Teaching Tiple Fever: Pedagogy, Heritage, and Activism

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As I read Noraliz Ruiz’ article "Tiple Fever: Building a Forgotten Jíbaro Instrument," in the January 22 Centro Voices, I found myself smiling. Noraliz’s enthusiasm for the tiple and its preservation is palpable and contagious. Her article accurately evokes the excitement of building this traditional Puerto Rican stringed instrument from scratch; the distinctive aroma of raw wood being cut and shaped as well as the satisfaction, after an intense week, of walking away with a fully functional, concert-grade instrument. Noraliz’s article struck such a chord of familiarity because during the summer of 2014, I organized a tiple building workshop that brought the renowned Puerto Rican luthier Maestro William Cumpiano to Hartford, CT as part of an effort sponsored by Trinity College and Center Church. The city of Hartford is home to a large and historically important Puerto Rican population.

Much of what we tried to accomplish, and what I believe Cumpiano and his team also aim for in their Chicago-based workshops can be summarized by Noraliz’s reflection: “More than creating a musical instrument, this workshop instilled in me both self-confidence and a sensibility for recognizing the power of music in the making of self and community.” It was largely this belief that the workshop could empower people and build community that prompted the collaboration between Center Church and Trinity College. I also saw it as a means to use the arts—music in particular, which is infectious and non-threatening—to break down barriers and tackle the town-gown divide. Trinity is one of the only small highly ranked liberal arts colleges located in the heart of a U.S. city. Not surprisingly, the college-city relationship is marked by racial and class differences.

Cumpiano and students in the sculpture studio at Trinity College. Photo © 2014 Pablo Delano.

Our Hartford workshop students represented wide and diverse backgrounds; more women than men, ranging from students and professionals to retired, disabled, and unemployed people. One participant, Nicole Muto-Graves, a Trinity College ethnomusicology major remarked, “Any time you’re doing something creative with other people, it bonds you together.” This proved to be true as participants shared the struggle to master tools they had never before used – but also showed up with food for the group to share during the long work days. However, I must acknowledge that the real magic of the workshop was enabled by Cumpiano’s sophisticated yet seemingly simple pedagogical methods, fine-tuned over years of teaching, and worthy of closer examination.

In 1995, the great Caribbean intellectual Lloyd Best outlined a proposal for creating a more relevant and effective educational system in his Caribbean homeland of Trinidad and Tobago through the use of the national instrument, the steel pan (steel drum), usually referred to simply as the pan. In his paper titled School in Pan, Dr. Best states, “The aim is to shift from pan in school to school in pan…” In other words, you can put the instrument into the schools and teach a few notes or melodies but to bring about real change, you need to invert the process and put the entire educational endeavor into the pan itself. You must use the instrument, which is a known and loved autochthonous creation, as the basis for all teaching. This, I believe, is what Maestro Cumpiano comes very close to doing in his tiple building workshops.

Most would agree that preserving a near-extinct musical instrument is an inherently worthy activity, as is learning about one’s culture and heritage. But Cumpiano also engages his students with critical thinking and problem solving. The learning happens less from following directions than from the need to understand the theoretical and historical underpinning for each step of the instrument’s construction. Cumpiano seamlessly weaves these historical and theoretical lessons into his teaching. For example, in order to ensure the tiple’s notes sound true the frets and bridge must be placed with great precision. The practical objective (producing an instrument that plays and stays in tune) becomes the basis for learning about the interrelationship of mathematical and acoustic principles that govern sound production.

Cumpiano’s diagram on the studio chalkboard illustrating the construction of the bridge.
Photo © 2014 Pablo Delano.

What about the tiple itself? Can an instrument built in a week by inexperienced wood workers really contribute to the revival of a lost musical tradition? What specifically represents that tradition: the method and materials used to build the instrument or the music it produces? I’d say that Cumpiano, who co-authored the world’s leading guitar-making textbook, is at heart a builder more than a preservationist, and a lover of the music above all else. He is a master craftsman with enormous appreciation and understanding of materials and historical construction methods, but with a practical approach and a knack for innovation, Thus, the design of the fascinating “Cumpiano student tiple” (my terminology) embodies all those qualities. Let’s take a look.

