After getting my Stellar flute, I was happy for a while, and I kept diving into the YouTube world of NAF videos. As I was exploring deeper flutes, I came across this video from Allen Bruce Ray:
Doesn’t that sound amazing? Allen is a really good player, and I was captivated by the low, mournful, and layered sound of the drone flute he used. I also loved the look of it, the paradoxically flat flute with the Cherokee red block on it. For those who don’t know, a drone flute is two flutes in one. One side is a regular 5 or 6-hole flute. The drone side is usually tuned to the fundamental (lowest) note of the playable side, so that when played together, they form a chorus, much like bagpipes do.
The thing about drone flutes is that one is getting into some serious money with them. Drones can easily go for a minimum of 200 bucks, and detailed carvings, exotic woods and turquoise cabochons can push the price into the thousands.
When I began shopping for drones, I turned to Stellar since I knew their work. Stellar indeed sells drones, but only as kits, and they start at $160. I have neither the tools nor the confidence to take an expensive rectangle and transform it into a beautiful and functional instrument, especially since one small mistake could screw it up permanently or create a blemish that would drive me mad because I was the one who put it there.
The drone Allen used in the video was made by a man named Kuzin Bruce. I checked out his website, and he has very nice prices for his flutes, but when I was shopping there was a message on his site stating that he was backlogged and not taking orders at that time. So I began to search for a maker who was economical, had a good reputation, and was taking orders. Then one day, while poking around in the recommended viewing in YouTube, I found Blue Bear Flutes, based out of Dothan, Alabama. It’s always a nice bonus to buy from a fellow Southerner. Supporting local business FTW, right?
Blue Bear flutes are made by Charlie Mato-Toyela and his wife, Jessie. In addition to making flutes, Charlie does how-to videos on making and playing his products. Their prices are very reasonable, with drones starting at $99 for an A in Western cedar and going up to $199 for an F#. That’s a big green checkmark on price. By the way, if buying flutes from an actual enrolled Native American is something important to you, Charlie has a page outlining his heritage, and Blue Bear is indeed a member of the Indian Arts and Crafts Association. After watching a few of his videos, I decided to buy my first ever drone from them.
The next thing to decide was what key. I couldn’t afford a deep drone flute, and high flutes, while cheaper, have never excited me. The higher pitches wear out my ears faster than a mellow bass tone. I looked on Stellar’s website and found out that their most popular keys were G and F#. I already had an F, so I thought that a G flute would be a nice midrange addition to the family. I placed my order and eagerly awaited my new flute.
The first thing I noticed when I opened the triangular USPS package was the smell. Charlie doesn’t carve the air track and sound holes into his flutes–he burns them in with homemade tools. What greeted me when I opened the box was a wonderful smell of brûléed cedar that reminded me of the incense at church. Even today, almost a year after I opened that package, I can still find that smell, albeit less pronounced.
You might well ask how Charlie keeps his prices so low without sacrificing quality. I think it has something to do with how plain his flutes are. Charlie offers custom totems and that’s about it. Blue Bear flutes aren’t fancy objects: no bubinga from deepest Africa, no turquoise, no laser-carved wolves. If they were on a table among flutes with beads and feathers and carvings, you might miss them, but pick one up and the quality comes through clear as a bell. These are all go, very little show.
One of the things that I noticed when I first picked up my new flute was its…well, fuzziness. The only flutes I had handled up to that point were my Big Bear, which is lacquered, and my Stellar, which was unfinished but sanded quite smooth. The fuzziness was bothering me, so I embarked on my first attempt to modify a flute.
The flute was already reasonably smooth, so all I had to do was take it just a bit further, and I wasn’t terribly worried about damaging it, as long as I was careful. I’ve always enjoyed polishing metal, wood, plastic–it doesn’t matter. There’s just something about making stuff all shiny that gives me a tremendous satisfaction. I went to Home Depot and looked for a finish that would be safe, protect the wood, give it a smooth feel, and if possible, show off the grain a bit. As a novice I decided to skip the fancy lacquers and grabbed a bottle of Howard Butcher Block Conditioner.
I was especially careful when going over the top, making sure to only sand up the flute, in order to protect those cutting edges on the sound holes. Before I started this procedure, I set the bottle of conditioner out in the sun. A half hour later a pearlescent gel waited for me in the bottle, rather than the solid mass it was at room temperature. I put on a thin layer and left it for 20 minutes to soak in, then buffed it with an old washcloth. The conditioner did pop the grain a bit, and did deepen the color, but of course not as much as a polyurethane would.
I then turned my attention to the leather cord that secured the totem. It was a black cord, and I wanted something a bit livelier–Yes, I wanted some show with my go, but not much. Don’t judge me. I hit up the leather section of a local Micheal’s and found some tasteful reddish-brown flat suede. I tried to tie it on, but it was too stiff and wide to make an effective totem securing system. Using my favorite pocketknife and a bamboo cutting board, I carefully split the strap down the middle and then softened it by pulling it back and forth across a metal chair leg; I had seen Tom Oar on Mountain Men do something similar to make deerskin pliable. I also learned that creases are very hard to get out of suede, and even after ironing the piece to smooth them out, some remain to haunt me.
Enough about the look and feel. Let’s talk about the sound. There was a time for a while when I reached for my Stellar over the Blue Bear, just because I was chasing the bass. Lately, though, I’ve had a bit of a breakthrough with my playing, and I’ve come to appreciate my drone much more. The sound of this flute can get very lonely and high, like an old-timey hymn, so I thought that pictures from one of our many trips to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park would be an appropriate match for the music.
In my quest to find reverb to play in, I’ve stumbled across a little-used stairwell at work, very quiet and private, and maybe has too much reverb, if there is such a thing. As I settled into playing, and truly fell into the flow of the music, I imagined the stark white walls covered with vines and petroglyphs, a fire burning on the waxed floors, and the sounds of night overtaking the distant belch of braking 18-wheelers. Maybe you can see these too as you listen, if you try really hard.
Keep your claws sharp!