Canku Ota


(Many Paths)


An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


January 27, 2001 - Issue 28



Airy Inspiration


Local dry cleaner strikes a national chord with Indian flute primer


by Sonya Senkowsky Anchorage Daily News

The Anchorage author of a beginners' book on the Native American flute has a piece of advice that may seem unusual: You don't need his book, or any book, to learn the flute. Just do what he did: pick one up and play.

"Anyone who's willing to blow it a few months will be able to make music out of it," says Anchorage musician Tim "WindWalker" Crawford.

Fortunately for Crawford, readers have been ignoring his advice by the score. The second edition of his self-published 1999 book, "Flute Magic: An Introduction to the Native American Flute," has been so popular that it's about to go into its third printing. It's slated for national distribution by music publisher Mel Bay.

The haunting nature of Native American flute music, usually played on handcrafted wooden instruments, often relegates it to the new-age section. But Crawford, a plain-spoken dabbler of many interests, defies categorization.

Crawford, who likes to say he takes in "dirty warsh" for a living, has been a general manager at Alaska Cleaners since 1967.

But the 60-year-old dry cleaner also has an alter ego or three. One gazes at stars. Another is into muzzleloading. Yet another is a musician who has performed on five albums. So he's a Renaissance man, right?

Nah, says Crawford, "just a jack-of-all-trades."

The most new-agey thing about him, the nickname "WindWalker," came when a music reviewer mistook the name of one of his songs for the artist's name. The result tickled Crawford so much, it's now official.

What is today called the Native American flute appears to have been derived from a variety of indigenous American cultures, including Hopi, Cheyenne and Seminole. Each used the flute in different ways.

Crawford can't trace his background to any of them. He first came to the flute 10 years ago by way of an acquaintance, a fellow muzzleloader and maker of Native American flutes who loaned him a recording by renowned flute player R. Carlos Nakai during a muzzleloading encampment. Crawford let the music lull him to sleep and the next day woke with a desire to learn the instrument. "I said, 'Man, I've got to get one of these,' " he said.

He spent the rest of his time sitting on a stump and just playing. Later, he and the friend began recording albums and performing together.

One side note Crawford usually doesn't highlight: This partner was Paul Stavenjord, who has since become more locally notorious for his 1998 conviction in a double murder.

Their relationship collapsed a couple of years before Stavenjord ended up in the headlines, but Crawford still finds it difficult to reconcile their brief friendship and the unspeakable crime. "The guy I knew would turn the other cheek," he says. CDs the two made together are no longer available for purchase.

But Crawford appreciates his introduction to the Native American flute. It was the first time in many years he'd played an instrument. His formal music training began and ended with a jazz band he started at 15. In learning the flute, Crawford rediscovered the joy of playing an instrument uniquely suited to improvisation.

Often celebrated for its haunting, mystical possibilities, the Native American flute is celebrated just as much -- among those who play it -- for its limitations. A single instrument is generally incapable of producing all 12 pitches within an octave. Most, Crawford says, will give only nine or 10 "good notes."

What that means is that anyone who plays the Native American flute usually has at least several, in different keys. Crawford has a collection of more than 70 instruments. "They all have a song in them, and sometimes I can't find the song, so I go on to another flute," he says. The basement-level room in his Bayshore home dedicated to the collection also serves as his recording studio.

The instruments are attractive works of art. Crawford enjoys describing the inspiration behind a white flute with a carved buffalo block. It was made to commemorate a vision of a buffalo Crawford and friends saw in a 1994 aurora borealis display in Tok.

As they gazed at the horizon-to-horizon display, a shape began to emerge amid the reds, blues and greens of the unusually active lights, Crawford said. It was the "magnificent giant silhouette" of a white buffalo.

Crawford continues to be inspired by nature and often mixes natural sounds in with the music he records. Among his inspirations are the loons he listens to when staying at his cabin between Big Beaver and West Beaver Lake. "I love my loons," he says. "They make a wonderful audience. Two interesting things happen: Sometimes they talk back; sometimes they just sit and listen.

"They make a very attentive little group."

Crawford has continued his journey on the Native American flute on his own. In 1998, he released his first solo album, "Voices," and is currently working on a second.

The book, he says, came from his own frustration learning the instrument and from the many requests he received from beginners who wondered where they could find a book, or lessons, to give them a start.

"A lot of the people who don't have any music background are the people who are drawn to this," says Kathleen Joyce-Grendahl, executive director of the International Native American Flute Association. Joyce-Grendahl has a doctorate in classical flute performance from the University of Arizona and is pursuing a degree in ethnomusicology. Lending her musical background to the project, she edited Crawford's book.

The time was right for a beginner's book, said Joyce-Grendahl. "The market was just begging for it."

Influenced by workshops, Crawford used a tablature, a means of standardizing written music for the flute, developed by Nakai. Crawford, who directed his book at those untrained in music, believes his book is a good complement to Nakai's "The Art of the Native American Flute," aimed at more advanced musicians.

Nakai said Crawford and songwriters like him fill an important role by carrying on the Native American flute as a living U.S. folk tradition. "People should include themselves in the music of the Native flute by including their own kind of music, and that's where people like Tim and Dr. Joyce-Grendahl come in," he said.

Tim "WindWalker" Crawford




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