“¡Ataca Yomo!”: A close-up look at Yomo Toro’s cuatro

“¡Ataca Yomo! (Attack Yomo!),” shouts singer Héctor Lavoe as the bright notes of what sounds like a guitar solo start flying by our ears in the middle of the iconic salsa hit “La Murga.” But what we’re hearing isn’t a guitar; it’s a cuatro—a stringed instrument from Puerto Rico—and the man behind this intense and virtuosic solo is Yomo Toro.

Born on July 26, 1933, in Guánica, Puerto Rico, Víctor Guillermo “Yomo” Toro is one of the most celebrated Puerto Rican cuatro players. Throughout his 60+ year career, he played a variety of genres with countless artists, though he is most widely recognized for his contributions to salsa—especially his participation in the 1970s Christmas album Asalto Navideño. After playing this cuatro for around 20 years, Toro donated it to the National Museum of American History in 2002. The instrument's details reveal important stories about Yomo Toro's life and music.

Yomo Toro's yellow and brown wooden cuatro is shaped like a violin, and it has 10 metal strings arranged in five pairs connected to a neck like a guitar.
Yomo Toro donated this cuatro to the museum in 2002. (2002.0350.01)

Starting out on the cuatro

Cuatros are stringed instruments like guitars. However, the body is shaped somewhat like a violin and it uses 10 metal strings arranged in five pairs (instead of the six single strings on a guitar). It’s an instrument that originated in Puerto Rico and is now considered a symbol of Puerto Rican national identity.

The name—“cuatro,” meaning “four”—originally referred to a stringed instrument with four single gut strings and an inverted keyhole shape. By the end of the 1800s, artisans were crafting several co-existing but constantly evolving variations of instruments called “cuatro” with different combinations of strings and body shapes. Until about the 1930s, these variations existed alongside each other, with some players even switching between types for different songs. Nevertheless, the instrument’s popularity with Puerto Rican recording artists such as Joaquín Rivera, Heriberto Torres, and Ladislao Martínez helped make the 10-string violin-shaped cuatro the modern standard.

A small brown cuatro.
An old style keyhole shaped cuatro with four strings collected by the Smithsonian in the late 1890s.  (CL.201482a)

Yomo Toro learned to play this type of cuatro from his father, a truck driver for the South Porto Rico Sugar Company Central Guánica and part-time musician. Although Toro was left-handed, he learned to play on a cuatro strung for a right-handed player; he simply flipped it over and played everything inverted with the lowest string at the bottom. He likely first learned to perform the style of rural Puerto Rican folk music called música jíbara that is traditionally played alongside other stringed instruments like tiples, bordonúas, and guitars, as well as percussion like güiros and bongos. He would have also learned to play danza, guaracha, plena, and other genres that were increasingly played on the cuatro by the 1930s.

Moving to the United States

After honing his craft playing cuatro and guitar with his family and starting a few bands of his own, Yomo Toro, like hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans, migrated to New York City in the 1950s. There, he joined other immigrants from the Caribbean and Latin America who were making a living in New York’s music scene. For years, he mostly played guitar and requinto for bolero trios (including the renowned Trio Los Panchos), mariachi bands, and solo singers. He also recorded with traditional música jíbara musicians such as Ramito and La Calandria. He achieved a degree of fame among the New York Puerto Rican community, and by the late ’60s he even had his own “Yomo Toro Show” on the New York Spanish-language TV station WXTV (Channel 41).

The back of Yomo Toro's wooden cuatro
Detail of guaraguao wood on the back of the cuatro body. (2002.0350.01)

Like Yomo Toro, the cuatro that is now part of the museum’s collection is firmly rooted in Puerto Rico: the woods used to make it—guaraguago for the body and yagrumo for the soundboard—are both from the island. It also shares a story of migration. Inside the cuatro, we can read the maker’s signature: “Yomy Matos.” Diómedes “Yomi” (or Yomy) Matos was born in 1940 in the town of Camuy, Puerto Rico, where he grew up surrounded by luthiers, craftspeople who make stringed instruments. He had made his first cuatro by the age of 12. He too eventually moved to the New York area, where he continued his craft and became one of the few and most sought-after U.S.-based cuatro makers. He went on to be recognized as a National Endowment of the Arts National Heritage Fellow in 2006. As noted under his signature, Matos completed this cuatro on June 30, 1980, in his New Jersey workshop, where Yomo Toro later acquired it.

eathered signature, which reads: "Yomy Matos, 6/30/80, #8."
Yomi Matos’s signature and date inside the cuatro

Creating a holiday classic

In the 1970s, Toro brought the cuatro to a new genre of music: salsa—the combination of predominantly Afro-Cuban musical styles like son montuno, guaracha, rumba, and mambo mixed with jazz and Puerto Rican influences, originating among mainly Puerto Rican, Cuban, and Dominican musicians in New York. After a previous collaboration playing Cuban tres (an instrument with a sound similar to the cuatro but with fewer strings, traditionally used for son montuno) for Larry Harlow, Toro was invited in 1970 to record with up-and-coming salsa artists Willie Colón and Héctor Lavoe, under the relatively new Latin music label called Fania, run by Johnny Pacheco and Jerry Masucci.

