Double-Barrel Relaxation: Blue Bear G Drone

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.

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Some drones are simply two pipes put together at the mouthpiece, but others are side by side in the “shotgun” style, called so for obvious reasons.

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.

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I love the gradient effect that the block has. I didn’t really notice it until I got it out in the sunlight.

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.

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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!

 

Getting in Deeper: Stellar Low F

I thought about the YouTube videos that I watched, and I noticed a theme: They were all of deeper-throated flutes in the B and F ranges.  This got me thinking that I might enjoy a flute with more bass, but that’s a serious purchase, and one I wasn’t willing to make without actually trying out a deeper flute first. I have no place nearby to try out one, which made me yet again curse the nowhere area of the South in which I live. Then, opportunity knocked: this spring Mrs. Matheo and I took a trip out to Arizona to see our old friends and guildies, Red and Pinky. I told Red about my new thing, and he knew of only one shop at the Scottsdale Fashion Square that might have what I was looking for.

 

I’ve always considered myself a die-hard Southerner, but Arizona in the springtime is vurrry nice. The whole Mesa/Phoenix/Tempe supercomplex was fun and very artsy. Their interstates are decorated with geckoes and sidewinders; ours are decorated with chunks of tire and McDonalds bags. Everything I could ask for was there, in a nice grid layout, without everything being named Peachtree. At night there were no bugs, and everywhere was bathed in the scent of neroli. It’s so hot there right now that Satan goes back to Hell for a cool breeze, so it ain’t all great, but I could totally see myself out there.

 

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Off Red and I went on a one-hour roadtrip, during which I found out why folks call it “Snottsdale”. About five minutes after walking into the mall, I was certain I’d be getting escorted out because the security scanners had run my credit upon entry. We peered amazed into the Tesla store, hit Sur La Table and left nose prints and drool on the knife displays (oooh Shuns), and then we made for our target, Indian Market.

We walked in, and sure enough there was a rack of flutes behind the counter. The very nice shopkeeper saw my eyes gravitate to it, and she handed me a piece of plastic tubing. I asked for the biggest flute, plugged in the hygienic tube and did a little improv, very aware that I was playing in public for the first time. “I should hire you to play out front,” she said, smiling. “What a nice lie,” I replied jokingly.

 

Apparently, I had stumbled across a High Spirits flute. Oh baby, it was nice: turquoise cabochons, carvings, and a lacquer job like it was dipped in liquid glass. I think the shopkeeper said it was a G, but I got distracted by how full and lovely the tone was. Then I got very quickly undistracted by the 230.00 price tag. “But I can take off 10 percent,” she said quickly. I felt bad for her; high-dollar musical instruments don’t fly off the shelves in knickknack shops, and she was genuinely trying to make the sale, but I just couldn’t spend that kind of cash and feel okay about it. I very gingerly handed back the lovely flute and bought this 30-dollar ironwood carving of a bear as a consolation prize, for both her and me.

 

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I love his amazed and baffled expression. It’s basically how I look at the world.
Though I was financially thwarted, it did confirm my suspicion that I prefer, both in flutes and women, something meatier. It was time to buy, but this time I’d be dropping what is for me some serious coin. I was also determined that I wasn’t going to go whole hog and blow tons of cash on a new thing. I had done that in the past, when I was younger, more impulsive, and had slightly disposable income at my sole command. Nowadays I’m beholden to the CFO for my spending, and I can’t just say, “Well, whores will have their trinkets” like Bernard Black would.

 

After a great deal of research I decided to go with Stellar flutes. I listened to their YouTube videos of all the different keys, and I went with an F, the lowest key they offer in their quite reasonable Basic line. I submitted my order, which totaled about 113 bucks with shipping, and was filled with anticipation. You know, I think suicidal people should buy things online. It would definitely be harder to kill myself if I were expecting a package. I’d have the toaster all plugged in and ready for a swim in the tub, and then I’d think to myself, “Y’know, I have that Amazon package coming. It’d be shame to miss it.”

 

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This is a big ‘ol flute, but again, it’s marveously light, and sounds as good as the arm holding it is hairy and pale–which is to say, very good.
Anyway, it arrived much sooner than I thought, considering it came all the way from Washington state. When I first got it out of the shipping tube, I was amazed at how light it was. My Big Bear is made out of some kind of hardwood, but this is eastern cedar, and it felt much more delicate, almost like a toy, but it’s a good bit tougher than it feels. I put it to my lips, and this un-toylike, mournful tone flowed out, clear and crisp. It sounds a lot more serious than the Big Bear. It’s really hard for me to make up happy tunes on it because they just don’t seem to fit its personality. It does really well with slow improvs and long, ringing notes. All in all I’m super pleased with my Stellar, and I hope to add more from them to my collection.

 

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The maker’s mark and production date, not stamped but written on with a Sharpie. I love this simple, personal touch. I like to think Lily wrote it just for me.

 

Now we come to a point of contention among some flute enthusiasts: Stellar Flutes does not market their creations as “Native American flutes”; that branding is reserved for flutes that meet requirements set forth by the Indian Arts and Crafts Act. Therefore, Stellars are “Native American style flutes”. To some this is a deal breaker, but I honestly couldn’t care less. They put the heart, respect and care into the work, and that gets my money. There are of course Native American makers out there that do online sales, but not lots, and even fewer with very accessible pricing. I did manage to find one, but that’s another post  😉

 

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I’d say I’ve got large hands and long fingers, but the reach on this one is quite unforgiving, and I often make mistakes with the lowest notes and get odd sqwonks and such out of it.

 

Since I’ve talked about the Arizona trip that really got me started down the road to wanting another flute, I thought it would be a good idea to center my next video around the other reason we were in Scottsdale: I wanted to visit Taliesin West. I’ve always loved Frank Lloyd Wright’s work, and I couldn’t pass up the chance to see his winter home, especially since it was an hour away from Red and Pinky’s place in Mesa. We’ve all seen images of Wright’s work, but the 3D experience is totally worth admission. I was amazed at the serenity, the care that had been taken not to impose a building on the land, but to build in harmony with the environment. Seeing one of Wright’s masterpieces in person nourished my soul, and I hope these images can do the same for you.