Andrew J. Knight
3 December 2012
The Modern Native American Flute
The modern Native American Flute produces beautiful and haunting melodies, often replicating the sounds of nature. It is similar in sound and purpose to its ancestors, such as the traditional Anasazi and Kokopelli flutes, but different in design and construction. With a unique sound production mechanism, this style of flute in fact is different from all other wind instruments the world over (Goss). Due to this uniqueness, they are said to be one of the easiest instruments to learn, allowing a person with little or no musical background to create and improvise enchanting melodies. This amazing instrument was almost lost as Native American cultures and traditions were being stamped out by Indian Schools in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s (August, “History”). Thankfully, it did not completely disappear and has seen a strong resurgence starting in the 1960s with its melodic and almost meditative tones, making it very popular in New Age music (Burton 91). Today Native American Flute music and the flutes themselves are quite popular, so popular, in fact, that it can be difficult to find a flute crafted by a Native American (Native American Indian Flutes). These wonderful instruments are pleasant to listen to and easy to enjoy, but with a bit of knowledge of their history and lore, design and construction, and playing techniques, they can truly be appreciated.
The earliest examples of the modern Native American Flute date back to 1823 (Goss). These flutes are quite different from their early cousins, the rim blown flutes and whistles. Rim blown flutes are hollow tubes with finger holes that are played by blowing across the open end to create sound, much like blowing across an open jug to make a sound. This style of flute is very old and is found worldwide. Some of the earliest examples were found in present-day Germany and France and are estimated to be between 33,000 and 37,000 years old. These ancient rim blown flutes were carved from mammoth ivory and the wing bones of large birds. The oldest playable flute is 7,000 years old, a bone rim blown flute found in central China (Goss). Rim blown flutes also have a long history in North America as well. Their influence is found in today’s modern Native American Flute. Most surviving examples of ancient flutes are made from bone. However, ancient wood and river cane flutes have been found at archeological sites in North America, dating to as early as 625 CE (August, “History”). These early flutes are attributed to the Anasazi, Kokopelli and Hopi cultures. In the1930’s, four wooden flutes made of Box Elder were discovered in a northern Arizona cave that is now know as the Broken Flute cave. River cane flutes have also been found. Both cane and wood flutes are rare to find due to their fragile nature. Modern Native American Flutes are often made from wood and river cane or other hollow reeds, and have a very similar sound to their rim blown ancestors. The difference is in the sound mechanism. A flue is used instead on the modern flutes. A flue is basically a whistle or sound hole built into the body of the instrument. Flutes of this type are known as duct flutes and are played by blowing directly into the flue. Clay Ocarinas found in South and Central America are the oldest known flutes of this type, pre-dating the European Recorder of the late 1400s by over 2,000 years (Goss). Rim-blown flutes can be difficult to play due to the embouchure required to make the sounds. That is, the sound is made by the way the lips of the player touch the instrument and the shape they are held in. On a duct flute, one simply blows in the instrument and the blade in the sound hole produces the musical note. The correct embouchure can be very difficult to master in the rim blown flute. The duct solves this problem, making it much easier to play the instrument. However, there are some drawbacks to the duct flutes. They are very...
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Burton, Bryan. Moving within the Circle: Contemporary Native American Music and Dance. Danbury, CT: World Music, 1993. Print.
Ellis, John. Making a Knock-About Flute from "Urban Bamboo" Melbourne, FL: John Ellis, 2009. Print.
Goss, Clint, Ph.D. “The Development of Flutes in the Americas.” Flutopedia.com. - an Encyclopedia for the Native American Flute. N.p., 29 Oct. 2012. Web. 25 Nov. 2012.
"Native American Indian Flutes." Native American Flutes. Native Languages of the Americas, n.d. Web. 03 Dec. 2012
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