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Natick - Local Town Pages

From Venezuela To Natick — A Musical Journey

By Sean Sullivan
For those who make the move far from home to a new way of life, heirlooms can be a way to hold on to memories and tradition. Such tangible items from another life are powerful touchstones, connections to other times and places, phases in one’s journey.
That’s been the case for Natick resident Juan Wulff, who imported the custom of the Cuatro when he moved from Venezuela to the United States in 2015. The musical instrument is a fixture in his former country, and Wulff has continued playing the Cuatro - a practice that keeps him connected to the culture in which he was raised.
“In Venezuela, every family has a Cuatro at home,” said Wulff, who has been playing the instrument for two decades. He added that a dream of his is to make it as famous as the ukulele in the pantheon of instruments.
He’d studied and played piano earlier in life, but sought an instrument that’s more portable and wieldy. The Cuatro stood waiting for Wulff at the friendly intersection of size, tradition and accessibility.
“I wanted to have an instrument that was easier to carry to parties,” he said of the Cuatro, which he originally learned to play by watching other musicians. To refine his acoustic game, he has for the past few years been taking professional lessons.
“It’s very rich,” he said of the instrument. “You can learn for  your entire life the Cuatro.”
Wulff has teamed up with a friend who’d been a professional harpist in Venezuela, the two artists finding time to hone their act and skills amid the myriad responsibilities vying for their attention.
“Together, it sounds great,” said Wulff of the two string instruments. “For me, it’s just like a class to be with him.” 
The duo has lately been working on an ode to “Ten Summoner’s Tales,” the infectious and whimsical narrative album released by Sting in 1993. The record features the then-ubiquitous “Fields of Gold” and “If I Ever Lose My Faith in You,” and the album’s storytelling style and frugal musical accompaniment is ready-made for an acoustic artist like Wulff and his Cuatro to cover. 
The spartan songs “The Shape of My Heart,” and “Seven Days,” are among the tracks in “Ten Summoner’s Tales” that Wulff has been practicing. The plucky ballads feature string melodies front and center, seemingly custom-made for cover versions featuring the Cuatro.
The instrument is a descendant of the Spanish guitar, whose country of origin exerted colonial influence over Venezuela in centuries past. One legacy of that history is the Cuatro. If the ring of Wulff’s last name seems inharmonious to his Venezuelan roots, it’s because he owes that surname to some German ancestry.
His voice and plucking of strings amplified by a small microphone and speaker system, Wulff could be heard strumming the Cuatro and singing on a neighbor’s stoop in late September. He was one of many performers around town in Natick’s “Porchfest,” an annual music event in which residents lend out their verandas as venues for local musical acts. Wulff’s music journey, his history with the Cuatro, made him stand out somewhat from that crowd of performers.
Porchfest found Wulff paired that Saturday with a (distant) neighbor on Washington Street, where he plucked at the Cuatro’s strings before a small audience gathered upon the house’s lawn. There, he performed a rendition of Israel “IZ” Kamakawiwoʻole’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World.” The piece blends the lyrics of the classic Judy Garland and Louis Armstrong songs.
Kamakawiwoʻole’s song became a staple of popular culture during the first decade of the 2000s - heard over airwaves, in numerous films, television shows and commercials. The Hawaiian artist originally recorded it in 1988, to the sound of his strumming ukulele, an instrument whose warm and sharp island tenor make it a close cousin to the Cuatro. The two instruments have traditionally shared the feature of four stings made of nylon. Wulff’s rendition of the song arrived crisp and clear among rows of houses that balmy late-summer afternoon.
The Cuatro has kept Wulff in touch with his erstwhile culture, yes, but the act of making music has also been centering in and of itself. 
“In between work and the pandemic it’s been crazy,” said Wulff, who works as a contractor, and his wife as an architect. He’s been playing more now since Covid seems to have waned.
“I need to keep doing that. It’s something that keeps your brain healthy.”