Southern California Indian men of all nations made and played wooden flutes in traditional times.
We're exploring how to make flutes similar to those that once mingled their voices with the nighttime winds, skies, and stars of ancient California.
Some detective work has included tracking down old flutes in museums and studying them in detail. Flutemakers Marvin and Jonette Yazzie made replicas of several early 1900s Diegueño flutes in Riverside Metropolitan Museum's collection.
Our adventures continued with Saturday's workshop, led by the Yazzies.
The star of the day was our local elderberry.
Pick Your Own Flute
While some places offer you the opportunity to pick your own fruit, our flutemakers literally picked their own flute. That is, they chose their own elderberry wood, plentiful in the back yard of our hosts, the Sivas. The flutes-to-be were about a foot or so long*. They were at least one inch wide. Some chose already weathered and seasoned fallen wood. Others chose green. We shall compare how these choices fare.
Since ancient times, elder has been a mystical and music-making shrub around the globe, providing good flutes wherever it is found ...
Once you hollow out the pith, the elder's equivalent of marrow, that is.
Anthropologist Jan Timbrook, in her 2007 book, Chumash Ethnobotany: Plant Knowledge Among the Chumash People of Southern California, describes how toyon sticks became sharp tools for drilling out the pith from the heart of elderberry.
We had modern tools, however.
We also had in our participants the equivalent of a precision drill team.
Making the Flute
Timbrook shares what anthropologist J.P. Harrington learned from his Chumash informant Fernando Librado about preparing, drilling, and curing the flute-to-be:
"The shoot was roasted in a pile of embers with sandy dirt placed at each end to reduce respiration. After "sweating" the stick in this way, the flutemaker extracted the narrow pith with a reaming rod of toyon (Heteromeles) that had been straightened with a grooved stone. He inserted the rod into the elder stem repeatedly, twisting and pulling it out frequently. Then he dried the shoot for two or three days before removing the bark. He would typically drill four, or possibly six, fingering holes into it and paint the flute or decorate it with inlay of carrizo and shell." (p. 196)
(We didn't roast the green sticks, and we didn't wait a few days for them to dry out, either. We'll see what happens. Maybe we'll figure out a way to sweat the sticks in our next go-around.)
With the modern tools, the drilling of the elder flutes went quickly enough. But some folks had better luck with sharp hardwood sticks. Each flute was measured to its player's hands. The holes or stops were drilled accordingly. The size of the holes and the thickness of the wood between the holes do matter; over time we shall explore the possibilities.
People sanded their flutes and soon, the sticks of early morning were flutes of the afternoon.
Now, To Play Them.
Easier said than done!
These flutes are open-ended. To even the best flute player, they seem a challenge. Some achieve success in playing the flute at a diagonal angle. Witness Antonio Flores, who makes the smaller wooden Pomo-style flutes from weathered, downed elder:
Larry Parks photo
Ernest Siva doesn't play these flutes at a diagonal angle. He holds them straight and then blows gently, finding and connecting with the flute's voice almost intuitively.
It was fascinating to watch him take every flute from its maker and then find the flute's voice.
It was even more fascinating to hear the variety of music found in just one elderberry bush.
Some flutes were low, others high.
The music defies description, forcing one into cliches such as haunting and mystical.
Ernest Siva suggested that being still and relaxed, such as in late night or in early morning, helps one find a flute's voice.** It seems these elderberry flutes are powered more by the soul than by the lungs.
Most people were able to find sound in their new flute.
Some collected more elderberry to experiment more with these replicas of traditional Southern California Native American wooden flutes. We're planning to continue our methodical study of flutes found in museum collections. Sadly, these flutes cannot share their most important knowledge: their music. Because in early museum days they often were doused with arsenic and other poisons to protect them from bug infestations, today they must remain unplayed and mute. — P.M.
UPDATE, Nov. 18:
*Corrected the description of length of flutes to reflect that they were made according to each individual's body measurements, starting from the person's elbow.
** Ernest credits this advice to flutemaker and player Jim French. — P.M.