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There's a place in Mexico City filled with thousands of musical instruments from all over Latin America, some of them more than a hundred years old, but it's not a museum or a music school. Next, Betto Arcos takes us to this guy's apartment.
BETTO ARCOS, BYLINE: Guillermo Contreras is a brawny 63-year-old with gray hair and beard, wearing blue jeans and a black dress shirt. But when he opens the door, you barely notice them.
ARCOS: There are instruments everywhere. It's more than any museum collection I've ever seen.
GUILLERMO CONTRERAS: (Through interpreter) No, I filled one museum with 300 pieces. I can tell you there are more than 4,000 instruments here.
ARCOS: He's got jaranas, vihuelas, guitarrones, bajo quintos - all of the Mexican offspring of the Spanish guitar, which was brought here during the colonial period. There also violins and harps of every size, marimbas, dozens of percussion instruments, wind instruments of every shape, length and sound.
CONTRERAS: (Speaking Spanish).
ARCOS: He pulls out a reed flute and says it was played by the Aztecs and is still played in a region of Northeastern Mexico.
Contreras was an architect by profession when he traveled to a small town south of Mexico City in the late 1960s. He met a group of old musicians, some of them born in the late 1800s and playing instruments from that period.
CONTRERAS: (Through interpreter) They thought it was amusing that a guy from the city would visit them and be interested in their music, which was sort of dying.
ARCOS: A few months later, he went back and found that some of musicians had died. He asked their families about the centuries-old instruments. He was stunned by what he heard.
CONTRERAS: (Through interpreter) An instrument from the 19th century, already destroyed, had been turned into a chicken feeder. Another one became a little kid's wooden horse.
ARCOS: Contreras decided then and there that he would dedicate his life to documenting and preserving his country's musical heritage. Contreras is not just an instrument collector. He also knows each instrument's individual history and how to play it. He pulls out a guitarra septima, a 14-string guitar that was widely played across Mexico in the 19th century.
CONTRERAS: (Speaking Spanish, singing in Spanish).
ARCOS: Next, Contreras demonstrates how to play a five-string guitarra de golpe, a strumming guitar, still played in the state of Guerrero.
Contreras walks the walk, says Graco Posadas, director of programming at the CENART, the National Center of the Arts in Mexico City.
GRACO POSADAS: (Through interpreter) Every time you ask him about the music, he'll tell you he's already been to the mountains. And he's the only one that's dedicated time to preserve these instruments, some of which have disappeared unless he has them - and from every region of Mexico.
ARCOS: In addition to the instruments, Guillermo Contreras has also amassed a large collection of photos and music publications going back hundreds of years. And he spends 16 hours a week sharing what he knows.
CONTRERAS: (Singing) Ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba (ph).
(Singing) Ba-ba-ba (ph).
ARCOS: In a small classroom at the National School of Music, three students tap small turtle shell drums with deer horns, as Contreras plays a small bamboo flute.
One of the students is Dalila Franco. She's been studying music with Contreras for about a year.
DALILA FRANCO: (Through interpreter) These rhythms, these melodic patterns are pointing to our Mexican-ness (ph). They're telling us who we are. So the school of music offers two tracks - the Western approach that we inherited from Europe, but there's also this other one that has a lot to do with our identity.
ARCOS: For more than four decades, Guillermo Contreras has been a mentor and teacher to dozens of young musicians. He's tried to get funding to build a museum and a music school without success. But he keeps collecting and teaching because he says these instruments and their history are precious reminders of our humanity.
CONTRERAS: (Through interpreter) I feel that this music helps me understand a little bit more about life as seen through the art of the music and the musical instrument, which I believe are the most precious creations of humanity.
ARCOS: And with or without a museum, Contreras says that's reason enough to continue collecting them, though he's a little worried about finding space for more. For NPR News, I'm Betto Arcos.
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