The Story of the Cuban Tres Guitar

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Nelson González playing his Cuban tres guitar (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

The Cuban tres guitar resembles a guitar, but instead of having the normal 6 strings, it has 3 pairs of strings each tuned to the same pitch. The tres started out as a 10 string guitar, called the bandola, in Spain. But the trip from Spain to Cuba would take a long time back in the day, and strings would break en route and in Cuba. Replacement strings were not available. Thus, a 10 string instrument became a 6 string one.

The tres’ origins are in Oriente Province, in the Eastern part of Cuba, in the Bayamo area on the banks of the Cauto River. The tres is the prime string instrument in son, an African-based musical style from Santiago de Cuba in Oriente Province, Cuba’s Eastern Province as the name would suggest. It is a gentle but persuasive music featuring bongos, tres guitar, upright bass, and singers. It is like a blue flame: lower but hotter. Most of the musicians in Oriente Province, like the members of the Buena Vista Social Club, came from Eastern Cuba to find work in the hotels during Havana’s heyday, and still do today.

la familia valera
La Famila Velera Miranda’s New Album (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

I recently saw a concert by La Familia Valera Miranda here. They are still based on La Isla; their city, Santiago de Cuba was wrecked a year ago by Hurricane Sandy. Maybe that’s why their new album, recorded in their home studio, is proudly called “De Santiago Yo No Me Voy” (I’m not leaving Santiago). It is a joy to listen to, and their version of “El Manicero” (The Peanut Vendor, named after street hawkers selling peanuts) is incredibly soulful and infectious.

I’ve written before on the unusual provenance of musical instruments like the bandonéon, clavé, and berimbau: Adversity and Ingenutity: Partners In Creation and The Tango Bandonéon: Where it Came From. It’s testament to human ingenuity that such wonderful music has triumphed over adversity.

Check out the amazing tres player Felix Enrique Valera Alarcón (actually he’s playing a Cuban cuatro, part of the tres family). His solos were a real highlight of the shows here in LA. This video was filmed 2 years ago at Santiago de Cuba’s famous club, La Casa de la Trova.