Voices in the Stone
Leon Joseph Littlebird hikes for two hours to an obscure canyon that has no name because few people have stepped foot in or near it.
He is making his annual pilgrimage to the ravine, which he found accidentally one day in 1964 as he walked with his father.
When he reaches the edge of the canyon, he rappels onto a 100-foot-long ledge perched above an 800- to 900-foot drop. The sun highlights the oranges and pinks in the walls, black minerals stain the stone and the blue sky reflects off the canyon walls. Pinon and junipers scent the air.
The horseshoe-shaped land holds a mystery – a 41-room dwelling where the Hiitsatunam people (which most people mistakenly refer to as the Anasazi, meaning “ancient enemy” in Navajo) lived 1,200 years ago. Their kiva, a ceremonial chamber, is still intact, and on this trip, filmmaker Gary Ganz hears their voices in the stone.
Littlebird had heard the voices before, though this time he feels the presence of women and children in the canyon, rather than the male presences he always felt before. It is the first time Ganz visits the sacred land. It is as if the ancestors speak to him, approving of the documentary he is producing about Littlebird’s flute music and canyon experience.
“There’s certain places in this world that are enchanted, and this canyon is one of those places for me,” Littlebird said.
Songs of the canyon
The canyon inspires Littlebird’s Native flute CD, “Voices in the Stone.” It also inspires the theme of the album, “nizhonigo oo aal,” a Navajo greeting that means “the sun is passing over us nicely today.”
The first day Littlebird plays his flute in the canyon, he realizes “nizhonigo oo aal” has three distinct movements. The album starts with Littlebird’s breath and a long pause while he centers himself. Then “Sunrise in the Canyon” awakens the spirit of the flute with its long, slow, breathy sounds.
The second movement, “Long Morning,”
honors the bright morning sun. The day remains cool in the canyon until about 1 or 2 p.m. because the sun doesn’t shine on the eastern wall until then.
The heat of the sun on cold stone creates
natural thermals upon which ravens soar. As
Littlebird plays his flute in the afternoon, one of the ravens glides about two feet over his head
and inspires “Raven’s Evening Flight.” Littlebird records the guttural sound, or barking, a pair of ravens make as they call one another and adds it
to the song.
Imprints of the canyon
Littlebird records parts of “Voices in the
Stone” in the canyon and finishes it in the studio, where he sets up five microphones throughout
the room to capture the ambient sounds of the flute.
“I want to give the listener a true sense for the organic sound of the Native flute – this is how it sounds if you’re playing the flute,” he said. “You can hear me breathe and my fingers on the holes. It’s the breath moving in a wooden tube – that’s the sound that enchants me. I try to be really true to the nature of the instrument in a way that allows the listener to feel they’ve really heard
Lure of the Native flute
Littlebird fell in love with the Native flute when he was about 4 years old. As he walked through the Taos Pueblo in New Mexico with his dad, he saw an old man playing. That day, his dad made him a flute out of an aspen branch, but when the bark dried up, the flute didn’t work anymore. As a young boy, Littlebird continued to carve various branches, trying to fashion a flute that worked properly.
He always resonated with the primitive instrument, but Littlebird didn’t become serious about playing until about 20 years ago. He used the instrument as a bridge to separate him from the strains of daily life and cross over into a meditative state.
In the meantime, he played guitar and sang in bars, but his reverence for the flute prevented him from playing it those establishments – until last year. One night, he sensed the crowd at the Blue Spruce Inn was attentive, so he picked up his flute. The room fell silent. Since then, he has introduced his flute to audiences with the same response – silent appreciation.
“I think the flute resonates with people’s ancient DNA,” he said. “It’s soothing. It’s calming. It inspires you, and there’s a connectivity that people get. Little kids love it. My tip jar is filled with drawings from kids of me playing the flute.
“My flute music tends to be more melodic, and I think that’s why a lot of people relate to it.”
Other voices in the stone
Besides the three “nizhonigo oo aal” songs, five of the eight songs on “Voices in the Stone” celebrate various aspects of nature and spirit.
“Glass Wind” features Breckenridge photographer Carl Scofield on unique percussion instruments –
2 1/2-foot-high glass vases that provide a droning effect similar to a long “om.” The song emerged spontaneously between the two musicians in the studio.
Littlebird wrote “Water Skipper” in the canyon as he sat at its mouth near a natural pool formed by a waterfall of rain. The piece has a light, happy tone, similar to water skippers dancing on a pond.
A coyote gave Littlebird the name for track five. Every time Littlebird played the then-nameless song at an outdoor show, it began to rain. He knew the song didn’t cause the showers, but he also knew somehow it was synonymous with rain. When he recorded it in the studio, it began to rain again, so he set up microphones by the window and added nature’s sound to his melodies. Then a male coyote walked through the rain, next to the studio in Bailey, and Littlebird knew the song’s name was “Coyote Rain.”
Most people have never heard “Amazing Grace” played on a primitive instrument such as the Native flute, but Littlebird offers an inspiring rendition of the hymn.
“Voices in the Stone” ends with “Sunset Light,” played on a flute made from beetle-killed pine. He went out to the woods for weeks to play until the feeling of saying good-bye to the sun settled in his bones.
“If you listen to it, it’s saying good-bye to the sun – thanking the sun for a good day,” he said.
And thanking nature for the gift of music.
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