Times change. Until fairly recently, the popular stereotype of Native American music came from the old Western movies ... heavy on the drums, in 4/4 time accented BUM-bum-BUM-bum BUM-bum-BUM-bum on the first and third beat ... but now it's an instrument variously known as the cedar flute, the Lakota courting flute or simply the Native American flute. It's especially a staple of "New Age" radio programming, and it's become an iconic sign of Native culture, as we hear on the homepage of KINI-FM on the Rosebud reservation in South Dakota. Where else have you heard music like this?
Today we're not going to study New Age beliefs and culture, although New Age music has influenced the way the Native flute is played and marketed. It's easy enough to find on the Internet without my adding links. (If you want a refresher on New Age in general, Wikipedia has an overview, and we can rely on Wikipedia users to correct each other's weasel words and keep it honest.) Instead, we'll look at the origins of the instrument and listen to some of the music.
Robert Gatliff, a cedar flute afficionado, webmaster of the Flutetree.com website and "the guy paying the rent for this site," has a collection of descriptions of flutes, pan pipes and other wind instruments going back to 1528. But the cedar flute as we know it goes back to the Plains Indians and their neighbors during the 1800s. Here's a good thumbnail description on the Wisconsin Historical Museum website:
The flute once played an integral role in love and courtship in Native American society. Traditionally, courtship was a public affair that involved a girl’s family and friends. Prior to marriage, families guarded their daughters against having free friendships with young men and an exaggerated shyness among adolescent girls was considered charming.It accompanies a 1929 photo of a Chippewa (Ojibwe) flute and a striking flute handcrafted in 1994 by flute carved by Louis Webster, of Menominee, Stockbridge, Potawatomi and Oneida descent. There in a nutshell you can see how traditional artists preserve their heritage but also change it and adapt it to new ways over the years.
To attract a girl’s attention, a young man would arrive in the evening outside of her family’s home and play a beautiful love song on his courting flute. The pleasing tones of the instrument, rising and falling in slow sliding cadences, served to entice her into falling in love with him. Specific traditions varied between different villages and tribes. One tradition held that although a young man would play his courting flute, the girl was not allowed to respond to this advance alone. The potential mate first needed to offer the spoils of a hunting expedition to the girl’s parents before he could be considered an acceptable suitor.
The courting flute is no longer learned or played in its traditional context. In earlier days, flute players received no formal instruction, rather learning only by listening to others play, but today lessons are often offered in a classroom setting. In addition, while it was once played only by men with no other instrumental or voice accompaniment, the flute is also currently played by many women, often as part of contemporary Western musical compositions. Even though it has greatly evolved, the beauty of the Native American flute and its haunting music have endured in the modern age.
Another brief article tells of a cedar flute demonstration at SCI. I wrote it for Illinois Times.
Something to look for in all the articles. Many of the artists have Native heritage -- often it is mixed heritage, i.e. more than one tribe or nation and often white ethnic heritage as well. But the music sells like hotcakes to white audiences (remember when we discussed "expropriation" earlier?), and the people who have flocked to learn the Native flute in recent years tend to be white.
To see how the instruments have evolved, compare the 1929 instrument on the Wisconsin museum site and the instruments from the 1820s and 1830s pictured on Gatliff's website to the Amon Olorin Flutes made by Ken Light, who is not of Native blood but has absorbed the culture and its music. He makes flutes for Carlos Nakai (see below), one of the leading Native flute artists. Spend a few minutes with the Amon Olorin catalog and click on the pictures of the flutes to hear the sound of each. It will not only give a sense of the tone of the different instruments, but you will also hear some of the characteristic swoops, flourishes and trills of an accomplished player.
In class we will listen to a radio sound portrait of R. Carlos Nakai. Of Navajo (Dine) and Ute heritage, Nakai is perhaps the most well know artist on the Native flute today. He has famously described his style as "SynthacousticpunkarachiNavajazz," and he has released 35 albums on the Canyon label, which specializes in Native American music. He performs with jazz bands, symphony orchestras and a variety of Asian musicians. You can visit his website at http://www.rcarlosnakai.com/
to learn more.
Some of his thoughts on music and philosophy are discussed in a Q&A on Ken Light's website. Some of Nakai's questioners sound like New Agers, and his attitude seems welcoming of their search for spritual meaning. But notice how he says. "I do not encourage anyone outside of the indigenous cultures to visit or otherwise impose upon native communities and individuals because as indigenous folk we have our own responsibilities and work to engage ourselves in daily and don't need a lot of loose baggage to tow around."