(This story originally appeared in Vivala)
It’s a daily struggle for Natissja Mora. When she arrives home from school, the Perth Amboy, New Jersey teen is unable to fight an urge. The first thing she does is grab her güira — she just feels weird if she doesn’t. At just 15 years old, Mora has captivated many with her musical talent. The Dominican-born teen has more than 7,400 followers (and counting) on Instagram, where she regularly uploads videos playing her güira with her name painted across it in bold pink.
“There’s people that find it bad that I play the güira because they say it’s a ‘guy instrument,’ so they would judge me about it but I still like it so I still play it,” the teen told Vivala. “I tell them that I’m not the only girl that plays the güira so I don’t really mind.”
The güira is a percussion instrument originating in the Dominican Republic that is generally used in the merengue music genre. It consists of an open-ended tube made of thin sheet steel with nodules protruding its outer surface. A metal brush is used to scrape against the surface, creating sounds that accompany other instruments in a song.
“My dad is from a barrio in the Dominican Republic called Los Jazmines. I remember the old men in the barrio would do a circle around me and I would be in the middle playing the güira,” said Mora, who was born and raised in the Dominican Republic. “I was 4 or 5 years old and everyone said ‘Oh my god, she’s so young and she knows how to play!’”
Mora’s father, Cesar Mora, said people were taken aback because of her size. “At that age she told me, ‘I don’t want a guitar. What I want is a güira and a tambora,’” the 52-year-told said. “I was more than proud.”
Mora – a musician himself – said he’s always wanted Natissja to become an immigration lawyer, but would support her if she pursues a music career. “If she chooses that, I would love to see her directing an orchestra like Belkis Concepción.”
Before she moved to the United States when she was 9, Mora recalled güira sounds permeating the streets of her hometown. “It’s like every corner that you go to there is perico ripiao (also known as merengue típico, a musical genre originating in the Dominican Republic that is known as the oldest style of merengue) playing. Perico ripiao is what I play also,” she said. “And at the Monumento (a famous monument in the city of Santiago de los Caballeros) there’s always a banda playing.”
Her father and Fefita la Grande, a famous Dominican merengue accordionist, are two of her greatest musical influences. “She’s one of my greatest influences because she’s also a girl in the típico world and she’s been playing since she was very young too,” Mora said of the female musician.
Mora gets invited to play at many parties but, because she’s still underage, her parents accompany her. “They don’t let me go alone because I’m a girl,” she said. “That music, it’s all men and I’m only 15 and they’re drinking and you never know what’s going to happen.”
Still, Mora doesn’t allow her age or sex limit her. She attended her first jam session recently and she was the only female. She said she feels proud to be making her presence known in merengue típico. “It makes me different – if it’s a ‘guy instrument’ and I’m a girl, and I’m playing, it makes me different,” Mora said. “I’m different from other people… I guess it’s a good thing.”