional instrument like the cuatro in genres like American folk music, jazz, rock, and pop really exemplifies this.
I would love if, some day, the cuatro would be essential in a genre that is not from Venezuela, perhaps bluegrass or jazz. The great Paco de Lucía, for instance, took the Peruvian cajón and incorporated it into flamenco music, and now it's an integral part of that genre. The most important thing is for us to reach a point where musical genres can incorporate within themselves elements from other genres and fuse together to create newer and richer sounds.
Amanda Gordon is the 2018 editorial intern for Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.