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Learning to Play Andean Music in Peru: Interview with Dr. Holly Wissler

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When you travel, do you wish you could get off the beaten path and hang out with the locals? Millions of people go to Peru every year on tours to visit Machu Picchu, yet many desire a far more in-depth experience with the people and culture. Recently I had the fortune to talk with ethnomusicologist and master adventure guide Dr. Holly Wissler, an American woman who followed her dream to live in the Andes. She now offers a unique experience for travelers to connect life-to-life, heart-to-heart with indigenous Peruvians in her “Andes and Beyond” Music/Cultural tour.

What level of musical preparation does someone need in order to take your tour?

One does not need to have any musical preparation to take this tour! Last year I had an anthropologist on board who was not a musician. He just participated as he could, such as playing panpipes or percussion instruments. Often he was content listening to both the music and the discussions. We often discuss the meaning and signifance of the music with the musicians, or have casual conversations with them about their lives, so that it is not just playing music. In advertising this trip I specify on the “Andes and Beyond” Music/Cultural tour webpage: “One does not need to be a musician to attend, just a lover of music and culture.” Having said that, the tour caters to any level of musicianship, so that everyone can find their niche and play as little or as much as they want to. That is my role as Director: to help everyone find their place within the larger scheme. I want to add that any age is welcome. On our first tour last year the ages ranged from early 20s to 70, students, professors, and anyone interested!

You are an American living in Cusco and have a PhD in ethnomusicology from Florida State University. What was your life path that led you this place?

I first moved to Cusco in 1982 and was trained as a rafting and trekking guide. I worked for some American travel companies in Peru, and then later in Nepal, for years. However, I was an avid flutist in high school and performed concerts regularly in both Cusco and Kathmandu. Then in my mid 30s, after 13 years of guiding treks in the Andes and Himalayas, I found I had become a little burnt-out on working in tourism full-time. So, I returned to university to complete a degree in flute performance. I inadvertently “discovered” the field of ethnomusicology that I was not previously aware of, and this career path became a way for me to combine my two loves: playing music, and my experience living and working amongst various cultures in the mountains of Peru and Nepal.

Now the Center for World Music has provided me with a way to express and share my years of life experience with other people, since it is a combination of music, getting to know the local culture, and guiding at historic Inca sites. This year marks the 30th year that I have been guiding in Peru (it was my summer job while working on my Masters and PhD), so I have been living the Peru life either here in Peru, or in the U.S. writing about Peru.

Many people dream of living in a foreign country and becoming immersed in the culture. How did you get to know the musicians and families that the people on the Andes and Beyond tour visit and work with?

This question is related to the previous one. Really I came to know many musicians just by living in Peru, playing my flute, and working on my PhD research. After awhile Cusco becomes a small city, everyone comes to know everyone. I must say it was really when I started my PhD research in 2005 that my work with various musicians became more regular and intense. In my earlier years in Peru I had been working as a trekking guide full-time and playing music part-time, and it was my dream to reverse that: be involved in music full-time and guiding part-time. While I still guide regularly, I simultaneously have many music projects going, like my newest one working with the near-extinct Wachiperi group in the Amazon region of Madre de Dios.

What else would you like to tell us about the Andes and Beyond music/cultural tour in Peru?

I just want to reiterate that experiencing Peru through a variety of musical styles is very special. I am hoping that anyone who is interested will do the Afro-Peruvian add-on after the Andean portion, where we go to El Carmen, the “cradle of Afro-Peruvian music,” to experience the Virgen of Carmen festival and participate in wildly fun cajón workshops with some amazing musicians. In addition to getting to know the musicians we will work with, we will also visit some amazing Inca archeological sites set in stunning mountain scenery, so the tour is rich in every way: musically, culturally, historically.

If you’re planning on going to Machu Picchu and want to learn to play music with indigenous master musicians, the “Andes and Beyond” Music/Cultural tour may be just the journey for you.

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About Lynette Yetter

Lynette Yetter is the author of the books "72 Money Saving Tips for the 99%" and "Lucy Plays Panpipes for Peace, a novel." Lynette is a permanent resident of Bolivia and a graduate student in the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies Program at Reed College.
  • Katie Palmer

    I attended this tour last year and cannot speak highly enough of Holly and the tour. It was an amazing experience on so many different levels and would love to return!

  • http://musicandes.com/ Lynette Yetter, author of “Lucy Plays Panpipes for Peace”

    Thank you, Katie, for sharing your enthusiasm. What was one of your favorite memories of the tour?