Terry Bradley honors a native American tradition

By Denise Coffey - Staff Writer
Putnam - posted Tue., Sep. 10, 2013
Terry Bradley plays one of his native American flutes. Photos by D. Coffey.
Terry Bradley plays one of his native American flutes. Photos by D. Coffey.

Flutist Terry Bradley performed at the Sochor Gallery on Sept. 6 for Putnam's First Friday celebration. Bradley brought his collection of native American and native American-style flutes and put on a combined concert, art show and history lesson.

Bradley has been a musician for 37 years, but came to the flute only 15 years ago when he was living near Lake Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg in Webster, Mass. The name intrigued him. As he learned more about it and the Nipmuc tribe that gave it the name, he learned about the flutes the tribe crafted. He started playing the flute, including those made by other eastern native American tribes. He learned how to play Anasazi flutes. He even started carving them himself.

He brought 10 flutes with him to his performance. They'd been carved out of soft woods in different shades and colors. Tribes used trees indigenous to the areas they lived in, such as western cedar and cherry. Besides being easier to work with, the soft wood gives the instruments their resonance, he said.

The totems, or fetishes, that connected the two-chambered instruments were also hand-carved. The totems serve as breaks, splitting the air blown through the first chamber and redirecting it to the second chamber. “All the eastern tribes, including the Abenaki, Penobscot, Wampanoag and Nipmuc, used totems as the airway,” Bradley said. “The airway is in the totem, not in the flute.”

Totems are traditionally bird carvings, but Bradley had flute totems resembling a fox, a crocodile, and water. They were lashed to the body of the flute with strips of leather. The colors of wood, totem and leather made them fine sculptures.

He picked up an Anasazi flute, a long, one-chambered instrument. The airway is in the rim itself, he said, blowing on the flute as he held it off to the side. That particular flute had been made by Jeffrey Ellis, a noted craftsman of Anasazi flutes. The Anasazi flute dates back to 650 AD, but has only recently been reproduced. “They've been lost to us for over 1,000 years,” Bradley said. He pointed out the razor thin edge and the carvings on the body of the flute. 

Bradley explained the carving process and showed how angles and the shapes of the holes carved into the flutes made for their tone and pitch and key. He spoke about the flute traditions of some of the tribes. “Different tribes have different traditions,” he said. “If you belonged to a tribe with a heritage of music, you'd want to learn that music.”

But playing the flute isn't just about learning the techniques and traditions. It's also about learning to play the instruments wisely. “It's not what you know, but how you use it,” Bradley said. “There's no substitute for openness and wisdom.” He took a flute and began to play, and a soulful sound filled the gallery.

Bradley is a recording artist who creates his own music. YouTube clips of several of his scores can be found on the Internet. He intends to connect those links to a website he is currently working on. And he intends to keep learning the craft of carving and playing the instruments of which he has grown so affectionate.

For more information on Terry Bradley, go to Within the Circle: Flute Music for the Soul on YouTube.

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