The Native American Flute

The Native American Flute
The flute is one of the oldest musical instruments, pre-dated by the drum and the rattle. In the Americas, flutes were made of varying materials depending upon the region. Bone flutes have been unearthed in archaeological sites which date back over 4000 years. The styles varied as much as the materials used. Small whistles evolved into flutes made with longer animal bones. A cache of 32 flutes worked from the bones of pelican wings was found during excavations at the ancient city of Caral, near Lima, Peru. This site dates to approximately 2627 BCE, and a few of the flutes were actually played to determine pitch for replicas.

With the development of pottery and ceramics, flutes were fashioned with single and dual chambers in Central and South American. A variation to the long and slender flute, the ocarinas were carved from stone, or made with clay in the shape of animals or human heads. The number of finger holes and pitch varied with these as well. In the Southwestern US, flutes made of box elder wood with six finger holes, dating to the Anasazi Culture of approximately 600 a.d., were unearthed in Arizona caves. European explorers and settlers of the Eastern US wrote of the Indians’ flute music.

What is now considered the Native American Flute is geographically unique to North America. It is described as a two chambered duct flute. Air is blown into the “slow” chamber at the head of the flute. It is then separated and channeled through a “duct” into the sound chamber with finger holes. River cane and bamboo provide a natural chamber separation at their “knobs” or joints. The flutes bored from tree limbs, or carved in two halves and joined, have an exterior air duct to the sound chamber. These are commonly called “Plains” flutes, with the air duct created by a “block” strapped to the flute. The flute pictured below was made by Jamie Nemeth, a highly skilled craftsman, musician, and dear friend. The “block” is both a functional and decorative component, and is usually fashioned into a bird or other animal. A carved block is sometimes referred to as a “Fetish.” This one is exquisitely carved with the mischievous, flute playing Kokopelli.

Flutes are very personal instruments. Traditionally, one’s body measurements were used for its construction. The total flute length would equal the distance from the tip of the middle finger to the inside of the elbow. The width of the fist was the size of the first air chamber, and the distance between the last finger hole and the bottom edge of the flute. The finger holes were spaced based on the width of one’s thumb. Flutes constructed today generally have 5 to 6 finger holes, but this can vary from none to 7, and some have a thumb hole. Soft woods tend to produce “softer” tones in a flute and are preferred by many. Hard woods, such as walnut and cherry produce more clear and crisp notes. The most popular woods for modern flutes are cedar, juniper, and redwood.

For a time, flute music was not only discouraged, but banned. However, the flute survived with the People, and experienced a surge of popularity in the late 1960’s. This was continued and compounded in the decades since as the appeal of ethnic music broadened further. Native American flute players such as R. Carlos Nakai, Douglas Spotted Eagle, Joseph Firecrow, and Robert Tree Cody have been recognized with awards and the sale of their recordings world-wide. Although this simply constructed instrument has not changed in over a century, its music continues to evolve. Once played solo, or accompanied with a drum, it’s now included in classical scores and symphony arrangements.

The genres of music which have originated in America epitomize the “Melting Pot” of our society. Blues, Jazz, Rock and Roll have influenced and built upon each other. It is truly wonderful the flute music of the First Americans is now included in this Melting Pot. One can relax to the soothing melodies of Charles Littleleaf, or “rock” to Robert Mirabal’s flute music.

Charles Littleleaf on the Native American Flute

Valley of Dreams from One World Tour, John Tesh with Robert Mirabal

You Should Also Read:
FORUM - Jamie Nemeth on flute
FORUM - Native American Flute

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