The Puerto Rican Music

Instruments: Bordonúa: History

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The Bordonúa (BORE-DOH-NOO-AH) is the largest and the least known of the three stringed instruments that originated in the island of Puerto Rico. The other two stringed instruments that have their origins in Puerto Rico are the cuatro and the tiple.

The name Bordonúa comes from the word bordón, which is used to describe the thicker strings of a musical instrument (that is, those which produce a deeper bass sound).

The modern bordonúa has 10 strings in pairs, a deep body (±6 inches) and an elongated pear shape similar to the mejorana of Panamá. It has a shorter neck than a guitar and a longer body. Also, it is commonly strung using cuatro strings.

Originally, the bordonúa was designed as a bass instrument providing the rhythmic counterpoint to the melodic lead tiples and cuatros in what is now known as the "orquesta jibara" (or mountain-folk ensemble). Please note that the bordonúa was not a actual bass instrument, but rather a mid-range rhythmic accompaniment.

The bordonúa is believed to have evolved in the mountainous regions of the island from the late 16th century 8-stringed Bajo de la Uña of Spain (as were the guitarrones of Mexico and Argentina). However, no precise information exists because it was primarily a jibaro instrument and Spanish colonists of the time did not document such information.

The original Bordonúa, however, is thought to have had 5 or 6 single strings tuned in intervals similar to those of the guitar: 4-4-4-3-4. As with the Tiple, there existed various types of Bordonúas in different parts of the island. Each had a different number of strings and different tunings, but the three most common were the 6 (single string), 8 (double string) and the 10 (double string) bordonúas. Of these, the 10-string bordonúa is now the most common variant.

Sometime before the turn of the century the bordonúa was abandoned in favor of the Spanish guitar probably because it could serve the same rhythmic purpose and also play melodic lead patterns (not to mention the higher musical and social status of the guitar).

In the late 1920s to the early 1950s Puerto Rican musicians recast the bordonúa as a lead instrument by tuning it like the Puerto Rican Tiple and in turn having the guitar accompany it. However, their success was limited and the bordonúa eventually fell into disuse once again.

During the late 1960s and 1970s musicians and artisans formally endeavored to revive all of the folkloric instruments of Puerto Rico. Although, they were particularly successful in reviving the Puerto Rican cuatro (it is now enjoys acclaim as the national instrument of Puerto Rico), the bordonúa was not so lucky.

Today, once more there is a movement to "rescue" the bordonúa as an instrument of cultural significance in the minds and hearts of Puerto Ricans. Musicologists and cultural anthropologists seek to understand, promote and restore the Bordonúa as the bass accompaniment in the folkloric jibaro music of Puerto Rico.

The modern standard configuration for the bordonúa comes from the revival efforts of the 1960s and 1970s by musician and folklorist Dr. Francisco López Cruz. It is largely because of his efforts that the bordonúa has not been completely forgotten. Much of what is currently known about the instrument's construction and how to play it stems from his efforts.

Today the bordonúa is still constructed in a similar fashion to that of the Tiple and the Cuatro by carving the body from a single large piece of wood and gluing a thin soundboard like a Spanish guitar. Commonly used woods include yagrumo (trumpet tree), guayacán (lignum vitae), laurel (loblolly sweetwood), and guaraguao (muskwood). The soundboard is commonly made out of softer lighter woods such as yagrumo hembra (cecropia), jagüey (banyan) or even spruce.