Where are they now? Wissler combines love of music and people into field of study

Ronna LawlessStaff Writer
Where are they now? Wissler combines love of music and people into field of study

Some people consider themselves lucky if they get to pursue a passion in their lives. But a 1977 graduate of Nevada High School found a way to combine two passions into one field of study.

Holly Wissler has a career in ethnomusicology, or as she explains it, “learning about people through their music.”

Wissler’s parents introduced her to travel when she was a child — California, Hawaii, Mexico, Canada. “They were exotic places for a girl from Iowa,” she said. Wissler also visited her sisters, Randi and Janna, at Lake Tahoe every summer before graduating from NHS. She spent a lot of that time backpacking in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. “So from a young age, I was exposed to other realities, landscapes and ways of living.”

In 1981, Holly and her sister Randi took a trip to Colombia to visit their brother Tom and his wife Ellie and their children, Kelly and Jesse. Tom and Ellie were creators and owners of an expat bar and restaurant called The Great American Disaster in Cali, the second-largest city in Colombia. On that trip, Wissler also went to Peru.

“Little did I know that Peru would become my passion and life and take me down roads I never imagined,” Wissler said.

So many things impressed her on her first trip there: the outdoor adventure, the amazing mountain scenery, rich Inca history, haunting Andean music, the generosity of the Andean people. “It all tugged at my soul to return and live in Peru in 1982,” she said.

Trained as a white-water rafting guide on the Urubamba, she was the first female river guide in Peru. “This led to a life of exploring rivers, mountains and musical cultures in the greater Cusco region, where I made life-long friends and connections in the Andes and Amazon,” she said.

She also lived in Nepal for seven years, where she was manager for a London-based adventure travel company in Kathmandu. Wissler performed regularly on classical flute in both Cusco and Kathmandu. A Fulbright scholar, her love of music eventually led her to return to the United States to study music seriously and obtain a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology. “The field of ethnomusicology was a way to bridge my love of various cultures with music,” she said.

Wissler’s doctorate work specialized in the musical rituals of the indigenous Quechua group of Q’eros in the southern Andes of Peru. She currently works in various applied projects with the Q’eros and the near-extinct Wachiperi of the Amazonian Harakbut linguistic group. Wissler is a guest lecturer for National Geographic and various U.S. university study-abroad programs in Peru, including a program from Iowa State University.

Wissler was a principal author with Peru’s Ministry of Culture in the petition to UNESCO that the Q’eros’ songs be nominated to the Intangible Cultural Heritage list. She is widely published in Spanish and English about her work with the Q’eros and Wachiperi and has also produced two video documentaries.

She is currently involved in activist projects to help improve deaf education in Peru. And she is currently in transition.

“I am in the process of moving to Austin, Texas, for the education of my adopted deaf godson from the Q’eros community where I did my doctoral fieldwork,” Wissler said. “This means I will be in the U.S. for nine months out of the year and Peru during the summers.”

Dante was orphaned when he was 1 1/2. At that time, he became Wissler’s godson. Upon his mother’s death, Dante went to live with his maternal grandparents, who loved him, but who mistook his deafness for a mental handicap. “He was sheltered, unsocialized, learned no communication skills and was understimulated, so that he only learned to walk on his own at age 6,” Wissler said.

Wissler convinced Dante’s grandparents to allow him to move to the city of Cusco in 2011 when he was age 7, and he began his education at a Catholic school for the deaf. Learning to communicate transformed his life, and he now lives with Wissler full-time and is her legally adopted son.

“His life transformed from non-communication, isolation and understimulation to bursting forth with curiosity, joy and the ability to express his thoughts and feelings,” Wissler said

Wissler plans to continue her work for the National Geographic and Wilderness Travel during the summers. “My life in the U.S. may be more about writing and working into new areas of expertise, such as advocate for deaf education and opportunities for the deaf,” she said. She’s also curious about teaching opportunities in ethnomusicology.

“My newest dream is to learn American Sign Language fluently, along with my son Dante,” Wissler said. They are now using Peruvian Sign Language, and she would like to become certified in ASL. “This way we can learn sign together and become fluent communicators, a necessity for a mother-son relationship. I would like to be tri-lingual interpreter — ASL, Spanish and English — because there is much demand for this.”

She anticipates a new area of research as well: Deaf culture and music.

Growing up in Nevada fostered Wissler’s love of music. She credits NHS vocal music instructor Sharon Morrical for being “an amazing, vibrant, fun choir director who inspired me musically.” And she also said Glover Ambrose was a “virtuosic flutist who used to sit and play for and with me when I was little. This led to my interest in the flute.” She later did a master’s of flute performance at the University of Idaho.

Although she loves to travel, she remembers Nevada was a “bubble of safety and good community to live in.” She recalls playing with the neighborhood kids, like Susie Lund, Cindy Shickell and the Barkers. “We’d play outside on the whole block and it was completely safe,” she said.

She remembers school being “fun and stimulating, and simply wholesome. Teachers were friendly, and I had a great group of friends (Lynne Carey, Jim Niblock, Rick Ness, Tim Heintz, David Hulse) and we’d watch ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’ every Saturday night and be nerdy and silly.”

From living in Nevada, Wissler learned the lessons of honesty, kindness, straight-forwardness and hard work.

But Wissler admits she had a chip on her shoulder as it was time to graduate from high school. She graduated early, 1977 instead of 1978. “I thought, ‘Iowa and Nevada are too small, not where it’s at. I’m going to discover the world!’” And she did.

She returned for her 15-year class reunion in 1993, however, and she was surprised at how “very friendly, natural and straight-forward my classmates were. I grew up with a great bunch of people.”

“I could not see that when I was in high school,” Wissler said. “I felt so much gratitude for the quality of people I grew up with, who helped shape my life and principles.”

Wissler’s last visit to Nevada was in 2008, when she was doing a series of lectures for ISU. She looks forward to her next visit and being able to see family members in Nevada — her brother Tom, sister-in-law Ellie and their son Jesse.

“The next time I foresee is 2018, for my 40th class reunion,” Wissler said of her plans to visit next. “It will be wonderful to see all my very friendly classmates again.”