Not long after finishing my master’s degree in Philadelphia, Louis Rosenblatt, my oboe teacher, contacted me about an orchestra job that had to be filled right away in Toluca, Mexico. I took it, even though I only knew where I was supposed to go and who to call once I got there. I had no idea how long I would be there. I didn’t know whether the orchestra was good or bad, or what or how often they performed. I had studied French in high school and college, but Spanish… ¡nada!
The job turned out to be a temporary position, so I auditioned for the orchestra in Guadalajara, where, with generous support from Sr. Lino Vite and his family, five of us in the orchestra were able to form a quintet called Nocuicayotl. We gave a number of concerts in and around Guadalajara, while at the same time incorporating Latin American music into our programming.
Front row: Olivia Scott, cello; Christiane Nazzi, flute
Back row: Aurelian Ionescu, violin; John L. Walker, oboe; Hans Bodendorfer, violin
I didn’t know it at the time, but I was hooked. In addition to wide-ranging programming that included a lot of my favorite works for orchestra, I was introduced to some of the finest repertoire from Latin America, like Carlos Chávez’s Sinfonía india and Silvestre Revueltas’ Sensemayá. As I learned more and more Spanish, more than just words, I was thrilled to be able to understand the Latin American point of view. (For example, in Latin America the family is more important than just about any other thing you can think of). And of course, the food was great. Especially those freshly made tortillas!
Flashing forward to the early 1990s, I had been so influenced by my introduction to Latin America and its music that I took on Spanish as my doctoral minor, and later, I decided to write my dissertation on Latin American chamber music. Although my idea was to be able to study as many pieces as possible, I was surprised that even buying quite a bit of music the total number of pieces that I was eventually able to look at seemed shockingly low to me. In fact, I remember thinking, shouldn’t something be done about this?
After several years of playing the oboe in the Air Force band at Langley AFB, during the mid 1990s I was offered a position with the National Symphony Orchestra of Ecuador. This time, though, I had a better idea about what to expect. Also, figuring I could probably get hired at the national conservatory, I accepted the offer. (As it turned out, I met my beautiful wife, Catalina).
John L. Walker performing with the USAF Heritage of America Chamber Winds Gordon Jacob, Old Wine in New Bottles, IV. “Early One Morning” Recorded June 14-16, 1993
In fact, I arrived in Ecuador with a number of goals in mind. First, having worked while in the band on an editorial team that prepared scores and parts (every band member had an extra duty), I was curious to what extent I could apply this knowledge while in Ecuador. Second, I wanted to perfect my Spanish to the point at which people might actually think of me as a native speaker. (I didn’t know it at that time, but since my best friend in the orchestra was a horn player from Cuba, we were always the butt of jokes about how well the capitalist and communist got along!) Third, and most important, having just finished a dissertation on Latin American chamber music, I arrived in Ecuador with an understanding of its music history, and therefore saw myself, in a sense, as walking in the same steps as a number of Italian musicians who had immigrated to that country some one hundred years earlier. Their importance was not so much because of their individual achievements; rather, their stories reveal much about the waves of musical émigrés who, though they had come to Latin America seeking fame and fortune, in many cases they left an indelible legacy in the musical history of the countries to which they had arrived.
John L. Walker performing the world premiere of Marlos Nobre’s Desafio X National Symphony of Ecuador, Andrei Vasilevsky, conductor. Teatro Politécnico, June 13, 1997 (Digitized from the original cassette).
Returning to the U.S., I won a Fulbright to carry out an extensive investigation of those Italian musicians. I also published a number of important articles (like this one) and spoke about my research at several international conferences. As a college music professor, I was invited to present master classes in various Latin American countries; I also frequently presented Latin American works on my yearly faculty recital. On several occasions I received invitations to perform or conduct in Ecuador.
John L. Walker conducting the Banda Sinfónica Provincial de Tungurahua Iglesia de la Medalla Milagrosa, Ambato, Ecuador July 9, 2009
And in 2013, a long-simmering idea, a blend of the various strands of my experiences, finally took shape: together with my wife, we founded Cayambis Music Press, which, by publishing the art music of living Latin Americans, has been able to create a bridge between these composers and North American musicians. Today, as our catalog is approaching five hundred titles, we have also sought out arrangements with heirs, archives and national libraries in order to rescue some of the most significant Latin American music of the 19th and 20th centuries.
But over time, it became apparent that that bridge should not only be wider, but also, rather than chaotic, the traffic should have some direction, that is, with some coordination. So, responding to this need, near the end of 2019 we melded our publishing company into a new nonprofit, the Cayambis Institute for Latin American Studies in Music (CILASiM). When fully implemented, it will be realizing many projects, such as competitions, subventions and commissions, that will positively benefit musicians throughout the western hemisphere. In concrete terms, we want to inspire more performances, more books and more journal articles about this music. But actually, this organization represents an attempt to re-engage with a more pan-Americanist past in which there were not only numerous concerts that featured Latin American music, but also, composers, music educators and academics on both sides of the Rio Grande participated in undertakings designed to advance the exchange of culture and ideas. Though by no means perfect, all of these activities helped to promote a sense of goodwill among the peoples of the Americas. We are working towards rescuing these principles.
John L. Walker talking with students about Latin American music at the Judith Lapple Summer Woodwind Camp, Fairfax, Virginia.
These are but some of the threads that brought me to where I am today: excited to be a part of an organization that has such an enormous potential!