Everyone who takes Cumpiano’s workshop learns that the tiple was traditionally constructed using a method called “enterizo.” Like its big brother the Puerto Rican cuatro, the entire instrument—body and neck—was carved from one piece of wood, except for the face. This construction method was born of necessity - it required skill, but only basic, readily available tools. However, carving an enterizo instrument today, with inexperienced woodworkers, is not viable. Hence Cumpiano’s development of the “semi-enterizo”or “hybrid enterizo” method which honors the legacy building method but employs a band saw and power tools to shape the instrument’s body—still from one piece of wood.

Left: A country artisan in Puerto Rico building an “enterizo” cuatro circa 1980. Photo © Estate of Jack Delano;
Right: Workshop participant Domingo DeJesus using electric spindle sander to shape “semi-enterizo” tiple.
Photo © 2014 Pablo Delano.

Cumpiano comments, “When I first set out to design the class, I had to think the reverse of what my entire career had demanded of me: I had always been obliged to strive towards ever greater intricacy, refinement, and sophistication in my work. But the jíbaros, the creators of these traditions, had to make these small singing cabinets with little more than a slab of wood and a machete or just a sharpened piece of steel. Working with beginners now setting out to recreate a jibaro instrument, I had to think, how close can I come to this?”

Another example of Cumpiano’s pragmatic approach is his choice of North American poplar for the instrument’s body instead of a more traditional Caribbean hardwood such as guaraguao, laurel, aguacate, cedro, maga, caoba or yagrumo. Why use an “incorrect” wood? Because it’s readily available, it’s economical, it’s easy to work with, it sounds good and it looks good. Does that make the instrument any less authentic? You the reader can decide.

Keen observers may notice from the accompanying photos a difference between the tiples constructed in Noraliz’s workshop, held at Cumpiano’s studio, and the ones we produced in Hartford. With a bit more time, the instrument can be built with an added fingerboard of walnut or other dark colored wood. A simpler solution, requiring less work and material, is to integrate the frets directly into the top of the neck, which itself becomes the fingerboard. Which method is historically accurate? Both—depending upon the sophistication and resources available to the builder!

Domingo DeJesus and Cumpiano with nearly finished tiple showing one-piece bridge and frets integrated into the neck.
Photo © 2014 Pablo Delano.

The “Cumpiano student tiple” integrates many other thoughtful design adaptations. The bridge, which normally requires a bone inset upon which the strings rest, has been simplified and redesigned so it can be constructed from one piece yet function normally. Finally, students may feel even more invested in their project because they have the option to customize some of the non-functional, decorative elements of the instrument. They can choose to their liking the shape of the head, the specific rosette, even the color of the varnish.

Workshop participants Rev. Damaris Whittaker (L) and Carlos Santiago Arroyo discussing the building process.
Photo © 2014 Pablo Delano.

Our workshop took place in the sculpture studio at Trinity College but would not have been possible without the collaboration of Rev. Damaris Whittaker, the first woman, the first Puerto Rican, and the first person of African descent to serve as senior minister at Hartford’s Center Church, founded in 1632. Chatting about her enthusiasm and participation in the workshop, one word came up over and over, empowerment. For me, it is impossible to think about this entire endeavor without placing it into the larger context of the struggle to uphold our Puerto Rican identity. After centuries of oppressive treatment—as evident today as ever, given current events that threaten to eviscerate the island—, I believe these workshops exemplify the resiliency of the Puerto Rican people, who find ways to value and celebrate their culture despite longstanding systemic efforts to denigrate all that is theirs.

Success! Photo © 2014 Pablo Delano.


Interested in building a tiple? The next Hartford Puerto Rican Tiple Building Workshop will be held August 15–20, 2016. For more information email pablo.delano@trincoll.edu or visit our Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/PRTCWHartford/?fref=ts/.

Special thanks to the workshop’s technical assistant, Christopher Brown.

Hero image: José Capeles admiring his finished tiple while Maestro Cumpiano looks on. Photo © 2014 Pablo Delano.
© Pablo Delano. Published by permission in Centro Voices on 10 March 2016.

Centro Voices (ISSN: 2379-3864).
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of Centro Voices, the Center for Puerto Rican Studies or Hunter College, CUNY.