Cahuilla Flutes

2009 May 28

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Several years ago I had the pleasure to visit the Riverside Metropolitan Museum, here in southern California, with Marvin and Jonette Yazzi to look at five Cahuilla/Diegueno/Ipai rim blown flutes they have in their collection. I found out about these flutes from paydayloans16 Marvin and Jonette Yazzie and Ernest Siva, an elder of the Cahuilla/Serrano culture.

These flutes are part of the broader western rim-blown flute world which include examples from the Anasazi, Mojave, and southern California cultures.

Like the Anasazi flutes, many of these flutes are made of a elder wood, specifically elderberry. This is a common tree that grows wild in southern California. It blooms with yellow flowers in the spring. The inner core, or pith, of the wood, is soft and can be poked out with a hard stick for flute making. Three of the flutes in the Riverside museum were made of elderberry. The two other flutes were made of river cane. The majority of the flutes we saw that day were thought to have been made during the turn of the 20th century. All had four finger holes.

We took some photos and measurements of the flutes but were not able play them as they had been treated with a preservative that was toxic. I think it was formaldehyde. They also had to be handled with white gloves for this reason.

Measuring about 21″ in length with a 3/4″ bore, the elderberry flutes’ finger holes were evenly spaced in the middle of the flute. No information was known about the tuning or the traditional use of these instruments, although Ernest recalled that elders played this flute when he was a youngster growing up on the Morongo reservation in the San Gorgonio pass. The flutes in the Riverside museum were found in the Diegno/Ipai

The cane flutes were about 17″ in length with the top finger hole being about 8 1/2″ from the blown end, also known as the proximal end. From there three more finger holes descended toward the distal end.

The flutes all had some decorative markings. Hatch marks radiating from finger holes like sun rays and bands of triangles and wavy lines that were possibly burned on to the flutes.

Several weeks later the Yazzies made a few reproductions of the elderberry flutes. (Fig 1-A below) The pitch classification of the notes does not correspond to any western tuning and seemed to be random. Due to this lack of any tonal focus I never really put much effort to playing these flutes. That was a couple years ago.

About a month ago I dropped by the Yazzies and while there Jonette brought out some flutes that were based on the cane Cahuilla flutes with the finger holes grouped toward the distal end of the flute. When I played these there was a stronger tonal center than the elder berry ones. These were fun to play. (Fig-1 B-E)

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Figure 1

One of the better “tuned” ones was based on the note G (above middle C). The tones produced by a straight uncovering of the holes from the bottom up produce the notes G-B-C#-D-E with an overblown octave G. A cross fingering pattern will produce the notes G-B-C-D-E-(G 8va) (Fig 1-D)

Two of the flutes were based on E-G#-A-B-C with an overblown octave E. These flutes tends to wander a bit more between half steps depending on the players embouchure. (Fig 1-B/C)

The Yazzies also made a six hole version, but not based on any of the artifacts we saw. The pitches found in this flute are F-Ab-A-B-C-Db-Eb with an over blown note of E, a major seventh above the root. (Or a half step below the octave.) By not playing some of the notes I was able to come up with some scales, but nothing like the Anasazi, Mojave or NAF scales. (Fig 1-E)

These flutes have a very soft, intimate sound. What I would call sweet. They are not at all loud. Here is an example of flute D from Figure 1.

The Yazzies are making these flutes with their “grand father” tuning. I thought it would be fun to take some of them with me to the Zion Flute School (more on that in a later post) and before I even got them handed out they were spoken for. Luckily, I had one already.

You won’t find these flutes on their website, but if you contact them they can fill you in on the details.

© 2009 Cedar Mesa Music. All rights reserved.

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