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Ellen McGeheeEllen McGehee

Ellen McGehee '04

Enchanted by the music of the mountains.

Quito, Ecuador, fills a narrow valley between volcanic mountain chains. The city is crazy, a place where a screeching, smelly city bus doesn't slow for an old woman dressed in wrinkled stockings and a pleated skirt. While trying to orient herself in the Latin American milieu, Willamette graduate Ellen McGehee accidentally purchases ice cream instead of toothpaste and wanders the city in confusion, mumbling Spanish that locals cannot discern. She weaves through crowds, searching for an old blind street musician named Esteben, and is assaulted by wannabe trekking guides. At nighttime, she gazes out of her tent. "The Milky Way," she says, "bathes the sky in white as phantom lightening flashes hang static on all horizons."

The 2004 physics graduate is making the most of her Watson Fellowship, a $22,000 grant for independent study and travel outside the United States. She is following her passion, music, with a particular variety of music in mind. A talented violinist and outdoors enthusiast, McGehee is learning the music of mountain peoples, from the Andes to the Himalayas to China's Liang Shan and Tien Shan ranges. In August 2004, her adventure began.

"One of the ideas behind the project was to investigate the manifestation of the mountains' influence on a people's music," McGehee says. "Naturally, this means that the mountains have to have some significant influence on the people's lives."

The South American Explorers' Club, a nonprofit organization that connects researchers with volunteer opportunities, helped McGehee find her way through Quito's smog and make contact with other travelers. She encountered an Argentinian hippie couple who performed music therapy on the ill. She toured gold-covered churches and met the son of Ecuadorian painter Oswaldo Guayasamin, who invited her to stay at his pre-Columbian- inspired mansion and explore his library of books on indigenous cultures.

From Quito, McGehee headed for the mountains north of Peguche, where musicians taught her melodies on the violin. A man named Fausto, the type of guy who forgets to eat when he's practicing or listening to music, invited McGehee to play violin with him and his family at the year's final Inti Raymi fiesta in the nearby town of Cayambe. It is the biggest party of the year. Inti means "sun" in Quechua, the language of the region; the fiestas celebrate the solstice in June, which also coincides with a great harvest. The entire town fills the streets, along with people from neighboring areas who reside on llama farms. Dark-eyed inquisitive mestizos and other indigenous people wear full traditional dress. Everyone under 90 years old is drunk from the chica (corn wine).

"All the people are screaming, eating or selling food," McGehee says. "Fausto's family and I ran around with instruments, tramping in circles and playing traditional Cayambe tunes, which I learned to play by ear in the din of the fiestas."

When the fiestas ended, McGehee traveled back to Quito and then to Salasaca, where she visited the home Alonso Pilla, the main informant to Willamette anthropology Professor Peter Wogan. "It turned out to be wonderful advice on Professor Wogan's part, because Alonso immediately became really excited to hear I was "Pedro's" (Peter's) student. He opened up his home and his life in a way I've seen few people do."

But in Ecuador, at the base of the Andes, agave (cactus) and maiz (corn) are planted in patches quilting the mountainsides. The wide valleys have been farmed for so many centuries that no one remembers the native trees. The air is thin, and the chilly nights bring a silvery wash of stars. But something is missing.

"I was looking for a place where you can never forget that you are in the mountains," McGehee says. "I wanted to find a certain dramatic landscape of narrow valleys overshadowed by peaks, rushing icy streams and fickle weather - I'm sure this is purely a personal definition, but much of the Andes doesn't fit it."

Even though volcanic horizons marked the lives of Ecuadorians, McGehee didn't see these mountain peaks dominate the lives of those who lived at their feet. One could easily forget, beneath mostly cloudy skies, one's home was cradled by the Andes.

McGehee floated down the Amazon River from Ecuador to Peru with an eclectic group of friends. She observed jungle life to be very peaceful for the people of the Amazon rainforest, who, she says, "eat what they catch and watch the rain drip off the roof's lush leaves. The lessons from the jungle seem to be patience, slow down and learn the rhythms of a place."

The jungle appeared to breed magic. Blue cloudscapes blended with the even deeper hues of the sky. The air was a cool steam, thick and filling. "It looks like someone in a Dr. Suess book went overboard tinseling a Christmas tree," McGehee says. It's as if someone stringed tinsel until it became "an unrecognizable tangle of green macramé that whistles an off-key song about how alive it is."

What McGehee was looking for - a place where the mountains had an obvious and constant effect on the communities within them - she found in Huaraz, Peru. The weather, the sunlight, the growing season and the temperature all influenced the local culture - and the culture, in turn, was expressed through the people's music.

In Huaraz, brilliant white glaciers hung between spires of white rock. Clouds formed a veil over Huascaran's Summit. Some towns were but spots in the shadows of magnificent peaks, receiving little sunshine. "The landscape was simply enchanting," McGehee says. "And there was so much music in these mountains!"

McGehee spent her days chasing fiestas, dance competitions, old flute players and street musicians. And, when life in Latin America lulled, she went hiking or practiced quena, the traditional flute of the Andes. She met Alex, a pensive, self-tortured painter who could not pay enough attention to life to find any joy in it; Chris, the English juggler who never went home; and a collection of other wacky travelers and locals all drawn together by some kind of magnetism Huaraz holds.

The Indian women of Huaraz did business in mismatched, neon-colored skirts, leggings and blouses. Their outfits were finished off with crooked, colonial-period hats. They chattered in Quechua, a musical language peppered with little bursts of laughter. Amid this scene, McGehee reflected upon all the music she could not record her first three months in South America, of walking alone through the high valleys of the Cordilla Blanca, and of freezing nights when her teeth chattered like "dancing typewriters."

Before she returns home to the United States in August 2005, McGehee says she will stop in Costa Rica, soak her feet in its midnight-black Caribbean sands, sip its fresh guanabana juice and dream in a hammock on one of its beaches. The warm ocean, rice and beans in coconut milk, and reggae music will become memories as she travels to other corners of the world - to China and beyond. And the liquid magic of the rainforest will forever temper her musical sensibilities, no matter where she finds or creates new melodies.


Story by Adrienne Davich '05



07-27-2005