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 traditio