Arts / Music

Photo by Pat Murkland, Ushkana Press

Dorothy Ramon Learning Center President Ernest Siva teaches flute music during the Native American Flute-Making Workshop at Idyllwild Arts. Make your own flute and learn how to play at our April 18,19,20 2008 workshop at Dorothy Ramon Learning Center. Find out how.






A Brief Introduction to Southern California Music
Wood, bone, hoof, and shell

By Pat Murkland
From Heritage Keepers newsletter Winter 2006, Vol. 3, No. 1
© copyright Dorothy Ramon Learning Center, Inc., and Ushkana Press Reproduction rights

Music was a necessity of life for Southern California's First Cultures.
Songs passed history from generation to generation. Songs also held the rules for living. For every task, it seemed there was a song to be sung. There were songs for play, songs for work, songs for social gatherings, and sacred songs. And so, the world of Southern California has been filled for centuries with many musical instruments. Among them are whistles, flutes, clapper sticks, and multiple rattles for accompanying music, including those made from gourds, hoofs, and turtle shells. No drums. Those heard at modern pow-wows are from American Indian music cultures outside Southern California.

Not everyone was permitted to sing or dance to every song. It had to be appropriate; a Cahuilla woman could sing a lullaby but not a hunting song, for example (Bean 1972). Only the specially chosen and trained could sing ritual and ceremonial songs — and they had better get them right. The Luiseño people were among those who believed a mistake or misuse of a sacred song could bring nasty supernatural repercussions (Wallace 1978). In the same way, the different genres of songs required the use of their appropriate rattles.

The respect for the songs governed the rattles' practice and use.
For example, the Serrano believe that the first bighorn sheep were people who transformed themselves into the animals and sacrificed themselves to benefit humankind. To ensure a successful hunt, a ritual would include bighorn sheep songs that paid respect to the transformation (Siva 2004). A dancer would fasten bighorn hoofs to himself so the songs literally would have a hoofbeat. Before hunting deer, Luiseño people used a hand-held deer-hoof rattle in a similar homage to the sacrifice of those who gave themselves up to become deer, while the Gabrielino were among Indian nations who used the deer-hoof rattle in mourning ceremonies (Wallace 1978).

In the Chumash bear dance, the singers shook turtle-shell rattles and sang as they followed the Bear dancer:
Listen to what I am about to sing.
Listen to my stamping.
I tear the ground up.
Listen to my groaning.
Look! Listen! He grunts on high.
The ground shakes.
In the night he makes a noise like a thunderclap.
Clear the way!
I am a creature of power.
I stand up and begin to walk the mountain tops, to every corner of the world.
I am a creature of power. (Hudson, Blackburn, Curletti, and Timbrook 1977:82-83)

By many accounts, the flute was different. Instead of accompanying a ritual song, men played this musical instrument to create music from the heart. They also used the flute to win over women's hearts.
(Read more about the flute in Voices of the Flute book and CD)

voices of the flute    voices of the flute

Author Ernest Siva (Cahuilla/Serrano) grew up on Morongo Indian Reservation, Banning, California, and learned the Serrano language and culture at home. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music education and choral music from the University of Southern California. He is Artistic Director of the Pass Chorale, a community chorus in the San Gorgonio Pass area. Mr. Siva serves as Tribal Historian and Cultural Advisor for the Morongo Band of Mission Indians. Mr. Siva also serves on the Board of Directors of the California Indian Storytelling Association; the Board of Trustees of Idyllwild Arts; and the board of the Riverside Arts Council (serving the Inland area). He is founder and President of the Board of Directors of Dorothy Ramon Learning Center, Inc., and Ushkana Press, saving and sharing all the Southern California American Indian cultures, languages, history, and traditional arts. In the first publication of Ushkana Press in 2004, Voices of the Flute book and CD set, Mr. Siva shared traditional songs of three Southern California Indian nations, most appearing in print for the first time.

Making Flutes, Playing Flutes, Listening to Flutes
A visit to the annual Dorothy Ramon Learning Center Flute Workshop

By Pat Murkland
From Heritage Keepers newsletter Spring 2006, Vol. 3, No. 2
© copyright Dorothy Ramon Learning Center, Inc., and Ushkana Press Reproduction rights

It takes faith to look at cedar blocks and see a Native American six-holed flute.
Under the guidance of Navajo flute maker Marvin Yazzie and his wife, Jonette, that transformation happens every year at the Dorothy Ramon Learning Center flute-making workshop. The third annual class at Morongo Reservation was no exception.

Those two rectangular blocks need carving, shaping, sanding. They need to be glued together without a hint that such gluing occurred. That's when each flute begins to take shape. The smell of epoxy glue then gives way to the aroma of cedar chips and sawdust. Each flute needs more shapping, more sanding, still more sanding, and more shaping.

A flute needs to be in the right key.
It needs proper holes. It needs its own block. For a while, a flute seems a faraway destination, maybe even a dream. But with the Yazzies' skills, knowledge, and artistry as guides, the flute-makers do arrive at their destination. Everyone makes a flute beautiful in both sight and sound.

Flute class 2006 was filled to the maximum 10 students, from the reservation and from around Southern California. Each student carved, shaped, oiled, tuned, and then decorated a wooden flute. The sessions filled with teamwork and camaraderie. Ernest H. Siva then taught the attentive class the basics of flute playing. Students learned about the music and cultural heritage of Southern California's American Indian nations.

Flutes are made by hand; later, music will come from the heart.