It’s not a guitar, but it looks like one.
Strings stretch along the length of the instrument, running down its neck to the body. The sound comes from a hole cut into the widest portion of the instrument, as the musician strums with one hand and picks the strings on the instrument’s neck with the other.
The instrument, called a tiple, catches the spotlight at the latest installment of the Hispanic League of Winston-Salem’s Colorful Sounds in Concert. The Choquenza Duet, made up of José Luis Martínez and Alberto Puentes, fills the auditorium of the Reynolda House Museum in Winston-Salem with the sounds of the traditional Colombian string instrument.
Colorful Sounds in Concert aims to spotlight individual Hispanic cultures, while giving those from the country a platform to share their art without judgement or stereotype, according to Mari Jo Turner, executive director of the Hispanic League.
“By using the music from these different countries,” Turner says, “it helps to dispel some of the myths.”
The space outside of the auditorium holds tables with light hors d’oeuvres based on Colombian food, cultural appetizers before the concert. Turner mentions that the previous Friday, the duo of musicians offered a master class at Wake Forest University. One of the goals of the Hispanic League, Turner explains, is to encourage education, both through events and in the classroom. The organization boosts Hispanic perspectives in academia and sponsors students annually.
“This will be our 21st year of giving scholarships,” Turner says, “and this year we’re doing a record number of 50.”
The tiple looks like a smaller guitar at first glance. The Colombian instrument even shares some of the exact same chords with the guitar, and is sometimes tuned in a course similar to the guitar’s— in E, G, B, and D. However, rather than six strings, the tiple sports a total of 12, divided into four orders of three strings each.
The Choquenza Duet focuses on Colombian music and composers during the first half of the show. Over songs like “Encanto” by Luis A. Calvo and “Atardecer” by Carlos Vieco, the two instruments harmonize, as Puentes sets a steady beat while Martínez plucks out quick notes. At parts, his rapid-fire strumming across the dozen strings makes Martínez seem like a whole orchestra. When the songs call for a slow moment, he barely brushes his fingers over the instrument like it would break under any more pressure. The music takes on a wispy quality.
Alberto Puentes sits to the left of Martínez. The afternoon concert is one of many for the pair, having played the tiple together for more than 30 years. The duo balance the music with their work, Martínez as a medical doctor and Puentes as an attorney.
“I’m a lawyer,” Puentes says, “but I love the music.”
The second half of the concert takes music from various other countries, and shows how the tiple can go beyond Colombian folk tunes. Puentes took up the instrument nearly 40 years ago, and interspersed his Colombian career with living and teaching the tiple in Cincinnati, Miami, Dayton and Savannah.
“The instrument is typical of Colombia,” Puentes says, “but with the tiple you can play the music of Europe, of America, of South America.”
Puentes introduces a song as “a second national anthem” of Mexico — “Guadalajara.” Puentes plays the famous mariachi tune solo. As people clap along to the beat or sing out the verses of the song, Puentes uses the tiple to mimic a full band.
He later plays “Yesterday,” a similarly famous Beatles tune. Though Puentes is the only one playing, the instrument hits both the notes of the original song’s guitar and Paul McCartney’s vocals.
As the duo stands, the audience calls out for an encore, stomping and clapping along with the chanting. Martínez smiles, and leans over to Puentes, whispering something. The two then sit, Martínez leaning into the microphone and asking for the crowd to sing along, to a song called “Pueblito Viejo,” or “Little Old Town.” The beat of clapping and singing mingles with the tiple’s music as it echoes in the auditorium.
“Lunita consentida, colgada del cielo,” they sing out, “como un farolito que puso mi Dios.”