It’s Not Just a Man’s Instrument: New Book Details Native American Flute History & Craft

When Native American flute popularity exploded in the 1980s and ’90s, the public latched onto the “love flute” myth as a history-based tale, that Native Americans had used the flute strictly as a courting tool. Other myths associated with the flute — that it was a gift from the Great Spirit to set trapped souls free, that it was a gift from Woodpecker to help a lost boy find his way home — were ignored, forgotten, and the instrument was promoted distinctly as a man’s instrument.

It isn’t. It’s much more.

The flute’s documented, celebrated history is detailed in the new book Native American Flute: A Comprehensive Guide ~ History & Craft, the result of nearly three decades of researching, playing, and crafting the native flute. Native American Flute updates and combines into one volume my previous two books on the Native American flute, The Native American Flute: Myth, History, Craft and Native American Flute Craft, to present a comprehensive history of and crafting guide to the native flute. Native American Flute explores the documented history and mythology of the Native American flute, debunking the popular belief that the flute is only a man’s instrument.

As a freelance journalist, author, and musician, I learned to play and craft the native flute in the early 1990s, discovering its history to be extremely rich and diverse. With gender equality a way of life in native cultures before Europeans arrived in the Americas, the popular belief the flute was strictly a man’s instrument just didn’t ring true.

As accounts by early Europeans who came to North America attested, the flute played a diverse, intricate role in native life, from entertainment to fertility rituals to travel, even to courting. It had never been an instrument limited to men. instead played by all for varied purposes, but the courting aspect caught the romantic fancy of European readers.

Thanks to people like explorer Carcilaso de la Vega in 1592, Europeans focused on the flute’s courting aspect. According to de la Vega, “…[T]hey did not know how to harmonize measured verse, and were mostly concerned with the passions of love … One might say that he talked with his flute. Late one night, a Spaniard came upon an Indian girl he knew in Cuzco and asked her to return to his lodging, but she said: ‘Let me go my ways, sir. The flute you hear from that hill calls me with such tender passion that I must go toward it. Leave me, for heaven’s sake, for I cannot but go where love draws me, and I shall be his wife and he my husband.’”

As flute popularity has grown, women musicians have had to overcome discrimination and prejudice regarding their playing. Even award-winning flautists like Mary Youngblood have encountered male flautists who refuse to play on the same stage, shamans who refuse to bless a flute before an event, and venues that cancel performances by women when male performers complain. 

Native American Flute sets the record straight, updating and combining the information from Fuqua’s first two books on the flute—The Native American Flute: Myth, History, Craft and Native American Flute Craft—into one volume to present a comprehensive, documented exploration of the native flute’s history and a fully illustrated, step-by-step crafting guide for making both the ancient and modern versions of the Native American flute, an instrument truly for all people.

Native American Flute is a available through most bookstores, including Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble.

 

Michael G. Allen of Coyote Oldman

In the mid-1980s, I became acquainted with Native American flute music through the instrumental musings of Coyote Oldman, purportedly an Oklahoma-based duo specializing in “new age” music that utilized native flutes backed by electronic soundscapes. A few years later, I played a cedar flute crafted by Michael Graham Allen, Coyote Oldman’s flautist, and I was hooked. The sound that came from that flute was indescribable, a sound that touched something deep in my psyche. On a tight budget then as I am now (some things never change, especially for writers), I couldn’t afford the retailer’s price, but neither could I simply walk away from such beauty of sound. So I began researching Native American flute craft, but little instructive material existed at the time. Through trial and error and by studying various flutes I chanced across, I finally discovered a method for crafting a decent sounding flute—all thanks to the inspiration of Michael’s music and artistry.

Jump ahead nearly twenty years. I’ve spent the last year researching and writing a new book for The History Press, entitled Alabama Musicians: Musical Heritage from the Heart of Dixie, which details the vast influence of Alabama artists on music past and present. In August, I submitted the book’s final draft, which (acceptably) exceeded the specified length by a thousand words. Around the same time, I learned that Michael G. Allen had teamed with David Lanz and Gary Stroutsos to soon release a new Coyote Oldman CD, entitled Time Travelers. Searching the internet for more information, I discovered that Michael G. Allen is not Oklahoma-based as I’d read many years ago, but a resident and native of Alabama—which meant that a book designed to spotlight Alabama’s musical innovators did not mention a word about one of the most influential pioneers of our time, an artist arguably most responsible for popularizing the native flute worldwide. After a few e-mail exchanges, the editor  allowed me to slip in an entry on Michael.

Michael began Coyote Oldman collaborations in 1985 with Barry Stramp, who provided electronic soundscapes for Michael’s flutes. Each album since 1986’s groundbreaking Tear of the Moon has further explored and developed the range of native flutes, each flute used in the recordings impeccably crafted by Michael. Time Travelers, released in October 2011, utilizes Michael’s handmade replicas of ancient desert and Anasazi flutes in extended studio improvisations with David Lanz on keyboards and Gary Stroutsos on Chinese xiao and dizi flutes to create an album that’s deeply contemplative and moving.

Michael’s interest in, research of, and devotion to ancient North American flutes began in the 1970s as he traveled throughout the U.S. to become a primary force in their reintroduction, refinement, and popularization. With few traditional musicians or craftsmen at the time, Michael learned to craft and play native flutes by studying and copying artifacts housed in museums and collections around the country. In 1981, he met and developed a deep friendship with Dr. Richard Payne, another researcher instrumental in popularizing the native flute. Payne had developed much of his ability in the 1930s, learning from Kiowa elder, Belo Cozad, who had been taught by Oldman Turkey in the late 1800s. Collaborating with Payne until Payne’s death in 2004, Michael became and remains one of the world’s foremost authorities on native flute history, craft, and music.

Michael’s handcrafted flutes have introduced a number of musical innovations, from tuned pentatonic, multi-keyed and bass Plains style flutes to double flutes and experimental flutes. His current efforts include the reintroduction of ancient rim-blown flutes to wider audiences both through his music and custom-crafted instruments. He’s available to lecture on the history of North American flutes at colleges and music events around the country. For more information about Coyote Oldman flutes and music, please visit the Coyote Oldman website.

Michael is one of the many Alabama musical innovators featured in more detail in Alabama Musicians: Musical Heritage from the Heart of Dixie. In the coming months, others will be featured here, including Spooner Oldham and Belgian artist JD Fox who will soon release a tribute album featuring Oldham’s music. To purchase Alabama Musicians, please visit Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, or any online or brick-and-mortar bookstore.