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 Pinto Guira making guiramaking a mandalaplaying mandolin

Voices Fall-Winter, 2002:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read an excerpt of “Pinto Güira and his Magic Bullet: A Dominican instrument maker in Corona, Queens” by Sydney Hutchinson here.
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Volume 28

Pinto Guira and his magic bullet: A Dominican instrument maker in Corona, Queens by Sydney Hutchinson

Francisco Javier Durán García just turned thirty-three and is already at the top of his trade. He is well known among Dominican musicians not only for his showy performance style but also as one of the few instrument makers who still produce güiras entirely by hand—from start to finish. These metal idiophones are occasionally also known as guayos, or graters, because of their resemblance to the kitchen tool.
Durán set up shop in Corona, Queens, in 1997. Although most of his business is done on a person-to-person basis and he gets new customers through word of mouth, he has also sold wholesale through New York Latin music chains Rincón Musical and Disco Mundo. Justifiably proud of his work, he notes that his instruments are in demand across the world and are used by groups as far away as Hong Kong.

Better known as Pinto Güira, a name derived from his freckles, or pinto, and his instrument (in merengue, instruments are often used as last names), he has played with many great musicians in merengue típico, or traditional merengue, including Rafaelito Román, Fary Henríquez, Lydia de la Rosa, La India Canela, Diógenes Jiménez, Francisco Ulloa, and Ricardo Gutiérrez. . .
Photo of Pinto Guira
Francisco Javier Durán García, known as Pinto Güira, creates his namesake instruments in his Corona, Queens, basement workshop. All photos © 2002 by Sydney Hutchinson.
Making a güira

Though Pinto has been a great innovator in his field, he still uses the tools of his Güierro forefathers: tree stump, hammer, nail, metal tube, wood block. The surface of the stump must be very smooth so as not to damage the metal. Pinto uses a tree stump made from a felled tree a cousin found in New Jersey; bent nails attached in a circle hold down the metal sheet. The metal must also be of high quality: Pinto buys stainless steel in large sheets from a Bronx supplier.
Ever since I began, I always tried to take a lot of care to get good metal . . . Because if a good quality of metal is used, the sound quality is good. That’s why my güiras have such value.
Photo of Pinto hammering. Photo of burbjitas
Pinto hammers out the burbujitas, bumps, with a centerpunch. When scraped with a wire comb, the güira produces the rhythmic rasp characteristic of Dominican merengue. The burbujitas can form a geometric design, words, or custom motifs; the Statue of Liberty and the Twin Towers were the inspiration for one of Pinto’s recent güiras.
Form and Function

To give perspective to the many innovations Pinto has contributed to the güira’s manufacture, we must understand the forms it has taken in the past. Besides the tambora, there is no instrument more emblematic of merengue than the güira. Its distinctive sound and shape reflect its unique history, as well as that of merengue típico. Salsa and cumbia fans will be more familiar with the güiro, a scraper made from a gourd with ridges and finger holes cut into it and played with a stick or a metal comb. Pinto believes this is the earliest form of the instrument and says its name is botanical in origin:
The original güira is called güiro because it’s a plant, a gourd that comes from Puerto Rico. It’s taken from there and made into a güiro, and they use it for salsa.

Merengue típico

Merengue típico, or traditional merengue, has been around since at least the 1840s. It comes from the rural, northern valley region around the city of Santiago, called the Cibao, so it is sometimes known as merengue cibaeño. The original group consisted of stringed instruments like guitar, tres, or cuatro as well as the güira and tambora drum. Sometimes a bass instrument called marimba joined the ensemble. This direct descendant of the African mbira is a large wooden sounding box with five to eight metal keys. The instrumentation is considered emblematic of the three main cultures in Dominican history: European guitar or, later, accordion; African marimba and tambora; and the güira, which some consider to be of native Taíno derivation.

Though the güira has played an important role in merengue since its inception, the rest of the ensemble has been through some changes. A significant innovation occurred when Germans came to the island in the 1870s, trading their accordions for tobacco. The instrument quickly gained popularity and soon replaced the strings as leader of the típico ensemble. The two-row diatonic button accordion continues to be used by most típico musicians, preferably made by Hohner; sometimes the one-row version is also seen. Also, though today the tambora is played with one stick in the right hand and the flat palm of the left hand, according to legend it was not always so. A turn-of-the-century musician dropped his left-hand stick during a performance but had to keep going; others soon latched on to the new sound he had created by accident.

As with many other kinds of rural folk music, merengue típico was originally considered disreputable. Its more descriptive and colorful name, perico ripiao (literally, ripped parrot), is said to have been the name either of a house of ill repute where the music was played or a dish served there. The lyrics were often suggestive, and sometimes political. Predictably, moralists tried to ban the music and the provocative dance done to it, with little success. It continued to be played in the Cibao into the 20th century, along with other dances like mangulina, carabiné, polka, guarapo, and zarambo.

