Call it an alto guitar or a tenor mandolin, the cuatro was born on the potent musical soil of Puerto Rico, descended from Spain’s bandurria. Multi-instrumentalist Jeff Kust takes his cuatro out for a holiday world tour of year-end traditions, and some time-travel, too (Jeff’s cuatro was made by William Cumpiano of Northampton, Massachusetts).
The Carol of the Bells’ lyrics were added to a folk song from the Ukraine by Peter Wilhousky. The words to this popular Christmas song celebrate the festive season and its traditions such as the pealing of church bells at Christmas and caroling from house to house. The original Ukrainian song was called Shchedryk, meaning ‘bountiful’, and was traditionally sung to celebrate the New Year.
The Little Drummer Boy is originally Czech, translated by Katherine K. Davis. It was arranged and recorded by Henry Onorati in 1957, but it was the Harry Simeone Chorale’s 1958 version of Onorati’s charts on Davis’ text that established a new Christmas classic.
That we know Riu Riu Chiu at all is a tribute to the printers, publishers and librarians of Renaissance Europe – and to The Monkees. The madrigal is believed to have been written by Catalan composer Mateu Fletxa The Elder somewhere between 1540 and 1553. But only one ‘original’ source has been found – in a Venetian edition of Spanish and Catalan songs discovered in library of Sweden’s University of Uppsala (and Fletxa goes uncredited in the score). The title imitates the singing of a nightingale to Catalan ears. Many listeners ‘of a certain age’ first heard Riu Riu Chiu performed on television by The Monkees, with Mickey Dolenz acting as soloist (We tip our hats to Lisa Theriot of Raven Boy Music for her charming description of Fletxa’s madrigal’s odyssey. It also appears Lady Gaga was not the first to contemplate a costume of meat).
The origins, author and composer of I Saw Three Ships are unknown, but it is believed to be an English carol from the Victorian era. The melody is extremely optimistic, and the repetition of the chorus ensures the carol will be well-remembered.
The fourth century Offertory text Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence, set to a medieval French folk song by twentieth-century English composer Ralph Vaughn Williams, is re-imagined by Jeff in a gothic cathedral.
Solstice Souvenir began as a meditation on a beautiful Midwestern winter day. This was Jeff’s first composition for cuatro.
Lo How A Rose is Theodore Baker’s 1894 translation of an anonymous sixteenth century German hymn text (Es ist Ein Ros Entsprungen). The tune is likewise of uncertain origins, but it was played by both Protestants and Catholics during the turbulent years of the Reformation. Michael Praetorius’ harmonization was printed in 1599, is the version best known to us today, and is the basis of Jeff’s arrangement.
The Coventry Carol, known also as Lully Lulla, was part of the medieval Mystery Plays performed in Coventry, England. These theatre pieces told Bible stories to the common people in the days before The Good Book was available in English. They were performed well into the days of the Reformation. The Coventry Carol was part of The Shearmen and Tailors Play, given during the feast days of Corpus Christi, in the springtime of each year. The text by Robert Croo, telling the tale of Herod and The Holy Innocents, is thought to date from 1534. The melody was published no later than 1591, but what we use today may not be exactly like the original. The only sixteenth century source volume was destroyed in 1875 in a library fire. A questionable transcription (and the version we all know) dates from before the fire, earlier in the nineteenth century.
El Burrito de Belen was a hit all across Latin America in 1971 for Venezuelan songwriter Hugo Blanco. Jeff’s arrangement adds a few narrative touches. A small elderly burro (el burrito of the title) resists to no avail his young master’s urgent demand to ride across Bethlehem to see what wonderful thing has happened in the stables behind the town inn. But the boy’s friends gather, and all are swept along to visit the family in the stable. You’ll hear the burro – and his complaints – in the fretless bass.
Fearful, selfish King Nimrod orders all newborn male children in his land executed (Quando El Rey Nimrod), lest a prophesied great leader of the people arise to seize the kingdom. Nimrod fares no better than the later King Herod; baby Abraham grows to become father to all three great People of The Book – Jews, Christians and Muslims. Imagine Christian pilgrims walking to the Holy Land singing a song they learned from their Sephardic Jewish hosts in Spain. Imagine it, too, as a dance piece popular all around the Mediterranean.
In Puerto Rico, one of the highlights of the holidays is la Parranda, a street party with carnival overtones, house-to-house caroling by groups of friends and families, plenty of food and drink, and dancing to music of the cuatro along with its relatives the tiple and the bordonua. Here, in A La Media Noche, Jeff gives the cuatro the lead role in that parade.
Silent Night sings from a smaller parish church its story of Christmas miracles, not least of which was the happy substitution of a guitar for a mouse-eaten organ in the choir loft, and the creation of one of the most beloved songs of the season.
Un Flambeau, Jeanette, Isabella originates in Provence, with its bright sunlight, green fields and mysterious forests. Torchlight caroling processions by children dressed as shepherds are part of the Midnight Mass tradition all across France. This is one of the most popular of their carols. Originally a
dance tune, the story of young women going to the stable to see the Christ child was later attached. It was translated and became an English favorite in the 18th century. Jeff’s cuatro solo version can be seen on YouTube.
Despite his Germanic family name, Emile Waldteufel , who wrote The Skaters’ Waltz, was an Alsatian Frenchman born in 1837. He was famous as a composer of many waltzes and much other popular dance music. Waldteufel was named court pianist to the Empress Eugenie in 1865. He later was a favorite of England's King Edward VII, who took a hand in introducing The Skaters' Waltz to the British Empire.
Catalonia is the source of the final piece on this recording. Presentes al Niño Jesus (El Noi de la Mare) is also known as The Carol of the Gifts. The text asks, “What gifts shall we give to the son of the virgin?” Raisins, olives, nutmeats, honey – all are suggested. But when figs are mentioned, which ripen in the middle of spring, the Passion of the Christ is foreshadowed. Guitarists know this traditional carol well because of the setting by virtuoso Catalan guitarist Miguel Llobet. It was also a favorite of Andrés Segovia.
Album recorded on Macintosh in Pro Tools by Jeff Kust/mixed and mastered on Macintosh in Pro Tools by Katherine Blanchard/produced by Mary Lynn Reed.
Notes, artwork and consultation by Tom Barclay.
Cover photo by Arcadia Kust.
Special thanks to:
William Cumpiano for Jeff’s cuatro
R.E. Brune for Jeff’s guitar
Kenny Lefort of the El Camino Community College Recording Studio
eBay for Jeff's bass and fretless bass
Neon Kust for direction and guidance
Amelia, Pepper and Ducky for editorial assistance
The Mighty Blue for tolerance and fidelity
M. Katherine Sweeney, Esq. for piteous initiatory complaints
Copyright 2012 Goff-O-Matic Music
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