Musical Instrument Museum of Phoenix

In addition to spending time with Flight’s college roommate and his family, we had the opportunity to reconnect with some of my own extended family and some dear friends from our time in Whidbey Island.  Back in the day, before Flight and I were even dating, I had the good fortune to find the Skagit Scottish Country Dancers.  Let’s go a little further back down amnesia lane to put this all in context… 

When I was six years old, my Mom took me to a Burns Night Celebration or something of the like and I was mesmerized by the Highland Dancers.  No kidding, my Mom saw the look on my face and asked me, “Would you like to do that?”  With a slow-motion nod, I turned back to face the stage. I was utterly captivated by the briskly moving kilts and the complex footwork, all in time to droning pipes – what’s not to love?  Just don’t ask my classically trained violist Dutch father…

No, it’s not Riverdance, which has its roots in Ireland.  Highland Dancing is so named because it comes from the Scottish Highlands, where, traditionally, it was only done by men and served as a way for warriors to warm up before battle.   Each of the dances has a story behind it, which touches somewhere deep in my Celtic soul.  For example, the Highland Fling is a victory dance that was to be performed on the shield of your defeated opponent, which means you had to stay in one spot, which, although certainly challenging for a six-year old novice, proved easier as I trained.  To give you some sense of what this extremely athletic sport entails, here are a few images I found online:

Now the competition fields are dominated by women.  If you are curious, you can see the 2017 World Champions performing their Highland Fling victory dances here.

Where Highland Dancing was traditionally done by male warriors, Scottish Country Dancing is the Scots version of ballroom dancing, which if you’ve ever been to a Ceilidh (unbelievably pronounced kay-lee, and is Gaelic for “gathering”) is probably more appropriately done in a pub than a ball room.  Scottish Country Dancing is featured in one of my favorite movies from 1945, “I Know Where I’m Going,” where the Highland Schottische (pronounced “shotteesh”) is done moving about a ballroom.  A more recent (1994 is more recent, right?) cinematic debut of Scottish Country Dancing was in “Shallow Grave” with Ewan McGregor dancing Strip the Willow alongside his still living flatmates.  

Highland Dancing and Scottish Country Dancing are very differently performed, and it took me a while to get my ghillies (dance shoes) to comply with the new demands.  However, in my first dance class I felt immediately at home when a seasoned fellow took one look at whatever Beat Army t-shirt I was wearing, walked right up to me and asked, “Did you ever Beat Army?”  

Feeling a little sassy to be so challenged, I retorted, “Yeah, did you?”  

“Yeah. What’d you Beat Army in?”
“Swimming and Diving. How about you?”

“Football.  What company were you in?”

Following an exchange of our Academy pedigree, this fellow then asked me, “When did you graduate?”

“1994.” It was 1998.

An eyebrow raise, “Wow.”
“Why? When’d you graduate?”


I have never had a solid poker face and, astonished that he was still so nimble for someone so advanced in his years, I offered a two second, “Wooooooooooooooow!” to go with the astonishment that was clearly written on my visage.

“Well, you don’t have to say it like that…” and we were fast friends thereafter.

This fellow Academy grad and his lovely wife have been in Anacortes forever.  He was a P-2 pilot back in his day and went on to fly with Northwest Airlines before retiring and taking up steam-engine building full-time.  I’m not sure where playing the fiddle came into being, but he is also quite a musician.  His wife also danced and rescued wildlife critters in her spare time – what a fun couple!  These were just two of the lovely folks I got to meet among the Skagit Scottish Country Dancers, our teacher was fantastic.

Despite having grown up in Scotland (or maybe because she had grown up there?), our teacher and her English husband had fallen in love with the Whidbey Island years before while he was on a Royal Air Force (RAF) exchange tour flying with the U.S. Navy.  They bought property on Whidbey Island and built a house when they retired, from the RAF that is, as the two of them remained ever busy and have maintained careers beyond his service to Queen and Country.  

