Until 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 we have another stereotype. 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. In today's marketplace, New Age music has influenced the way the Native American cedar flute is played and marketed. (If you want a refresher on New Age philosophy/spirituality in general, Wikipedia has an overview.) You'll recognize the sound of the flute when you hear it.
You'll probably even recognize the "SynthacousticpunkarachiNavajazz" sound of R. Carlos Nakai, who is among the best known Native American flute players. He has released more than 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. As you can guess from his name for it, his music blends traditions from Navajo and jazz to synthesizers, punk rock and New Age.
"I build on the tradition of my culture," Nakai once told Paul de Barros in the Seattle Times [quoted on the eNotes website for teachers and students, "but not 'This is what happened to these people way back when.' This is what's happening to us today."
Another singer-songwriter and cedar flute player, less well known than Nakai, is Randy Granger from southwestern New Mexico. Of mixed Mexican and Indian (Mestizo) ancestery, he's a working musician. Granger says he "often busks [plays for tips] at grower's markets when at home or on the road to keep his chops up and learn what songs are working and not," and he's performed with Opera Southwest, La Zarzuela de Albuquerque and alt rock bands "[s]logging it out in bars, clubs, weddings, funerals, on military bases, festivals, every ubiquitous type of gig musicians endure complete with drunk soundmen, psycho club owners, shifty bouncers, fights with other bands and the ever present Coffee Barrista's frothing milk." His CDs get heavy airplay on New Age stations but also have been nominated for the prestigious Native American Music Awards. Here Granger is performing at a Native American festival at at the Casa Grande national park in southern Arizona, where Hohokam Indians had an important village before the Spanish came in the 1500s. Its ruins are still visible today - you can see them in the background as Granger plays.
As far as we know, the cedar flute originated not in Arizona but among the Winnebago or Lakota Indians of the northern Great Plains. And flutes, panpipes and other wind instruments of various kinds were common to most indigenous peoples. Robert Gatliff, webmaster of the Flutetree.com website and "the guy paying the rent for this site," has descriptions by European explorers and settlers going back to the Spanish in 1528. But the instruments first came to the attention of white Americans during the 1820s and 1830s in what are now the Dakotas and adjacent states. The Wisconsin Historical Museum in Madison gave one romantic legend belonging to the Plains Indians in its notes on a Native American flute exhibit in 2008:
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.Like other Native American arts, the old traditions of flute playing were nearly lost during the 20th century but revived as a "pan-Indian" art form, partly due to the interest of non-Indian educators. A video available from the Oregon Flute Store explains:
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.
From those beginnings, other Native American musicians got interested in the cedar flute. One was R. Carlos Nakai of Flagstaff, Ariz. Of Navajo (Dine) and Ute heritage, Nakai is considered one of the "the world's foremost Native American flute performers" and "one of the first to meld his ancestral sounds with contemporary music and electronic instrumentation."
Nakai has worked tirelessly to promote the instrument and the ongoing Native American cultural renaissance in general. In this clip Charles Littleleaf, of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, Oregon, tells how he helped Littleleaf reconnected with the music of his own Native American heritage. More on Littleleaf is available on his website ...
Nakai performs with jazz bands, symphony orchestras and a variety of Asian musicians. Here he makes music in a "conversation" with William Eaton (guitar) and Will Clipman (percussion) last year in a Canyon recording studio. As you listen, please read the excerpt below from a CENGAGE learning module on Nakai's music.
CENGAGE says "Nakai�s sound is difficult to describe without reducing it to the pigeonhole category of �New Age� music" and adds:
In discussing Nakai�s music, ethnomusicologist David McAllister points out that references to Nakai�s Native American heritage are found throughout his repertoire.First of two posts on Carlos Nakai and the cedar flute. The second will discuss Nakai's attitude toward his Dine (Navajo) heritage, Native American tradition and possibilities for fusion between Native and other art forms. How does his art reflect his heritage? How does it transcend it?
He draws inspiration from mountains, valleys, canyons, wind, rains, sunsets, the scent of juniper, form wildlife, and from the earth itself. His music describes the Southwest particularly and has a vivid sense of his ancestors moving through this landscape. Anasazi ruins, immigration routes, and intertribal cultural references all have an important place in the liner notes of his recordings.
When the �authenticity� of his work is questioned, Nakai is quick to point out that Native American cultures have been adapting and blending with other cultures since the dawn of time. He cites as an example the adaptation of the horse into Plains Indian cultures after its introduction by Europeans into North America. According to Nakai, Native American music—like most music around the world—is always in a state development and change:
Many of the traditional ceremonial chants that you hear today are very much unlike the chants based on the wax recordings and wire recordings that emanated out of the Smithsonian over time and are performed in a very different manner today. One reason is because of the influence of cultural change and the influence of different philosophies and ways of looking at how we are today.
Improvisation is a natural component of most Native American music, and Nakai�s work is no exception. He seeks musicians as collaborators who can improvise and listen carefully to produce a performance that is a musical conversation. Almost all of Nakai�s recordings include improvisation.