Juan Vaca and his job

9 October 2005
6:08 PM

In the small town of Concepción we visited a workshop where Juan Vaca does some impressive work.

A few decades ago, someone unearthed some decaying, bug-infested sheets of music. These sheets—which now total more than 5,000—are original Baroque symphonies, native to Chiquitania and written centuries ago during the height of the Jesuit missions. Juan is the only man who cleans these old pages. They’re fragile, riddled with holes, and covered in dirt, ash, and insect remains. In the middle of the cleaning process, a page looks like this:
Sheet of music being cleaned

Juan carefully removes all the dirt using various glues and rubber tools. The dirt from the pages makes a formidable pile.
Pile of dirt and dust

Once a page has been completely cleaned, it still looks old. One person in our group looked at a completed page and asked, “What does it look like after you clean it?”
Cleaned sheet of music

The completed pages are digitized and photocopied for music scholars’ use. We had the chance to visit the archive room where all the pages are stored. When we walked in, the smell was strong enough to break our legs (and deter asthmatics in the group); thousands of moth balls lay everywhere—on the floor, on shelves, in every conceivable cranny. But in the archive room we saw handwritten parish records—baptisms and marriages—from 1754. It’s pretty remarkable to look bank in time like that. Thanks to Juan Vaca and his work, we all took a part of that room with us when we left. And I really mean that—I smelled like mothballs for the rest of the day.