I’m still a little baffled as to their choice for next place of residence because they moved to the heat of Sun City, Arizona, just outside of Phoenix.  Perhaps they needed some drying out after a lifetime in the damp of the UK and Western Washington, but their new climate was everything that the previous places weren’t: wicked hot (even at the end of March) and insanely dry.  Had we not seen the temperature and humidity captured digitally during our stretch in Arizona, I would never have believed it.  Seriously, 90’s and single digit humidity.  

But I digress…

While we were in the area, I reached out to reconnect with our friends from Whidbey Island and they suggested we meet at the Musical Instrument Museum (MIM) in Phoenix.  I really had no idea what to expect but was blown away by the experience.

Our friends suggested we start our visit in the interactive room where there were so many spectacular noise makers.  I mindfully chose the word spectacular because there were many instruments, within this room and beyond, whose playing wouldn’t not create a spectacle.  WoodSprite intently went to work exploring these instruments.  

Firebolt was a little more reticent in her engagement, which surprised me as she is perhaps the most musically inclined of our flight.

And who wouldn’t be keen to set this gong to vibrating?

Outside the experiential room, the museum’s exhibits were clustered about five world regions: Africa and Middle East, Asia and Oceania, Europe, Latin America, and the United States/Canada.  Instruments from four of these five galleries resonated with me.  Having lived in Algeria when I was a kid, I was first drawn to learning more about the music that was specific to these Mediterranean countries.  

When asked to conjure an image of African culture, most Americans will never envision those that are unique to North Africa.  During our time in Algeria we made an incredible road trip across to Tunisia stopping at several long-forgotten towns of Roman ruins that litter the North African Coast.  I was nearly five years old and through the montage of my lived childhood experiences several from this trip stand out.  Most impactful was having my father the architect bend down to my level, point to the keystone at the top of a still intact arch, and give an impromptu age-appropriate physics lecture on why these architectural gems have lasted through the centuries.  Perhaps tied in significance with this memory was my own private moment of gleefully exploring on my own (my parents were probably 20’ away) and stumbling upon mosaic floors whose patterns were still discernable beneath the haphazard rubble.  I may or may not have absconded with a few of the tiles and carried them wherever I went for the rest of the summer.  Between those magical moments and seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark at age eight, I have long harbored a secret desire to become an archaeologist.  

But I digress, yet again…

Departing the African continent for Asia, I learned about the Shakuhachi musical art that evolved surprisingly out of the samurai tradition.  The elite samurai warriors were also expected to be accomplished artists and intellectuals.  When no longer called upon as warfighters, many became komusō monks, who were known as “priests of emptiness and nothingness.”  To demonstrate their separation from the material world, they would wear tengai (large baskets) over their heads while playing the shakuhachi.  This well-respected tradition is still practiced in Japan.  

Next stop was Indonesia’s musical treasures.  

I was intrigued by the modern set up for the Wayang Kulit, a traditional Indonesian shadow puppet show, but was disappointed to learn that we wouldn’t be seeing one today.  We had several Indonesian shadow puppets when I was growing up, a nod to my father’s birthplace.  I have never seen such a show performed in person and renewed my vow to learn more about my Indo-Dutch heritage. 

As our girls busied themselves learning more about the intricacies of a symphony, I meandered over to check out Scotland’s most iconic instrument, the bagpipe, which in days of yore were used to strike fear into the hearts of adversaries in battle.  Having been inculcated as a Highland Dancer in my youth, the sound of bagpipes wholeheartedly resonates with my Celtic warrior soul.  While I vaguely knew that other Celtic nations have used these instruments in their respective nation’s traditional music, I had no idea the pipes were so widely used across the globe.  

We tied up our visit to the MIM with a delicious lunch at the museum’s restaurant.  Beyond satisfying everyone’s rumbly in the tumbly, our time breaking bread with our friends was a delightful opportunity to reconnect. It was as though we’d seen each other only just last week instead of nearly a decade ago.  I’m delighted to report that the Phoenix sunshine appears to agree with them both and am already looking forward to our next visit, especially so I can get a photo with them, which I neglected to do this go around.  Next time… 

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