How to make a Southeastern indigenous flute from river cane
The Creek flute was identical to the quena of South America and different from the Western Plains flute, which has a separate reed.
One of the biggest surprises during the past 15 years of my research into the Southeast’s past, was the rich musical tradition of the Southeastern indigenous peoples at the time of initial contact with French, Spanish and English explorers. The chroniclers of the De Soto Expedition stated that the orchestra, which accompanied the leader of Kvse (Kusa~Coosa) played at least 32 different wind and percussion instruments. The Great American Disease Holocaust, the Native American slave trade, deerskin wars and ultimately. the Trail of Tears wiped out those rich traditions. However, even as late as the mid-1700s, William Bartram described the Creeks and Cherokees as being very talented musicians, who played several instruments that were not familiar to Europeans.
What really surprised me, when I dug deeper on this subject, was the eclectic nature of Southeastern indigenous music. The percussion instruments were very similar to those of southern Mexico, while the wind instruments were the same as those played in the Andes. The ancestors of the Chickasaws and Creeks made far more use of copper in creating musical instruments than either Mesoamerica or the Andes. Archaeologists have found 2000 year old copper pan pipes, tinkle-bells and cymbals in Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia mounds. Nevertheless, most of the wind instruments in both the Creek Homeland and Peru were constructed from river cane. Yes, river cane . . . those dense bands of tall stalks with feathery leaves that can be found on the edge of almost every Native American community site in the Piedmont, Cumberland Plateau and Highlands.
River cane is vastly superior to bamboo for make musical instruments, smoking pipes or furniture. It is actually a domesticated plant, developed from a indigenous Southeastern grass that has leaves like a river cane. The Creeks grew three varieties. One for arrows, one for pipes, flutes and atlatls, and a giant variety for making furniture. The walls of the river cane are thicker and have denser fibers than bamboo. This makes the wood stronger, but also causes a richer resonance when used as a musical instrument.
When it dries, the river cane is rock hard and does not splinter like bamboo. Take heed from my years of making ceremonial pipes from mountain river cane. Ignore videos that show the artisan working dry river cane. These people don’t really understand the plant’s properties. Make your musical instrument from the river cane IMMEDIATELY after harvesting it. Reaming out the walls that divide the stalk of the river cane is very east when it is green. Wait a few days and the task becomes very tedious. Carving out the “acoustical slit” or finger holes is also very easy when the stalk is green. Cuts and drill holes made with the stalk is green become very smooth when the river cane is fully cured. They will be much rougher, if you wait until the wooden hardens.
So . . . we known from firsthand observations in the 1500s that the ancestors of the Creeks made both flutes (quena) and panpipes (zampoña) from river cane. As you will hear below, the two instruments sound beautiful, when played together. However, our ancestors also played a wide variety of percussion instruments, plus wind instruments, which varied in pitch from a piccolo to a bassoon.
The drums played a syncopated beat like music of Tabasco State, Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean Basin. Creek ancestral music must have sounded something like playing “El Condor Pasa” to a ragtime beat. LOL This is an entirely different form of music than what one hears at Southeastern pow wow’s these days. I know for a fact that Creek dances originally had very similar syncopated beats to Mesoamerican dances. The current Stomp Dance is a slowed down version of syncopation. I strongly suspect that the Cherokees in the 1700s performed dances that were similar in character. Nowadays, both tribes dance to a boom-boom-boom beat similar to Western Plains dances. Who knows? Maybe the Western Plains Indians also originally danced to a different beat.
The first video is an excellent example of the zampoña and quena performing together. The second video features super-sized versions of these instruments in a beautiful indigenous version of Scottish music, features in the movie, The Last of the Mohicans. The final video contains instructions on how you can make a beautiful musical instrument from the river cane growing in your neighborhood.
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