The Cuban tres is believed to have originated in Baracoa, in eastern Cuba, and was later introduced in Santiago de Cuba by musician Nené Manfugás in 1892.
The instrument itself is smaller than the classic guitar and possesses outstanding melodic and rhythmic qualities. The Cuban tres has three courses (groups) of two iron strings each, for a total of six strings. Played mainly with tortoise shell picks, it is still a leading instrument in Son bands.
Francisco (Pancho) Leonel Amat, born in the western Cuban town of Guira de Melena in 1950, is one of the immortal virtuosos of tres. He has savoured almost everything in music, with dozens of songs and productions, including television and documentary releases to his credit. He just received 2010 Cuba’s National Music Award, coinciding with his 60th birthday.
Cuba is the paradise of treseros, the name given in Cuba to musicians who play the three double-string guitar so essential in the origins of son, the African-Spanish rhythm that began in Cuba and spread around the world.
Cubaplus puts some questions to the virtuoso:
Did you expect this award? I have always worked for the love of music, never for an award. I play tres for the pleasure of it and with it I defend Cuba’s most traditional music. The work does bear fruit. We are human beings with heart and feelings.
When you played congas and rumbas in Guira de Melena you played for the pleasure of it too? Music should be played for pleasure. Eventually one studies, becomes a professional and things change. But when playing music one should always try to give it that touch of pleasure, of fun.
I’ve heard you got to play guitar by sheer chance. Yes, my dad sold coal and one day someone didn’t have money to pay for a sack of coal so in exchange gave him a battered old guitar that was actually an improvised tres. The client took for granted that the guitar would be a good gift for the coal vendor’s son.
So I looked for help from a tres player named Herminio Pérez and a guy called Lucumí, both from a son band. Everything started kind of without planning.
When did you begin studying music? In 1971 I fi nished my studies as a chemistry and physics teacher at the Ciudad Libertad Pedagogical Institute in Havana. Back in the day Quilapayún, a band from Chile, visited Cuba. The Manguaré band was created in the style of the altiplano bands with music from the barricades. Pianist and composer Frank Fernández played with Manguaré. I played the cuatro, the tiple and the charango (all instruments of the lute and guitar family). I stayed with Manguaré from 1971 to 1988. I used to be called “Pancho Manguaré” around that time.
Who helped you with your music plans? Cuban pianist Frank Fernández oriented me in creating musical arrangements. I researched altiplano music and continued studying at the Ignacio Cervantes Professional Training School under great musicians like Juan Elósegui and Rafael Lay.
What exactly made you choose the tres as your instrument? Guitarist Martín Rojas suggested that I should dedicate myself to tres due to its importance in son’s folklore traditions.
What kind of research did you do on the tres? After Martín Rojas’ suggestion, I started researching the most well known tres players of the time: Nené Manfugás, Niño Rivera, Neneíto, Luis Lija Ortiz, Isaac Oviedo, José Antonio Castañeda, Felito Molina, Alfredo Boloña, Panchito Chevrolet, Hilario Ariza, Eliseo Silveira, Liviano, Wilson Brothers, Chito Latamblé, Arsenio Rodríguez.
You worked with many musicians and singers. From 1972 I became linked with the Nueva Trova Movement and I worked with Silvio Rodríguez in his Dias y Flores album.
I also recorded a song by Miguel Matamoros with Silvio. I played in concerts and albums with Pablo Milanés, Vicente Feliú, Sara González, Miriam Ramos, Alina Orraca, José María Vitier, Noel Nicola, Miguelito Cuní and Chapottín. With Adalberto Álvarez I made a few tres “solos” together with his band, Son 14, and from 1987 to 1995 I stayed in his Adalberto y su Son band. I also worked with Leo Brouwer at several guitar festivals.
Tell me about some of the international work you’ve done. I played with Papo Lucca, Joaquín Sabina, Cesaria Évora, Oscar D’Leon, Ry Cooder, The Chieftains, Yomo Toro, John Pearson, Mongo Santamaría, Andy Montañez, Giovanni Hidalgo, Alfredo de la Fe, Víctor Jara. I stayed in Spain one year with Juan Perro’s project and I had many appearances with the Cubanismo project.
What have you done lately? In 2000 I founded the El Cabildo del Son band. I also have an act at the National Music Museum and participate in the Café Vista Alegre project, something that will bear fruit internationally. A little while ago I recorded an album for the Cultural ALBA, an alliance between Venezuela’s cuatro and Cuba’s tres.