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For the Love of the Flute

Two years ago, my parents lovingly commissioned Douglas Blue Feather, a Native American Music Award winner of Cherokee ancestry and a friend of the family, to handcraft me a wooden Native flute. He did so, and I am still learning how to play the woodwind. Though I am not sure what key it is tuned in, it has an earthy tone that inspired me to play “Sally’s Song” by Danny Elfman, featured in The Nightmare Before Christmas film, each time I pick it up. I am hoping to feature more of the instrument, along with my silver flute, in songs on my band, Irene & Reed’s second album, due out  in 2010.

A flute enthusiast myself, I recently interviewed a trio of Indiana-based musicians for Nuvo Newsweekly, all of which play Native American flutes, in conjunction with piano, guitar and percussion. Having grown up playing the silver flute since around 1992 in marching, pep, concert and symphonic bands, I found their perspectives on the instrument moving.

While the members of Branches Breath, for the most part, not American Indian, member Jason Chaplin has ancestry a few generations back.

“My great grandmother was Eastern Band Cherokee from Tennessee,” Chaplin says, “but I found this out after I started to play. The flute is the connection, regardless of bloodline; it has an old song and an old story to tell.”

Although colleagues Richard Brooner and Jeff Gegner share no bloodline with American Indians, Gegner’s family shares in their history. “My great grandfather was adopted by a tribe of Fox Indians in the 1800s and lived with them for years in Iowa,” he says. “In hard times, he shared his land and foods with them, and they considered him to be one of the tribe.”

With reverence for American Indian culture, music and spirituality, Branches Breath seeps its musical mission with the intention of bringing their indigenous instruments to modern audiences.

While performing on Native flutes, Branches Breath does not play traditional American Indian music; rather, it performs extemporaneous jazz and blues featuring world and Native American flutes. “Our songs are almost never just one flute, unless it is with a guitar, piano or percussion,” Chaplin says. “We may play three flutes in the key of D minor but span three octaves. That means one of us has a flute about eight inches long, the other is a flute about two feet long and the third flute is nearly four feet long.”

Buying and caring for a Native American style flute varies greatly from the methodology for other flute types, especially the silver pieces students often play in marching band. According to Chaplin, few American Indian flute makers exist today, especially ones that handcraft the instruments through traditional methods, using the branches of cedar, box elder or river cane. “The first flutes were made out of what was available where that tribe lived,” Chaplin says. “They didn’t have a lot of options, considering the tools available.”

Nowadays, he says mostly non-Native artisans tune flutes selectively. Each flute is tuned to a different key, depending on material used and length of the instrument. Whereas a silver flute gives its player almost an unlimited range of notes to play, a wooden Native flute will always be tuned to one key, so to play in other keys, you must have a larger collection of the instruments. Chaplin owns 40 flutes, including a Turkish ney.

Flute enthusiasts can gather with the members of Branches Breath and other musicians every third Sunday of the month at the Indiana Flute Circle, held in the Christel DeHaan Fine Arts Center room 115 at the University of Indianapolis from 12:30 p.m. to 4 p.m.