Fabiola Méndez Trio plays Mayo Street Arts in Portland Saturday. Contributed photo by Steve Feeney

Due to it being visited by huge hurricanes, Puerto Rico has been in the news recently. But at a well-attended concert here on Saturday night, rising music star Fabiola Méndez proved that there are much more pleasant things to think about regarding that U.S. island territory in the Caribbean.

Mayo Street Arts, in collaboration with Portland’s East End Community School, brought Méndez, a personally charming, 20-something musician who performs traditional and updated forms of the music of her native Puerto Rico, to their intimate performance space for a highly engaging concert with her trio.

Méndez, who also sings, is considered a master at playing the cuatro, a traditional 10-string, guitar-like instrument. In fact, she was the first to graduate from Boston’s Berklee College of Music with a specialty in the cuatro. She was joined for this performance by electric bassist Juan Maldonado, and percussionist and traditional güiro player Miguel Martinez.

Like much of the music of the Americas, Puerto Rican music has roots in European and African traditions, as well as indigenous forms. While it may be interesting to pull the music apart and identify the individual sources, Saturday’s performance, featuring music from Méndez’s latest album “Afrorriqueña,” seemed to provide a better opportunity for experiencing the music as a high-spirited mixture of styles, attitudes, and feelings, with Méndez as a trustworthy guide.

Méndez, who sang in Spanish while speaking mostly in English, noted a fundamental appreciation for the traditional music associated with her instrument while stating her hope to expand its fanbase. As such, traditional jibaro and bomba forms alternated with selections of salsa, jazz (a Berklee influence), and pop (the leader electronically self-harmonizing at some points) to fill an energetic, 80-minute performance that went by ever so quickly.

Méndez displayed a mastery of her instrument with rapid-fire, improvisatory runs rivaling any by your favorite guitar hero. Yet the cuatro’s mandolin-evoking piquancy in her hands also allowed for both festive and wistful moments to occasionally weave a spell of sunny nostalgia through the program.


Her accompanists filled out the sound while adding spirited solos of their own. Maldonado worked through several percolating bass interludes where he nearly rivaled the leader’s fleet fretwork, while also mirroring her talent for creating a sense of ebb and flow.

Martinez manned a variety of drums, from familiar snare to conga and the Africa-sourced bomba. The complexity and subtle variations of accents and patterns within the Puerto Rican approach to rhythm made his contributions particularly interesting and sonically infectious. His moment on the traditional scraped and rubbed güiro had some in the crowd trying to join in on the percussion action. They did get a chance to participate in a couple of singalongs elsewhere during the show.

The Fabiola Méndez Trio brought Puerto Rico a little closer to Portland with well-played music and a generous spirit of sharing a culturally rich past and suggesting a positive future.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.

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