C4 Trio has taken the Venezuelan cuatro to new heights From their unlikely start as rival contestants in a music competition, the Venezuelan cuatro players of C4 Trio have become a big concert draw. They're releasing a series of EPs ahead of a new album.

The cuatro players of C4 Trio are the future of Venezuela's national instrument

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The Venezuelan group the Say-Cuatro (ph) Trio, written C4 Trio, has taken the national instrument of their homeland, the four-string cuatro, to new heights. They've recorded seven albums and won two Latin Grammys. Betto Arcos has their story.

BETTO ARCOS, BYLINE: The title of a new book about C4 sums up the essence of the singular group - "La Leyenda De Los Cuatros Explosivos." They're a legend, and their music is an explosion of sounds.

(SOUNDBITE OF C4 TRIO'S "ZUMBA QUE ZUMBA")

ARCOS: Edward Ramirez says what brought them together was a strong desire to play music that was not from Venezuela on the cuatro.

RICHARD RAMIREZ: (Through interpreter) But we also wanted to challenge ourselves and play Venezuelan music from a different point of view and play other music genres with the cuatro. We wanted to find new ways for the cuatro to expand its palette so that the possibilities of the instrument would continue to grow.

(SOUNDBITE OF C4 TRIO'S "MAMBO INFLUENCIADO")

ARCOS: Ramirez, along with Jorge Glem and Hector Molina, were invited to play solo pieces at a concert in Caracas in 2005. Each one is from a different region of Venezuela, and they admired each other's style. After rehearsing a few tunes together to play at the end of the concert, they liked the sound of the multiple cuatro so much that they decided to form a group. The following year, they recorded their first album and adopted C4 as their name in reference to the cuatro and the guitar group known as G3. The self-titled album launched their career. Bass player Rodner Padilla joined them in 2009.

(SOUNDBITE OF C4 TRIO'S "PEZ VOLADOR")

ARCOS: The cuatro is a small guitar-like instrument with four nylon strings. It's played across the country in many different styles of music. Every Venezuelan family has a cuatro hanging on the wall, says Hector Molina.

HECTOR MOLINA: (Through interpreter) It's undergone a huge development in recent years. We always say that we're a consequence of the work that's been done for the instrument by masters such as Jacinto Perez, Hernan Gamboa, Fredy Reyna and Cheo Hurtado. They're major figures of the cuatro and musicians who have helped to expand the sonic possibilities of the instrument.

(SOUNDBITE OF C4 TRIO'S "NO NATION SONG")

MICHAEL LEAGUE: C4 is like the group that our festival was made for. It's a group that maybe a lot of people don't know about outside of their kind of niche in the music world, but it is impossible to see them play and not remember them for the rest of your life.

ARCOS: Musician and producer Michael League invited C4 to play at the GroundUp Music Festival in Miami Beach a few years ago. The festival is run by League's GroundUp Music, the group's new label. League co-produced C4's forthcoming new album called "Back To 4." He says the group has one foot in tradition, one foot in innovation, and the desire to mix and constantly add colors to their palette.

LEAGUE: These guys can make their instruments sound like a conga or a flute or - I mean, they're not bound by the tradition, I would say. You know, and I'm not an expert in that tradition, but just from five minutes of speaking with them, you can tell that their heads are as much in the future as they are in the past.

(SOUNDBITE OF C4 TRIO'S "INCERTIDUMBRE")

ARCOS: As the social, political and economic situation got more complicated in Venezuela, the members of C4 realized they had to move somewhere else to keep the group alive. In 2014, C4's bass player Rodner Padilla migrated to Miami. Glem went to New York in 2016, and Molina arrived in Miami the following year. Ramirez first migrated to Colombia in 2017. And last year, he moved to Miami. Now the group is together again, based in Miami, home to the largest Venezuelan immigrant community in the U.S. Glem says despite the ongoing difficulties in Venezuela, they remain positive and hopeful.

JORGE GLEM: (Through interpreter) Wherever we go, we try to put on the most beautiful face of our country. And we do whatever we can to help our folks back home. It's a very tough situation, and we hope that this nightmare ends soon so we can go back and do concerts in Venezuela.

ARCOS: Glem says the cuatro is their flag, and they just want to play music in their own, sometimes explosive way. For NPR News, I'm Betto Arcos.

(SOUNDBITE OF C4 TRIO'S "BACK TO 4")

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