As I listen to more traditional music and more music from non-Western sources, I begin to realize that the blithe use of the word “traditional” is tantamount to making your own noose and putting it around your neck. This was brought vividly home to me while listening to a group of CDs from Native American and Native-derived artists. Historically, American Indian music has been viewed as being an integral part of a whole, residing quite inextricably with dance, religious ritual, singing, and drama. Music, in this situation, is functional rather than being purely aesthetic, in that it almost invariably accompanies some other activity: North American Indians did not have “concerts.” It is also a “stripped-down” music: it has one or two musical lines, a melody or a melody with an independent rhythm, which is generally steady and relatively unadorned; look to Asia or Africa for the complex polyrhythms we associate with “world music.” Aside from flute music, it is sung, and it is strophic in form: a group of phrases, forming a stanza, is repeated. And, as has been pointed out to me, one cannot really understand American Indian music without having some idea of Indian religious concepts, the most significant of which in this context is that the world is the abode of spirits as much as it is the abode of us physical creatures.*
The indigenous flute, which is the subject of the comments below, was, particularly among the Plains tribes, a central part of courtship. It was used to evoke the wind, a messenger, and was also associated with the elk, a symbol of sexuality. A note on tuning: because the dimensions of traditionally made flutes are determined by the size of the maker, tuning can vary. The length, according to Kevin Locke, is equal to the distance from the maker’s elbow to the tip of his longest finger; holes are spaced one finger’s breadth apart, and begin a hand-width from the bottom of the flute. The North American flute, in a manner of speaking, is tuned to its creator. For solo flutes, variations in tuning really aren’t a major concern; when flutes are combined with other instruments, particularly those tuned to a tonic scale, these variations can lead to some interesting results.
So, we are dealing with “traditional” North American flute music as rendered by various artists, all of Native ancestry. Listening to this group, I finally realized that I had been missing the central question: not, “is this truly traditional?” (and, being a closet purist, that becomes an overriding and irritating concern), but “how do these artists see their traditions?”
Perry Silverbird, in The Blessing Way, is, although playing his own compositions, closest to my previous experience of traditional Native flute music. As a young boy of Navajo/Apache ancestry, he grew up in New Jersey, where he studied both flute and drums and sang with his family. In Silverbird’s context, the songs are actually offered as prayers, part of the “blessing way” that brings good to the individual or to the people. (It is not by chance that this disc was recorded at Canyon de Chelly, a location of important spiritual significance.) It is a quiet album (as are all of these), serious but not quite solemn. Drums enter very quietly – the entire disc is very peaceful and low-key – and chants are understated. One song is a surprise: “Happy Shepherd” sounds very much like a song from the early music of Europe, perhaps a late medieval festival tune or an early Renaissance peasant dance – the same rapid, intricate flute line and slow, one-beat-per-measure drum. In this instance, the cedar flute actually takes on the characteristics of a medieval European flute.
Tokeya Inajin is Kevin Locke’s Lakota name. Locke is a well-known and highly regarded flute player and dancer, and all the songs on his disc, Dream Catcher, have been learned from other musicians, which is certainly a traditional way to go about it. The introduction of nature sounds – in Locke’s case, coyote calls, birdsong, the wind, even thunder – does not, as might be expected, detract from the disc. They actually serve to give a very strong sense of place to the music. Like others, Locke includes chant and singing. His playing is passionate and concentrated, and extraordinarily evocative – he pulls an amazing range of effects from his flutes. “Medicine of the Meadowlark” is a stellar example: Locke on his flute plays a charming duet with recorded birdcall, complete with runs and trills that only point up, in their clear tones, what an accomplished artist he is.
Mary Youngblood, in The Offering, performs her own songs in a traditional mode. Of Aleut and Seminole ancestry, she is a classically trained flutist who has opted to focus her career on the North American wood flute — she also happens to be the first woman to record professionally on that instrument. This album was recorded in the Moaning Cave in California, and the ambience of the location lends the flute a resonance that adds a strong spatial dimension to Youngblood’s playing. If I have an objection to The Offering it is that it is too much of a piece. While the individual songs are not only beautiful in themselves and beautifully performed, on some tracks, such as the “Children’s Dance,” I would like to see more liveliness and perhaps a little less sophistication (although she does manage that in “She Watches Them Play,” another song about children).
Bryan Akipa, a Sisseton Dakota, requires some adjustment of our ears and our thinking; from the opening track, “Thank You Grandfather,” (sounding very much like one of Coyote Oldman’s more manipulated pieces) we get a sense that this is tradition on the move – his arrangements include spoken word, chant, drums, strings, synthesizers and manipulated sounds, and at first hearing, the music is decidedly odd. Part of this is the tuning of his flutes, which is absolutely not the same as the strings and other instrumental forces employed as backup. But, once one opens up the mind a little, the songs become intriguing, and then very seductive, and some of the things that Akipa does with his flute – the changes in texture of the sound, the mellow tones that become shrill whistling, the fades into strings and the abrupt, almost arbitrary accents, become very exciting. It is pointless to try to list highlights on this album: it is a progression in which Akipa just leads us deeper into a unique and sometimes very exciting soundscape. It is not always successful – the contrast between lush strings and a flute with completely non-Western tuning is not always easy to take, but one still listens. When I first listened to this disc many years ago, I’m afraid I was rather dismissive (that purist streak again); this time, I was captivated and thoroughly engrossed.
Some general comments: the sound of the North American wood flute is very sensual and very evocative. These are all extraordinary musicians, and the sounds of the flutes, particularly in the hands of Akipa and Locke, are by turns passionate, peaceful, mournful and joyous. While the packaging of these discs is more or less oriented toward the new age market, they are all respected artists in their own communities and, in terms of tradition, one has to take that as an indication of genuineness. I would go so far as to say ignore the comments in the notes and the marketing blurbs, and just listen to what they are saying with their flutes. I think there you will get the real sense of what these people are talking about. After hearing these four artists, I have to conclude that “tradition” is what you make of it. Their traditions are obviously very much alive, and growing all the time.
* I am indebted and very grateful to Gardner Rust for sharing the fruits of his researches into American Indian music. Any egregious gaffes, of course, are mine. As always, it’s about vocabulary.
(Celestial Harmonies, 1992)
(Silver Wave Records, 1998)
(Sound of America, 1994)