Music took Professor Jessie Vallejo from a childhood in Liverpool, N.Y. to a village in Otavalo, Ecuador to stages at Mariachi festivals in Havana, Cuba and across the Southland.
Her talents brought her to Cal Poly Pomona in the fall of 2015 when she was hired as an assistant professor, following previous lectureships at UCLA and UC Riverside.
Vallejo recalls that when she saw the music students hanging out on the couches in Building 24, much as she did as an undergraduate on the sofas at the Crane School of Musicat SUNY Potsdam in upstate New York, she felt right at home.
“I was really thrilled,” she says. “It was meant to be.”
Growing up, Vallejo felt drawn to music.
“I was the kid who every time I went to a friend’s house, if they had a piano, I would sit and noodle around on it.”
Vallejo chose to master the violin for one very practical reason.
“I picked it for its size, and I don’t regret that decision,” she says with a laugh. “I really enjoy being able to go almost anywhere with it. With a violin, you can combine it with a lot of different instruments.”
Vallejo specializes in ethnomusicology, the study of music in its cultural context. Before her college days, she was into rock music. Her tastes expanded while an undergraduate majoring in music education. She applied for a grant to go to Mexico and study mariachi music. Vallejo also spent a semester abroad at the Instituto Internacional in Madrid, Spain, studying with noted Armenian violinist Ludmila Mesropian.
She taught middle school orchestra and upper strings high school lessons in the West Genesee Central School District in the Syracuse, NY area before heading west to pursue graduate studies. Vallejo earned both a master of arts and a doctorate degree in ethnomusicology from UCLA, where she co-directed Mariachi de Uclatlán with Grammy Award-winning musician Jesús Guzmán of Mariachi Los Comperos de Nati Cano.
Besides classical and mariachi, Vallejo also has performed Andean, Chinese and bluegrass music.
During her doctoral research, she studied Native American music, specifically of the Mohawk people of New York and Canada, as well as of the Kichwa in Northern Ecuador.
Vallejo received a federal grant to study the Kichwa language, and has spent close to eight months living in Otavalo, a town of mainly indigenous people in the Imbabura Province of Ecuador. There she learned to play a flute native to the region.
She worked with the Smithsonian Institution’s nonprofit record label, Smithsonian Folkways, and the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage to co-produce, annotate and provide photography for a CD of Kichwa flute music titled ¡Así Kotama! The Flutes of Otavalo, Ecuador.
The Kichwa flutists in Ecuador see the instrument and the music as an important part of their culture, she says. In the 1990s, the flutists saw a sharp decline in the number of people playing the music.
“They were concerned about it,” she says. “I was happy to work with them because I wanted to make sure that the music is heard.”
Vallejo’s love of ethnic music continues to extend beyond the classroom. She is starting a mariachi ensemble on campus. She held auditions in December for what she has named Mariachi Los Broncos de Pomona.
Performing gives her something extra that she can’t get solely by teaching, she says.
“Musical performance was really a way that I could break up my day,” she says. “Sometimes it felt therapeutic.”