As Toro’s story goes—although disputed by Colón—Colón and Lavoe were recording a Christmas album and they wanted an electric guitar player. The musician they hired could not make it and they asked Toro to come in instead. With the Christmas theme in mind, Toro decided to bring the more traditional cuatro, commonly associated with the holidays in Puerto Rico, instead of the electric guitar without informing anyone. When he showed up, he was met with some confusion and sarcasm.

At the end of the session, however, everyone was exuberant with the wonderful meshing of traditional cuatro melodies with the driving sound of the salsa style. They knew they had a hit on their hands. The album sold well in New York, Puerto Rico, and throughout Latin America, and included hit songs like “La Murga.” Today, it is considered a holiday standard and one of the most influential Puerto Rican holiday albums. As Toro told museum curator Marvette Pérez in an interview, he believed that Puerto Ricans especially connected to the music because they felt that the sound of the cuatro was a message directly to and for them.

Bigger crowds, bigger sounds

Following the success of the album, Toro was invited to join the Fania All-Stars, a supergroup bringing together the label’s biggest names. He made his live debut with the band in 1971 at the Cheetah Club, a concert immortalized in the documentary/promotional film Our Latin Thing. But he faced a challenge: with a large horn section and dense percussion, salsa can be very loud. To be heard over the band at the Cheetah Club he had to tape a guitar pickup to the cuatro he was using at the time to amplify it. The device, like on an electric guitar, would convert string vibrations into electric signals that could then be played through an amplifier. This DIY amplification worked, but it wasn't a permanent solution.

Aware of his upcoming loud gigs with Fania and concerned with the instrument's volume, Toro took another cuatro that he owned at the time to a guitar technician to figure out how to consistently amplify it. Using some creativity, the technician attached a Gibson guitar pickup to the cuatro’s sound hole, allowing it to be heard over a full salsa orchestra playing for crowds of thousands. Intentionally or not, this setup emulated Arsenio Rodríguez, whose electrified Cuban tres and innovative arrangements of the 1940s heavily influenced what became known as salsa, as well as Toro’s own playing. From then on, amplified cuatros became his standard.

The sound hole of Yomo Toro’s cuatro.
Detail of Yomo Toro’s cuatro showing the Gibson electric guitar pickup under the strings. Amplifying the sound produced by the acoustic instrument allowed Toro to play with loud bands, which was essential for the kind of innovative music he was making.

Yomo Toro went on to tour the world and perform with Fania until his death in 2012. In addition to the artists mentioned above, he played with countless salsa stars, among them Celia Cruz and Eddie Palmieri. Throughout this time, his playing spanned a vast array of genres, drawing on música jíbara, plena, son, and jazz but also venturing into rock and soul.

Yomo Toro smiles in a recording studio, surrounded by other musicians.
Yomo Toro in a Bronx recording studio in 1994 playing the cuatro in our collection. Photo by Juan Sotomayor.

Coming to the Smithsonian

During the 1980s and 1990s, the cuatro in the museum’s collection shared the stage with many of the artists mentioned above. This was likely Toro’s second or third amplified instrument. He acquired it in the 1980s after visiting Matos and instantly falling in love with one of the cuatros he saw in his longtime friend’s shop. Toro was delighted with how light and smooth it was to play, and Matos gladly sold it to him. After acquiring another of Matos’ cuatros in 2001, he decided to donate the first one to the National Museum of American History, encouraged by curator Marvette Pérez.

A smiling Yomo Toro looks over to Yomi Matos as they both play their musical instruments.
Yomo Toro (right) and Yomi Matos (left) maintained a friendship through the decades, and in November 1998 they were able to play together for audiences at the National Museum of American History’s Puerto Rican Cuatro Festival. Photo by Steve Velasquez.

Yomo Toro died on June 30, 2012. His recordings, performances, and jovial personality endeared him to millions in Puerto Rico, the United States, and Latin America. This cuatro serves as a symbol of his legacy, a legacy that is also commemorated by an apartment building in Harlem, a street in the Bronx, a public square in Ensenada, Guánica, and festivals named in his honor. Like Yomo Toro’s life and music, this cuatro is firmly rooted in Puerto Rico and its traditions while embracing and thriving in the realities of migration and the Puerto Rican diaspora in New York and the United States. Its modification and changes reflect Yomo Toro’s own musical evolution and long career as an artist. And it is the instrument that he is pictured holding on his tombstone for posterity.

A black gravestone with an image of Yomo Toro playing a cuatro
Yomo Toro’s tombstone. Photo by Denise Toro.

Norman R. Storer Corrada is a museum specialist in the Division of Culture and the Arts.