“The violin that I have right now,” says Puente, holding a well-used instrument with a striking patina, “is the same violin that provided food for three generations. This violin is part of my family and I will never let it go; it’s priceless”. Puente grew up in Santiago de Cuba. “My grandfather,” he says, “was a carpenter who used to work for a rich family who bought a violin for their child. But the boy showed no interest, so they offered it to my grandfather. My father was given the violin and he had lessons and started to play the instrument. In the end, playing the violin allowed my father to pay for his career as a medical doctor.”
It wasn’t just Puente’s father who played a musical instrument as his aunt and brother both played piano with music around all the time. When Puente was six, his parents bought him a “very small, cheap violin” and then when he was eight, he started to learn the instrument at school. “Every morning, from nine o’clock ’til noon was filled with the study of music, while the afternoons were spent studying grammar,” he says. Eventually, his studies took him to Havana and the Escuela Nacional de Arte but not before he had taken six months out of his musical studies to follow a medical course. “I thought that I might want to follow in the family tradition, but in the end, the violin won.”
The Escuela provided Puente with a violin, and this was his first real instrument. “I was really happy and continued my studies at the ISA,” he says, and by this time at the university, Puente was playing his father’s treasured violin. “I was about 18 when my father finally let me play his violin. It’s a Buthod Grandini. At least that’s what I think it reads,” he says, squinting into the belly of the instrument.
“I have always been trying to find different ideas on my instruments, and in 1996 my girl friend, now my wife, bought me this amazing Zeta electric violin for my birthday. I was playing at the Hard Rock Cafe in Manila and she got it presented to me, on stage. It was like, wow! Imagine if you have had a radio all your life and then suddenly somebody brings you a TV. The sound of this instrument really inspired me and encouraged me to experiment. You see, the way I see it, the violin is the closest instrument to the human voice and it can express every kind of emotion. It’s not a secondary or backing instrument, which is the way most people see it; it’s a lead instrument, a small yet giant instrument and it’s very powerful. I learn from the instrument and the instrument understands me; I’m always looking for a new vibe.”
When Puente arrived in the UK 10 years ago, he was on the look-out for another instrument and quite fortuitously met up with the violin maker Andrew Scrimshaw who was so taken with Puente’s playing that he agreed to make Puente a six string electric violin. “It’s shaped the same as a normal violin, rather than the way other electric violins like the Zeta are shaped and comes with a low ‘C’ and a low ‘F’. I have really come to love the sound it produces, it gives a particular choro, a particular texture, a certain feeling.”
However, Puente was still clearly enamoured with the Zeta. He takes up the story. “Last year I contacted Zeta, and they made me a five string electric violin and this is the one I use for all my gigs with Courtney Pine. I have this relationship with this violin that is fantastic – it grabs my heart and takes me to other places. When I play my new five-string violin, sometimes I say to the other violin that I have been playing for 12 years, please don’t be jealous, I will still play you and look after you.”
Then after a moment’s thought. “You know I always talk to my violins! I think of the electric violin as an ‘equaliser’. With the electric violin you can improve the sound on the violin to get the best result, there is no limit. With the acoustic violin, you’ve got to spend a lot, a lot of money to get a similar result. I know a violinist who plays a Zeta but her acoustic violin is 50 times more expensive. Just think, I’d have to sell my house, my car, even my wife (!), to get a decent acoustic violin. The other thing is that bands now have a bigger sound and you have to be able to use amplification to compensate for that kind of thing.”
As for strings Puente says he uses, for the acoustic violin, Thomastik metal strings on the E and the A, and Pirastro nylon strings on the D and the G. “On the electric violin you have to get the sound to the system. There are four pick-ups on the bridge and you have to have the best contact to get the best result, so I use either Thomastik or Dominant metal strings.”
But what about bows? “On the Andrew Scrimshaw six-string I use a light Artus Carbon Fibre viola bow, while on acoustic violin and the four and five-string Zetas I use an ordinary wooden violin bow. The Carbon fibre bow and wooden bow have different personalities and a different colour and give a completely different sound. I find that I don’t have to use as much pressure with the wooden bow and that it gives a more warm, round sound.”
He also uses a collection of foot-operated electronic hardware to colour his sound. “I have a wah-wah, a Cry Baby, harmoniser, delay, octave split and a Whammy Pedal but I don’t use them all at the same time”. Puente has also been using a Jaman to process sounds and has recently produced a version of ‘Caravan’ using drum ’n’ bass and the Whammy pedal. Puente is clear about his approach to music and his instruments.
“The most important thing is to share my violins and my music with everybody. If you treat an instrument nicely, it will treat you back the same way, too.”