Used both ceremonially and aesthetically, the flute plays an important role in the culture of many Native American tribes, and for many modern Native American musicians, it provides a solemn link to an ancient tradition. Here are ten beautiful albums from a variety of tribal traditions that feature the flute in all its quiet glory.
R. Carlos Nakai, who is of Navajo/Ute heritage, is probably the best-known Native American flautist in the world. Canyon Trilogy is just one of over a dozen beautiful and historically significant CDs that he's recorded, and it's a particularly profound one that happens to have been the first Native American flute recording ever to be awarded a Gold record.
Kevin Locke is well-known as a Northern Plains-style flutist, and is also a renowned hoop dancer, storyteller, and cultural ambassador for the Lakota (Sioux) and Anishinabe People. On this record, he layers contemporary sounds (mostly of a jazzy folk persuasion) under traditional flute melodies.
Beneath the Raven Moon won Aleut/Seminole flautist Mary Youngblood a Grammy Award in 2002, making her the first Native American woman to receive that honor in the now-discontinued "Best Native American Recording" category. She combines traditional-style melodies with a touch of contemporary folk, making for a readily accessible listening experience for both newcomers and long-time fans of Native music.
If you're looking for something on the traditional side of things, this CD from Cheyenne flautist Joseph FireCrow contains a number of songs that fit the bill, alongside a handful of lovely original compositions, featuring flute, voice, and drums. Red Beads won FireCrow the 2006 "Flutist of the Year Award" at the Native American Music Awards (the NAMMYs).
Robert "Tree" Cody, whose nickname comes from his towering stature (he's 6'10") is of Dakota and Maricopa heritage, and is an exceptionally gifted flute player and storyteller. This album, made with world percussionist Will Clipman, is a sparse and beautiful collection of tradition-inspired original compositions.
John Two-Hawks, an Oglala Lakota artist, is a prolific and virtuosic flute player and writer who has released over a dozen CDs of flute music and Native American music with other instrumentation, as well as collaborative work. The sparseness of the solo flute on Wind Songs is really enchanting, and worth a listen.
The Native American flute has been used in New Age and meditation music by many different artists and composers of non-Native heritage or background, simply because it's a smooth and mellow sound that fits nicely into the genre. In the hands of someone like Kelvin Mockingbird, though, who connects his Dine (Navajo) heritage with the music, you get something that's both meditative and tradition-bearing, and it's a great combo. Mockingbird describes his music as "like Buddah raised on Fried Bread."
About his art, Keith Bear says, "The flute comes from the earth, it dances on the wind. If you breathe life into these flutes, they will sing to you." Bear is a traditionalist, and on this album, you'll find a host of Mandan and Hidatsa traditional songs and dances, accompanied by stories that provide both context and entertainment in and of themselves. If you're looking for something traditional or historical, this CD is an excellent choice.
Johnny Whitehorse is the traditionalist alter ego of Pueblo genre-jumper Robert Mirabal. On this CD, he offers up a dozen traditional-style compositions, each inspired by a different totem animal or spirit guide. It's easy to hear the slithering of the serpent, the soaring of the eagle, and the singing of the whale in these evocative pieces.
Andrew Vasquez, from the Apache nation, first made his mark on the Native American arts scene as a dancer, and while on tour with the renowned American Indian Dance Theater, he picked up the flute and learned to play. He has since gone on to become an award-winning flute player and a notably creative composer. Togo features Vasquez's flute playing layered over eclectic, jazzy beats, making for a really pleasant contemporary sound.
Robert WindPony is a flute maker and a writer of Native American flute instruction materials, but above all, is a flute player and an ebullient ambassador for his music and his people. According to his website, "Robert feels that his playing is guided by spirit and that his flute playing gives voice to his spirit songs." This CD is quietly beautiful and really invokes a sense of peace in the listener.