Hannah Gelman and Jonah Massey
October 6, 2022
The Contemporary Cuatrista: An Interview With Fabiola Méndez
The Puerto Rican musician discusses her instrument and her purpose
“I think my main goal as a musician and as an artist is for people to learn about the cuatro, to appreciate what the cuatro is and what it can bring.” Convincingly, Fabiola Méndez says this with cuatros of various styles and colors propped up behind where she sits for our Zoom interview. “Even though it is an instrument that’s from the Puerto Rican culture, it can be used in any genre and anyone can play it. It doesn’t matter what I do or what particular focus I have in all of my projects — I just want people to learn about the cuatro and appreciate the cuatro. To just love it as I do.” In Méndez’s hands, it’s hard not to start loving the cuatro, too.
For the Puerto Rican singer-songwriter and composer, the cuatro has been her musical vessel for identity and purpose throughout most of her life’s journey. Méndez’s music is centered around the cuatro, which she describes as her “piece of Puerto Rico that I carry everywhere.” Consequently, the cuatro has brought her to incredible heights. From the Metropolitan Museum of Art to the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra to a Quincy Jones award, Méndez has undoubtedly become a cuatrista idol in the world of contemporary music.
Her life-long relationship with the folk instrument from Puerto Rico began when she was only six years old.
“I don’t have any memories of not playing the cuatro,” confesses Méndez. “I started because my dad used to play and my family is super into the folk traditions of Puerto Rico. I think that’s why I picked the cuatro, not only because my dad played, but because everyone in my family supported its style and genre. I’ve been playing ever since, but I only started reading music when I was about ten. Before then, I just played by ear.”
After graduating high school in Puerto Rico, Méndez attended Boston’s Berklee College of Music where she began to explore other genres, “not just folk music or Latin music.” Her expansion into these other sounds—jazz, Jewish, and Brazilian music, to name a few—deeply influenced Méndez’s music “in so many aspects.” Throughout this multigenre shift, Méndez and her cuatro playing remained faithful to their roots, but she began to incorporate elements from these other genres into her own work.
“In jazz, you can have like so many different chords that just sound so cool together,” Méndez explains. “A lot of what I write has cool harmonies, like colors not necessarily in one key, but with chords that come from different key centers. That’s one of the technical aspects of how I apply jazz. When you're listening to my music, the melodies are simple enough that the song won't feel too crazy. But they're also interesting and unpredictable.”
“And the fact that I use [the cuatro] to not only play folk music but also this fusion of jazz, odd meters, and different harmonies makes me unique in that sense that the instrument sounds a little bit different. It doesn't sound traditional.”
Méndez’s concerts certainly aren’t traditional either — conversation itself is part of the experience. She sees music as an opportunity to create “spaces for conversation.” This process begins with Méndez on the stage, where she taps into her experience working as an elementary school teacher. “If you have the chance to go to my show, you’ll see how I am,” she says. “My friends make fun of me, saying, ‘Oh look, Ms. Méndez is coming out!’ I always make that switch to an educator, especially since the instrument that I play is not that well known. I feel a huge responsibility to educate audience members about what I’m doing. Almost every song that I play, I give a little context as to what I’m playing, what I’m singing, and where it comes from. All my songs are in Spanish, so I also translate the lyrics in order for everyone to understand what I’m singing about. I think 70% of what I do on stage is almost as a teacher.”
But like a conversation, Méndez ensures that it isn’t a one-sided exchange. After performances from her recent album Afrorriqueña — a work “inspired by the work of female poets and specifically how we feel about race in Puerto Rico and Latin America” — Méndez engaged in discussions with audience members about their personal experiences with race. “A lot of the music was about that, about having the space after the concert to talk to people and to hear from people, and to have people talk among themselves about the lyrics of a song. I think that's the first step towards change.”
Accompanying Afrorriqueña are Méndez’s other projects that have explored racial identity through distinct methods. Negrura is Méndez’s 2022 film that synthesizes improvisational music with her interviews with Afro-Latinos from the Boston area.“In the film, many of the conversations were about our stories, our upbringings, our families, and our work environments,” says Méndez. “At the end, I think the most important or radical aspect of the film was that instead of it being a documentary about me, where I'm narrating or the center, it's all about the actual folks that were interviewed and their stories. I'm just a spectator with my instruments. Throughout the film, you see these people talking about their stories, and then you have me come on screen and perform a totally improvised piece based on what we hear. It’s experimental in the sense that the music is all improvised and it's responding to all these stories. The film is going to be the opening of my upcoming concert because the music of the album is also related to race and all these topics. People will have a chance to watch the film, listen to the music, and then have a moment to talk and reflect afterward.”
