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National Museum of American History acquires Colombian Carlos Vives's guitar

November 23, 2016 at 4:12 PM

Carlos Vives plays this guitar a last time before donating it to the Smithsonian. (David Montgomery/The Washington Post)

The story of America has many threads, including one leading all the way to the historic city of Santa Marta, on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, origin of the Smithsonian's latest acquisition: a handmade acoustic guitar owned by Colombian superstar Carlos Vives.

Vives, whose recent duet "La Bicicleta" with compatriot Shakira just won Latin Grammys for song of the year and record of the year, last played the instrument in a public concert at the Hollywood Bowl in September. He strummed it for one last song Tuesday night in Washington at the residence of Colombian Ambassador to the United States Juan Carlos Pinzón, during a celebration of the donation to the Smithsonian. Fittingly, Vives chose to sing "El Cantor de Fonseca," one of his earlier hits, which tells the story of troubadour proud of his roots in a region east of Santa Marta. The invited crowd of more than 100 sang along.

Carlos Vives’s guitar is headed to the Smithsonian. (David Montgomery/The Washington Post)

The guitar was crafted by Colombian luthier Leonardo Fabio Torres and carries an airbrushed portrait by artist Camilo Restrepo depicting an indigenous Arhuaco from the Sierra Nevada in Colombia.

"The guitar itself tells the story of Colombia," Pinzón said in remarks at the gathering, referring to the artistry of the instrument as well as to the music Vives has played on it. His joyful and romantic songs are rooted in Colombian rhythms and styles, such as vallenato, but infused with rock and pop.

How does a guitar that tells Colombia's story help tell the United States' as well?

Just before he asked Vives to sign the deed of gift, Stacey Kluck, a curator at the National Museum of American History, explained the Smithsonian's interest to the audience gathered in a stately salon.

Carlos Vives signs papers to donate the guitar as Smithsonian curator Stacey Kluck watches. (David Montgomery/The Washington Post)

The museum "seeks to tell the stories of our nation, which include an understanding of our music," Kluck said. "Central to this understanding are the contributions of Latinos to American music."

Vives's guitar will join Tito Puente's timbales, Celia Cruz's costumes and Selena's leather jacket, Kluck said.

Tuning up the instrument designed for a left-hander one more time, Vives said that he had asked the luthier to make a guitar that would come close to the sound of "the oldest guitars of country music, of those icons of American country music."

Carlos Vives discusses the meaning of his guitar donation. (David Montgomery/The Washington Post)

"I think it's important, the appreciation the museum has for our culture," Vives said. "Because to ask for a guitar like the one we are donating is a symbol of friendship, and interest and passion for Latino culture."

"It's a great honor," the singer-songwriter added, "to remind this nation that you have some affectionate neighbors, and that they express themselves that way through their music."


David Montgomery writes general features, profiles and arts stories for the Sunday Magazine and Style, including pieces on the Latino community and Latino arts. He joined The Washington Post in 1993 and has covered Prince George’s County, Maryland politics and life in the District.

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