This was a very different kind of open mic. There wasn’t a guitar case or a folk singer to be seen. Guitars are after all the instrument of the conquest, brought here by the Spanish. Instead, this was an open mic celebrating the original American folk music – Native American flute.
For thousands of years Native Americans have played a simple five or six-holed flute. Designed and crafted to play a pentatonic scale (the black keys on a piano), they are relatively easy to play. Their simplicity is deceptive. No other instrument has the power to evoke so much with so little. In the right hands, these humble wooden flutes call forth, like all great art, the full measure of the grandeur of the land, the sky, the sweep of time and the boundless consciousness that connects all things in a sacred web of being.
I first met Benny Mullinax at the Potrero Library in the tiny hamlet of Potrero, California, fifty miles east of San Diego just north of the Mexican border. I was playing a concert – just me, my acoustic guitar, my folk songs and room full of the good people of Potrero whose warm hospitality made me feel like a long-lost friend. After the show I visited with the locals, swapped stories and sold more than a few CDs.
Life has a different feel in the backcountry. Things move a little slower. People take their time with each other. There’s really nowhere to hurry off to. The sun shines a little brighter, the night sky is a little deeper, and the sound of the wind through the trees is like a spirit voice that calls all of the names of everyone you’ve ever loved. It’s easy to see how people who come to visit sometimes never leave.
Benny was a Native American flute player. I told him I was a huge fan of the music, often playing my R. Carlos Nakai CDs all day long in my office. He invited me to come to their monthly meeting. I asked him where it was, thinking Potrero was a little too far to drive for a Native American flute circle.
“San Diego,” he said, “Mission Trails Regional Park, the amphitheater near the visitor center.”
“That’s a mile from my house,” I said.
“The second Sunday of every month, from 1:00-3:00, we meet there and play. Flute players from all over come and swap songs – some real pros and some folks just starting out. You should come.”
So I did. And I ended up buying two flutes from Benny.
Now I get the genuine pleasure of beginning.
Starting out on a new instrument is always exciting and illuminating. After years and years of playing guitar, I remember the first time I played dulcimer and dobro and banjo and mandolin, fumbling around in a terrain just familiar enough to make me feel hopeful, but alien enough to make me feel utterly lost. Persistence, patience and a playful willingness eventually opened the door enough for me to get at least one foot in. I eventually smoothed it out enough on all of those stringed instruments to even use them in recording sessions. But apart from harmonica, I had never played a wind instrument. My older brother John is an accomplished clarinetist. I grew up watching him make unexpectedly beautiful music by blowing hard across a paper-thin reed on the end of a tube with about a million holes in it, each hole covered with a felt-lined stopper attached to an intricately complex system of rods and levers. What he was doing seemed impossible to me. I reached for my guitar and never looked back.
So now, all these years later, I’m finally braving the world of wind instruments. But I’m starting small.
The Native American flute first came to prominence in 1983 with the release of R. Carlos Nakai’s first album Changes. Nakai was a classically trained trumpet player with an ear for jazz until a car accident injury made it impossible for him to do the tightly controlled and challenging lip work of trumpet playing. Of Navajo and Ute heritage, Nakai eventually completed his Masters degree in Native American Studies at the University of Arizona, while simultaneously pursuing mastery of the Native American flute. With seven Grammy nominations and over 40 albums under his belt, Nakai has almost single-handedly brought Native American flute into the mainstream. Before Nakai, the Native American flute was largely unknown by the general public, loved only by a few New Age spiritualists and Native Americans far off the beaten path.
It’s wrong to say that Nakai’s car accident was a good thing, but without it, the world of music would be a very different place.
Now my wife Lori and I both have our own Native American flutes. We don’t play them together because they’re in two different keys – hers is in A and mine is in G – but it’s a beautiful thing to hear a plaintive melody ringing out from across the house, a melody thousands of years old, a melody older than this or any other empire. Some musicologists say that the Native American flute is the third oldest instrument on earth after the drum and the rattle – perhaps 60,000 years old. The simplicity and clarity of its tone, the timeless quality of its primal melodies, the way its song rises and falls like wind – the Native American flute is perhaps the mother of all music. It is humanity’s first attempt to make a singing tool, a tool that gives men and women the voices of birds. Its simple call connects us to the deepest elements of our collective consciousness and burnishes the sacred shine of all things ordinary and sublime. It speaks of a time before the conquest, before the Europeans arrived with their breast plates and swords, their Bibles and crosses, their guns and guitars. In other words, Native American flute is real American folk music.
The second Sunday of this month and every month, from 1:00-3:00, they’ll gather again under the open sky in the amphitheater by the visitor center in Mission Trails Regional Park in San Diego. One by one they’ll descend the stone stairs to the stage with their hand carved flutes, their pre-historic melodies drifting out over the ancient homeland of the Kumeyaay like circling hawks. And a few of us will be there just to listen.