The Perennial History of Flutes
If there's one thing that's been intrinsically wired into our DNA over the millennia, it's music. Sound. Vibration. Our ancestors have been making music as far back as our historical lens can see. At its heart, music is a pathway to express the inexpressible and transmit a direct feeling, and it opened up a level of communication between us that was previously impossible. While it's likely that the human voice and percussion marked the beginnings of musical expression, there is no instrument as pervasive, ubiquitous, and pure as the flute.
The oldest discovered flutes were made from animal bones - the femur of a bear, a vulture wing bone, a mammoth tusk - and date back to around 40,000 years ago. Flute playing predates farming, metalworking, domestication, and written language. Some scientists even argue that the creation of music may be one of the distinct behaviors that gave modern humans the edge over our Neanderthal ancestors. But what I really find fascinating about the flute is that this instrument can be found in nearly every culture around the world, embodying distinct forms and tones in each region.
Over thousands of years, the flute made its way throughout humanity's different cultures and continents - popping up in different places independent of each other. It begs the question of an innate species-wide communication - did the origin of music and flutes spread through the prehistoric world via some higher force or collective invocation? A dreamer can dream...
I was first introduced to the beauty and power of flute music when I went on a solo trip to Oregon in 2015. Somewhere along the way, I got exposed to Native American music; expressing the raw character of our American lands. I bought a Native American flute and hiked through the Cascade Mountain range with it strapped to my back. These flutes produce sounds that are primal, pure, and rich with emotion. There's an inherent sadness in their tone as well, brought out through the playing style and minor pentatonic scales they're designed for. On a particular hike, I perched beside a roaring waterfall and let the notes define the path that my wandering soul forged through the forest.
A few years later, I ventured down to South America and got my first taste of the Quena - a flute that's native to the Andes mountains of Peru. My friend Zach (check out his handmade flutes here: https://www.elbuhoflutes.com/) had picked one up in his travels before we met in Argentina. It was a larger flute with an open notch that had a deep, full tone. But the real power of the Quena comes from the octaves. You can play soaring high notes that echo through the mountains and awaken the visceral energy of the land. This flute is fierce, raw, and powerful, yet melodic. Playing this flute in the heart of the majestic Andes mountains range, overlooking the Sacred Valley below, you can't help but feel an intimacy with the land and its people.
Flutes hold a deep connection to the places where they were created and their music allows travelers to directly experience the richness and truth of these distant cultures. In my opinion, there's no better way to connect with a land's native energy and history than to experience its music first-hand. It's amazing how quickly the notes of a flute can bring me back to a specific moment.
Earlier this year, I was in China searching for a flute and eventually connected with a Xiao at a small music shop. These flutes were popularized during the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) but the earliest versions date back to about 6,000 years ago in the Qiang region of Northwest China. Again, the sound of the flute resonates directly with the country's history. The melodies of the Xiao feel like watching a lonely moon rise over the hills on a cold autumn night; leaves rustling, the stars twinkling above, creatures of the forest asleep and dreaming... I had the pleasure of playing my Xiao in a bamboo forest on the outskirts of Suzhou and it was a mystical experience.
Now I'm in India, still playing that Xiao and infusing this dusty place with Chinese antiquity. Soon I'll be heading north to the foothills of the Himalayas to a small, spiritual town called Rishikesh - the yoga capital of the world. There I hope to find a Bansuri (the native North-Indian flute) that calls my name and continue to connect with the lands where my footsteps roam.