It was sometime in the early 1990s when the rest of the world discovered, much the way Columbus discovered America, that there was more to traditional Native American music than just drums. However, they quickly made up for lost time and since then the cedar flute, sometimes known as a love flute as it had been primarily used by young men for wooing young women, has become annoyingly ubiquitous on the shelves of new age emporiums.
Carved from cedar the design of these flutes sounds deceptively simple as they consist of six holes, a thumb width apart, punched into a hollowed and shaped tube that's blown into like a recorder. A palm's width from the mouth hole the passage is blocked by a piece of wood and air flowing over it is controlled by an adjustable piece lashed to the surface of the flute called a slide. The air comes up one side of the block and is then forced down the other by the slide giving the instrument its familiar breathy quality. With no thumb hole, or octave hole, on the back of the instrument, the range of these flutes is dictated by the performer's breath control and the length of the flute's body.
Like many utilitarian instruments it would appear that the scope for using the native flute is quite limited. Judging by most of what you hear played, it's probably difficult for most people to believe that the flute is actually quite versatile and can be used to create a variety of sounds, and to great effect in different genres. On his most recent release, Pistola, rock and roller Willie DeVille did a great job of incorporating a cedar flute into one of his songs by improvising an accompaniment to the track and then cutting and pasting pieces from what he recorded into the song . Still, that's only one of the few times I've heard anyone use a cedar flute without trying to be more spiritual than thou.
So, when I heard that the latest release from Kevin Locke, Earth Gift on the Ixtlan Artists Group label, was supposed to be different from what one normally hears when it comes to flute playing, I was intrigued and hopeful. Locke is a Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux and, according to his biography, he was given as traditional as is possible in this day and age upbringing. Anybody can claim this, but not many people go on to become hoop dancers and create dance ensembles that tour the world to international renown, so I had hopes that, in spite of its new age sounding title, Earth Gift would genuinely explore the cedar flute's potential.
I started to have some doubts when I received a copy of the CD and looked over the track listing. I saw titles that looked like they stepped off the shelves of a bookstore from my worst nightmares: "I Sing For The Animals", "Buffalo Said To Me", and so on. While I did my best to set aside any prejudice, I have to admit to a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that there wouldn't be anything new under the sun, the moon, or anybody's sky here. Unfortunately, what I heard on the CD didn't do much to dispel that original feeling.
Now, I wouldn't know a Lakota Sioux song if it hit me in the face, so I can't dispute the claim that some tracks on this CD have their origins in traditional Lakota ceremonies and are songs that Kevin learned from his great uncle. The thing is though, that just because something is beautiful and spiritual when performed in the right setting and at the right time, doesn't make it interesting to listen to on a CD no matter how you dress it up. (I'm not even going to go into the whole issue of commercializing stuff that's supposedly sacred under the guise of "keeping it alive" – keep it alive by observing it not by selling it – oops I went into it) While there's no denying the technical accomplishments of everybody involved with this recording from the two people providing vocals on a couple of tracks, the accompanying musician, and Kevin himself, the music on Earth Gift is pretty much interchangeable with any other flute disc you'd off the shelf in the world or new age section of your local music store.
While it's true that some of the instruments that have been chosen to accompany Kevin, the zither, nail violin, and the marxophone, may sound more appropriate in that they are acoustic and from an earlier age, the flute itself is still being confined to a very narrow view of its potential as an instrument. Not only is this a disservice to the instrument, but to the culture that they are supposedly trying to preserve. Culture should be a living and breathing entity that continues to grow, not something that allows itself to become hidebound in the name of tradition solely for the sake of tradition.
There is plenty of reprehensible behaviour that is carried out in the name of tradition these days, and thankfully plenty of traditions that have fallen by the wayside as they have proven to be inappropriate to the realities of the world we now live in. By not allowing culture to breathe you run the risk of turning the sublime into cliche. There's a real danger of that happening with the music of the cedar flute as we keep hearing the same things performed on it over and over again. One only has to look to the work of people like Buffy Saint Marie, Martha Redbone, Robbie Robertson, and Pura Fe, to name only a few, to see the potential for diversity in Native American music and for examples of how to keep a culture growing and alive.
When I started playing a cedar flute twelve years ago I quickly saw both it's limitations and its potential. While it's true the range is limited, although if you have really good breath control and have a well made flute you can coax it up into the next octave, it also allows amazing opportunities for improvisation. Unlike other wind instruments that have multiple valves and keys the cedar flute is very technically easy to master, and once you have the technique down the only thing to limit your is your imagination.
While there is no denying that Kevin Locke is a highly proficient flute player, the music on Earth Gift doesn't bring anything new to the instruments repertoire. I love the sounds the cedar flute is capable of creating, yet it seems that very few performers are willing to experiment with its potential, and this recording is no exception.