June 18, 2018
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Maestro draws moving music from Puerto Rican instrument

By Judy Harrison, BDN Staff

The music of Puerto Rico evoked tears, cheers and dancing in the aisles Friday night when Maestro Modesto Nieves y Herencia Musical performed for the first time at the American Folk Festival in Bangor.

Nieves is considered to be a master and innovator on the cuatro, a 10-string instrument in the guitar family. The cuatro, the national instrument of Puerto Rico, looks like a cross between a mandolin and guitar, but the notes Nieves enticed from it sounded like no other instrument festival regulars have heard.

The fingers of the maestro, who is left-handed, flew up and down the strings. When he plucked them, the cuatro’s sound was similar to a fiddle’s. Other times, Nieves strummed the strings and it sounded like a mandolin. Yet, no matter the tune or the pace, the music of the cuatro remained unique.

Accompanied by three musicians dubbed Herencia Musical, or musical heritage in Spanish, the group performed several numbers dedicated to their homeland, Puerto Rico. Spanish-speakers in the nearly full house at the Penobscot Stage sang along to some of them and others wiped tears from their eyes.

Members of Herencia Musical included Nieves’ daughter Monika Nieves, who sang and played the guiro. It is a percussion instrument made of an oblong-shaped gourd and is played by passing a wire scraper up and down across the parallel grooves carved into the guiro.

Her lush and haunting alto voice wrung every possible ounce of emotion from the songs and made them understandable for those who spoke no Spanish. Felix Lozada on guitar and Edgardo Serrano on bongos and other percussion instruments gave depth to the maestro’s music.

One of the great joys of the folk festival is hearing music familiar to some but totally unknown by the vast majority of Mainers. Maestro Modesto Nieves y Herencia Musical’s performance felt like home to a few and a discovery to many.

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