Currently, Méndez is also working as a composer for a number of children’s animated series, such as the PBS Kids shows Alma's Way and Work It Out Wombats, as well as HBO Max's Mecha Builders. “For me, it's a new world, and it pushes me out of my comfort zone,” she admits. But how did Méndez get into composing for these shows? According to her, once again, “it was all because of the cuatro.” “I feel this gratitude and amazing connection with the instrument. I feel like everything that I've been able to achieve in my life has been because of this piece of wood that I love so much,” avows Méndez. “The first show that I started working on was Alma’s Way. And the reason they reached out to me is that the show is a story about a six-year-old girl from the Bronx who is Puerto Rican; they wanted to have some traditional sounds in the show. Lin Manuel Miranda is also on the show. He wrote the theme song. So there's hip hop, and then there are New York sounds, but they also wanted to have the traditional sounds because her grandparents were born on the island [of Puerto Rico].”
Méndez also talked to us about her process as a composer, which, like her performance style, is heavily influenced by her time as a teacher. “I picked up so many tools that help me do what I do now as a composer for an animated TV series,” she says. “What are the melodies that children like? What are rhythms that they enjoy? You know, thinking about the intervals that fit better for children to sing— there are all these technical things that I can think about when writing music for children. Especially when the client says something like, ‘We want a song that is catchy!’ I have to figure out what that means. That can mean so much, but thinking about all those elements that children enjoy means using all the tools that I gathered as an educator. It just all connects.”
Below are some more highlights from our interview.
BFNJM: It sounds like you’re incredibly busy right now, but if there’s anything—it could just be an idea floating around in your head—that you have lined up right now, we’re curious what it is!
“I’m busy, but I always seem to get myself into more and more work, just because I enjoy it so much. I am currently in the creative process of my next album, which will go back to my roots a little bit more. I currently have three albums out, one of them I did as a child, which I don’t really consider a professional album. But the other two were done in the past couple of years after I graduated, and they have more depth. Those two professional ones each had their own theme. The first one, right after I graduated, was about what being on the other side of the pond meant to me, and the other was about my identity as an Afro-Latina. But for this one, I want to go back to the traditions and the way of creating songs that are based on tradition but are a bit more modern, if you can call it that. With a different message, playing with the rhythm and harmonies, all of that. I am so glad that this project with the Boston Festival of New Jewish Music came about, because I still have to write three more pieces, and I’m definitely going to include the work that I do for BFNJM in the album. That’s the next project, but I’m also doing a residency with the Boston Landmarks Orchestra, composing with the youth from the Latin Quarter. Because I did the documentary in connection with the Latin Quarter community, now I’m doing this residency with the orchestra and the youth. We’re going to be writing a piece together with the youth from the program, the orchestra is going to hire an orchestrator, and then the orchestra is going to play that piece. I’m going to be a facilitator for the music in order for it to make sense. That’s going to be really fun. There’s also the tour that I’m doing this fall around the U.S. and the Northeast, the West Coast, Chicago, and Puerto Rico. There’s a lot! I’m excited.”
BFNJM: Puerto Rico is now internationally known, more than ever before, for artists such as Bad Bunny and The Marías. What connection do you see between your music and reggaetón or other popular genres coming out of Puerto Rico?
“I think it’s through the social component of the work that we do. Bad Bunny, in particular, his work is very different from mine. But in the end, we do have that sense of speaking up and telling our people’s stories. We might use different means— he might use a certain vocabulary, and I might use a different language to kind of say the same things. You know, we are a U.S. territory, and we've been one for so many years. But there are so many things that we don't have a say on, so many decisions that we can't make about our own country and our own people. Now artists are coming out and feeling like, ‘Okay, we need to speak up, we need to figure out how to solve this problem.’ How can we have a healthier relationship with the United States? And how can we have a healthier relationship with our own politicians and the issues that we have? So in the end, again, a lot of the artists that are coming out of Puerto Rico are becoming like social activists in a way, even if they're just making music that's fun, that's for partying, that's for dancing. There's still some message underneath that we're all trying to send and to let the world know.”
BFNJM: Where and from whom do you draw inspiration when you compose and create music?
“I guess the one that comes to mind first is definitely nature. Nature inspires a lot of what I do and a lot of who I am. I'm that type of person that goes on hikes a lot and goes to rivers and paddleboards and kayaks— I’m very outdoorsy. I think especially after the pandemic was a time when I did a lot with nature. It’s a big component of my music. And then secondly, I would say my culture and my ancestry. The music that I write is inspired by the folk traditions and the stories of my people, ancestors, and the community that surrounds me these days.”
See Fabiola Méndez at the Boston Festival of New Jewish Music on May 24, 2023: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/fabiola-mendez-at-the-bfnjm-tickets-431252797727?aff=blog.