Mi museo es tu museo

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By Bill DeWalt, Ph.D., Founding Director and President of the Musical Instrument Museum (MIM)

I am AZ music exhibition features Lalo Guerrero, “creator of Chicano music,” and Victor Velez, salsero of the 1970’s. Photos courtesy of MIM

One of the joys of my professional career has been the many years of living and working in Mexico, Ecuador, Honduras, Argentina and shorter periods spent in many other countries of Latin America. Again and again in those countries, I would be welcomed into peoples’ homes with the effusive greeting of  “Mi casa es tu casa.” The expression put me at ease and made me feel that in that house, warmth, generosity and understanding could be experienced.  

That openness and attitude was probably one of the biggest influences in my life. When I began graduate school at the University of Connecticut, I had the opportunity to spend a summer learning Spanish and beginning research in a small town in the central highlands of Mexico. I fell in love – the beauty of the mountains, the bustle and variety of products spread out on  market day, waking up to mariachis singing Las Mañanitas at my door, the religious celebrations that spilled out of the churches into the streets, and being welcomed into the houses of the rich and the poor. I went on to earn a Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology and taught for many years at the University of Kentucky and the University of Pittsburgh, writing many research articles and several books. At the University of Pittsburgh, I was Distinguished Service Professor of Public and International Affairs and Director of the renowned Center for Latin American Studies. In the latter position, I was able to travel extensively, establishing academic and research exchanges with institutions throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.  

I still have fond memories of the musical “soundtrack” that accompanied all of my travels as a teacher, researcher and administrator. In the Mexican town where I Iived for one year in the 1970s, the sounds were the aforementioned mariachi music, the bands that marched through the streets, the violin and drum that accompanied religious processions in the indigenous villages, social protest music, like Inti Illimani’s Venceremos on the radio, and the jukebox in the only restaurant in town, that wore out the 45 rpm of Elton John’s Crocodile Rock. In Honduras in the 1980s, I began hearing the marimbas in the villages, the sounds of the Caribbean on the radio, Creedence Clearwater Revival on the ubiquitous jukeboxes, and George Benson on my cassette tapes. A summer studying Portuguese introduced me to what is still most frequently on my CD player – Brazilian tunes of Antonio Carlos Jobim, Jorge Ben, Gilberto Gil, Chico Buarque, and the beautiful voices of Nara Leão, Astrid Gilberto, Bebel Gilberto, Leila Pinheiro, and so many more. My years in Ecuador in the 1990s introduced me to panpipes and folk songs like El Condor Pasa (that, of course, I had heard from Paul Simon many years before), the Caribbean rhythms like Juan Luis Guerra’s  Bachata Rosa, and Lionel Richie and the Commodores were impossible to escape in the restaurants and radio stations in cities. Shorter periods in Cuba and Argentina added the many artists of the Buena Vista Social Club, santería rhythms, and tangos of people like Carlos Gardel and Astor Piazzolla.  

In 2001, my restlessness with academic life led me to become the director of Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. During the six years I spent in that position, I was able to raise a substantial amount of money to undertake major construction and renovation projects that transformed the museum’s world-class collection of dinosaurs into a major attraction along with a new traveling exhibit gallery and overhaul of the hall of gems and minerals. The soundtrack of those years incorporated more of the jazz that I had learned to love as an undergraduate and began rediscovering – Miles Davis (always!), John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Bill Evans, Stan Getz and Herbie Mann. Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild, the great jazz venue in Pittsburgh, drew me to concerts featuring the live music of the jazz greats that had by then completely integrated Latin American influences. Paquito d’Rivera, Ivan Lins, Eliane Elias and others were added to my playlists.  

In early 2007, I was offered the opportunity of a lifetime to become the founding president and director of the Musical Instrument Museum (MIM) in Phoenix. Five years ago, my wife Sylvia and I moved to Phoenix to begin pulling together all of the pieces that have become MIM. Among the appealing dimensions for me, personally, were the opportunities to again live in a location with a significant Hispanic population and to build a monument to music as a common language among all peoples.  

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