They were created to mimic the sounds of nature or the bird calls. Sans a written musical language, it called for improvising to create harmony or to create one's own music. Sitting across from her students, Leta Slupik used to tell them: "Listen to birds and figure out on your flute a bird call you have heard. Write your own music to match the sound, put a harmony and make it a duet…"
That was in Brunei, some years ago, after she formed the 'Native American Flute Players of Panaga' in January, 2007. She already had a large selection of native American flutes by various makers in the US which were shipped to Brunei for the 'Circle' (as the native Americans like to call it). But that was just the beginning. Fascinated by the simplicity of this woodwind instrument and its captivating sound she began to collect traditional flutes from around the world. Now Leta has around 300 flutes, no two alike, around 100 of them at her current residence in Madinat Qaboos, Muscat and the rest at her hometown of Rochester in the northern United States, bordering Canada.
"What makes these native American flutes unique is that they are not in major scale but in pentatonic minor, a very ancient five-note scale. Majority of the ancient flutes has this pentatonic scale, which is naturally harmonious. So, no matter what notes or what order I play, it will sound good. It's easy to create songs…" Leta blows into her favourite hand-carved mid-range flute and the haunting and soulful sound carries us into a moonlit terrain where people with weathered faces and queer headgears sat motionless in front of their wigwam homes.
A captivating sound
Just a decade ago, Leta had attended an arts and craft festival in her hometown in the US and she heard a beautiful and enchanting sound that came from some corner. There he was, a man with various kinds of flutes, all hand-made by him. "I had never seen anything like this and the sound was most captivating. He asked if I liked to try. I already had the wind instrument experience with oboe and knew how to play. I picked up one, started playing and never looked back," she recalls.
Though a geologist by profession, she had a classical music background. She played violin, piano and mostly oboe for about 20 years, all through college. "My grandparents were violin and piano instructors and it was mandatory in my family to learn classical music. I started at the age of two, but never felt really bound to classical music. It was so rigid and I wanted to experiment with music," she says. Leta started playing oboe when she was in 4th grade, and played that all the way through college until she was 22, when she got married and got preoccupied with family life.
"I noticed I was missing music in my life. I really needed to have it back and it reemerged in the shape of a native American flute," Leta says. For two to three years she taught herself to play the one flute she bought from the man at the crafts fair for US$350. Eight years ago she and her husband (also a geologist) moved to Brunei and she noticed there wasn't much music there. "I spoke to some friends about starting a flute players group and they liked the idea. We had an open house night, which led to once-a-week flute circle, to share music and information. We will have flutes in same key, one would start a song, sustain the note, pass it to the person next, continue the song, build it further and it would go around in a circle. It was a wonderful way of communication through music."
Unique and expensive
The native American flutes are quite expensive, each costing around 300 US dollars, Leta says. "It's all wood, handcrafted, each one a work of art and not two are alike. The tones are also different, depending on the wood used and their make. The flutes made from bamboo have a nasally higher pitch, the hardwood ones have a clean and clear sound while those made from softwood produce a warm haunting sound," she elaborates.
Though these flutes are made in traditional native American style, not all are made by Native American Indians. Leta, in her collection, has some pure native American style flutes but majority are made by people of European descent with some native American background. "The passion and simplicity of the instrument is what I found so amazing. When people play this, they improvise and write music from their heart on the spot. That was something I always wanted to do," she points out.
The totem (a block or fetish on the top in the shape of animals), is a unique feature of native American flutes, which also has a spiritual meaning. "This allows people to play the flute better, from their heart. You blow from one side, the air comes up underneath the totem, gets redirected over this block and then back down into the flute. This redirection of the air gives it a haunting sound," Leta says.
Dizi, Persian, Suling…
Travelling around the world, Leta became fascinated with the traditional flutes in various countries as well. And flutes from countries including Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, China and Ireland found a way into her collection. "This I bought from Chengdu, from a Chinese musician. This is a Chinese Dizi, a side blown flute where you can play either a Chinese scale or a modern octave scale," Leta is more than happy to elaborate on her invaluable collection that includes a Persian side-blown flute, Suling from Indonesia and Irish whistles.
Leta does performances on stage, but prefers doing workshops. "Here in Muscat, I have a student in my artist friend Tania. We did some workshops together where her students painted to my flute's music. We did this for Omani Fine Arts Society, where I played for five hours while they did their art. It was a wonderful combination," she says.
She enjoys the support of her husband, and both her daughters, aged 10 and 12, are also learning music. "My next goal is to learn Ney, the Egyptian-Perisan flute, which would be a good challenge. I started composing a lot after I came in touch with these woodwind instruments and now I would like to come out with an album," Leta beams.
And, guess which flute would she like to add to her huge collection next? A traditional Omani flute! "It's there, I suppose… I am in search of it. Hopefully, someone would lead to me to one," Leta exudes hope.
Quote: Leta M. Slupik, Flute player
"I would like to share this music with people in Oman. Unlike other wind instruments, flutes, especially the native American flutes, are much easier to learn. This would really encourage children to learn music through which they could communicate and share."
This was specifically made for Leta and gifted by master flute maker Keith Cook (a.k.a. Swampfox). The A sharp minor mid-range native American flute made from poplar wood (a softwood that grows very quickly) has a totem (a bird block or fetish) featuring a cardinal, a bird which was a sign of home for Leta. These birds were always there in her yard when she grew up as a child. When her mother passed away many years ago, a family of cardinals used to come and tap on the window all the time. Leta told Swampfox to let her know if he is making a native American flute with a totem of a cardinal. He didn't tell her, but sent one across in 2007, as a Christmas gift.