Merengue experienced a sudden elevation of status when dictator Rafael Trujillo came to power in 1930. Since he himself was from a rural area and a lower-class family, he decided that merengue music should be the Dominican national symbol. He used perico ripiao bands during his campaign and soon had it playing on the new medium of radio. Once it was being heard in urban middle-class living rooms, it was only a short step from there to the ballroom. This transition paved the way for the next major innovation in the genre: big bands.

During the Trujillo era, Dominican musicians adopted the instrumentation then popular in the United States, replacing the accordion with saxophones and trumpets and initiating a split between mostly urban merengue de orquesta and mostly rural perico ripiao. Since then, the two styles have developed along separate but parallel trajectories. Típico musicians like Tatico Henríquez, the godfather of modern perico ripiao, updated their sound during the 1960s after Trujillo’s assassination. They replaced the marimba with electric bass and added a saxophone to harmonize with the accordion. In the 1970S or 1980s, the now "standard" lineup was completed with a bass drum, played with a foot pedal by the güirero.

Orquesta merengue now rivals salsa in popularity in New York City, but típico artists seldom get airplay in the States. Although this creates a difficult economic situation for the latter group, it also gives them some measure of freedom. While many big bands have been commercialized to the point of inanity, perico ripiao retains its fresh, improvisatory sound. Some younger band leaders have added congas and keyboards in an attempt to close the gap between típico and orquesta and increase their listening audience.

Photo of Pinto hammering the guira's edge Photo of Pinto making guira
Pinto hammers the güira’s edge over an angulal to prepare its two sides for joining. The güira must be tapped with a soft wood block into a perfect cylinder.
Playing the güira

Today, Dominican musicians use the güira in four main styles of music: salsa, bachata, merengue de orquesta (big band merengue), and merengue típico, or perico ripiao. But Durán was always most inspired by the last:

What inspired me to take up the güira was the traditional music. That’s what I’ve always carried inside me, what I have in my blood.
Photo of guiras
Traditionally, the instruments were made of tin, but Pinto prefers stainless steel for durability and sound quality.
Although the same instrument is used in all four musical styles, the way it is played changes from genre to genre. Pinto notes, "Típico...is played with the whole hand. To play with an orquesta, you have to play with the wrist; you don’t use the whole arm." Playing with the wrist produces a softer sound, whereas in a típico group the güira plays a more central role. This means that perico ripiao requires a wider range of abilities from the güirero and a larger rhythmic repertoire than does orquesta merengue.

A típico musician can play more easily with an orquesta than can an orquesta with a típico. Because...you vary the rhythm in música típica.

You can play as if you were playing cumbia style, or salsa style, or merengue style. But in the orquesta you pretty much just use caballito rhythm, it’s called. One doesn’t use the repiques, as they are called in típico ensembles.


Sydney Hutchinson is an ethno-musicologist who documents ethnic cultural traditions, focusing on recent immigrants from Asia and Latin America. She has completed her thesis on Mexican American quebradita dancing for an M.A. in ethnomusicology from Indiana University; she also holds a B.M. in piano performance from the University of Arizona. She recently created the first website dedicated to merengue típico. Photo of Sidney Hutchinson
Photo © 2002 by Heather Ordover.

Listen to El Clavo Metio Listen To
El Clavo Metío by Berto Reyes

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Berto Reyes resides in Corona, Queens, but is originally from the outskirts of Mao, a small town in the Cibao region of the Dominican Republic. An accordionist and composer of merengue típico since the 1960s, he and his group moved to New York in 1993. Berto performs regularly and has even appeared at City Hall and Shea Stadium; he also teaches aspiring accordionists and tunes and repairs accordions. This track comes from one of Reyes’s 20 CDs of original music, and features Pinto on the güira. Berto composed the song in honor of his wife; it tells the story of a car accident which required her to have a pin implanted in her leg. The pin supplies the double entendre that gave the merengue its name.


Austerlitz, Paul. 1996. Merengue: Dominican music and Dominican identity. Temple University Press.

Davis, Martha Ellen. 1994. Music and black ethnicity in the Dominican Republic. In Gerard H. Béhague, ed. Music and black ethnicity: The Caribbean and South America. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.

Durán García, Francisco Javier. 2002. Personal interviews conducted 6 February, 28 February, and 4 April. Stored in the Long Island Traditions archive. Translated by the author.

Popular wisdom maintains that this instrument is one of the few survivals from the Taíno people, who inhabited the island of Hispaniola before the Spaniards arrived.

The full article, that is excerpted here, appeared in Voices Vol. 28, Fall-Winter 2002. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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