Interview by Mendes Biondo
Joe Yeatman, Native flutes maker, in this picture looks like a Zen master, one of those who contemplates their own swords for hours to understand the secrets of life. His smile is pure. Joe told me he has fun while creating his flutes, and I can believe him. You can see that fun running in every wood grain of these wonderful music instruments. He started walking on his path as a man facing an adventure and he is still living it in the same way.
Joe Yeatman lives in Tucson, Arizona where he is surrounded by Native American culture, flute makers, flute players and performers, and many opportunities to gather with other flute makers and players. He regularly attends 3 different ‘flute circles’ and performs along with others at events held at local museums, botanical gardens, and art shows. You want to know more? Keep reading what Joe told me about his craftsmanship…
When and why did you start the yucca flute project?
I received my first Native American Flute 15 or 20 years ago, but didn’t learn to play it for many years after that. Then I met someone who said he could teach me to play in 5 minutes. I didn’t believe him, but I had 5 minutes to spare. Within 7 minutes, I realized
that I COULD actually learn to play this instrument. I bought another flute from that man. Within a few weeks my collection had grown to 7 flutes. Today I have about 50.
About 2 ½ years ago, I decided that I wanted to make a flute from scratch (I had done 3 kits), but I don’t have the typical wood-working machinery (lathe, router, bandsaw, etc.).
I had become aware that flutes can be made from other materials such as bamboo, Sunflower stalks, and the stalks of such plants as Yucca and Agave. I live in Arizona, where many varieties of yucca and agave are plentiful. Their stalks are straight, round, and have soft-enough centers to be hollowed out without a router. It was a natural fit. I taught myself to make one, and it worked. In fact, it was quite nice. I made another, and it worked. I sold that one to a professional musician. At that point, I began to document my processes, procedures, and tool-set. That writing eventually became my book “Yucca Flute – Making Native American Style Flutes from Yucca and Agave Stalks”.
How did you learn to make flutes?
I am self-taught. There is so much information on the internet, that I couldn’t figure out how/where to start. So I put most of my web research aside and just figured it out. I knew that if they did it before modern power tools and the Internet, I could probably do it too. I had already completed 3 flute kits, from which I learned quite a bit. Also, by the time I started making them, I had begun collecting them. I had flutes from several different makers to examine and play.
Tell us a little more of how a yucca flute is actually made.
It starts by harvesting the stalk. I keep a saw and work gloves in my Jeep at all times in case I encounter a stalk that I can take. I cut the stalk into sections of about 24”. I split the stalks into 2 halves (left and right). Each half gets its share of the bore and Slow Air Chamber (SAC), and defining cuts for the SAC exit hole and True Sound Hole (TSH). After some sealing and sanding, I glue the right and left halves back together and set it aside to dry. The next day, I’ll drill the breath hole. The nest for the block has to be very flat and level. Making it so is the hardest part of each flute project. I use a combination of carving, sanding, and filing until it is perfect. Then I cut the flue or air channel between the SAC exit hole and the TSH. Having cut the SAC exit hole and True Sound Hole intentionally too-small earlier, now I gradually expand them and begin to undercut the splitting edge, putting on the block and testing the tone with every adjustment.
Tuning seems like a mysterious aspect of making such a flute, but it can be quite simple. There are many methods for tuning (sizing and positioning the finger holes). The most important thing to remember is that the size and location of the finger holes each effect the other. I use a fairly simple method, resulting in wonderfully sounding flutes and comfortable hole spacing.
How would you describe the sound of your flutes?
The voice of the desert. Yucca and agave stalks vary a lot in density, but tend to be softer than most other woods used by flute makers. I think this imparts a softness and warmth to the flutes.
What is special about your flutes?
They are unique by the very nature of the materials used, and the fact that each is made by hand, using rather simple tools. Each stalk has a flute in it, and my task is to discover the flute within, and help it find its own voice – the voice of the desert.
How much importance has music in your life?
I am not musically trained and can not read music. My mother played guitar and piano, but I never learned either. So other than singing with the radio, I have not been a musical person for most of my life. Now, with the Native American Flute in my life, I have discovered my inner musician. I can still not read music, and don’t understand many ‘music theory’ concepts and terms, but I can pick up the NAF and play my Heart Songs with comfort and confidence. I enjoy performing and love the fellowship of my flute friends. So I suppose I would have to say that ‘music’ has not been an important factor in my life, but the Native American Flute has. In it, I find the ability to be expressive, to create, to relax, and find joy 90 seconds at a time.
What are the aspects of Native Culture that fascinate you most?
I grew up in the Southeastern US, the traditional home of the Cherokee, Creek, and Choctaw. Though most had been forced West long ago, many still remained in the area. I was particularly aware of the Cherokee. I can’t say why, but they always fascinated me. As a child, I had moccasins, turquoise and silver rings, beaded pendants, etc. from what we called “Indian Trading Posts”. Now, as an adult I live in Southern Arizona, where there are Navajo, Apache, Tohono O’odham, and Yaqui (to name just a few). My wife and I collect Native arts and regularly attend exhibits, arts fairs, events, and performances where Native culture is on display. (I think much true Native culture is held private and not so readily witnessed by outsiders.).
Why is yucca so important in flute making?
Yucca (and all the related varieties) are truly ‘of the desert’, making them a uniquely Southwestern material for flute making. Because yucca can be made into a beautiful sounding flute without a modern work-shop, it represents a pre-technology era of flute making. And because each stalk is unique, so is each finished flute.
How do people react to yucca flutes? Do they enjoy this instrument to make
Certainly. After all, they are Native American style flutes, so they allow nearly anyone to express themselves musically. I use a guitar tuner to tune my flutes so they have the modern, precise tuning that today’s flute players want. I take special care in creating the sound mechanism, so they have wonderful tone. It is often a more ‘Earthy’ tone than made from hard-wood flutes.
You told me your ancestors were British. Do you consider ancestry an important element while creating your musical instruments?
No, I do not. If treated with respect, I believe that making and playing an instrument from another culture honors that instrument and culture. I neither claim nor pretend to be Native, and represent the flutes I make as ‘Native American Style’ flutes. Similarly I would not be offended if a Native American played the bag pipes or an Irish penny whistle.
Have you found similarities between music coming from western culture and Native one?
Generally, of course. But within the Native American Flute world, not so much. There are many non-Native players who play with a very traditional style. And there are many Native players whose music has almost an American Folk music feel. And there are many blends. Just look at the range of music produced by R. Carlos Nakai – he has traditional music, orchestral accompaniment, and even a quartet that has done jazz, salsa, and afro-Cuban music styles.
Tell us more about your future projects…
As a flute maker, each flute is its own project. I use different materials for the blocks, different finishes, and experiment with different dimensions. I will continue to make flutes in this way. I do not foresee ever adopting the more production-shop style of manufacture. That is, I don’t think I will ever have a router or lathe, etc. I will also continue to play and teach. I hope to do even more of each. I have written 2 books – one on making, and one on playing – and will continue to revise them. One thing I would like to do is to form a new Flute Circle in my area. Flute circles are a great way to learn, practice, build confidence, and make like-minded friends. Tucson AZ has several flute circles, but none particularly near where I live. So I would like to form one as a service to other players in the area. The biggest challenge is finding a venue where we could meet and play.
Check Yucca Flute website clicking here: https://www.yuccaflute.com
Or follow Yucca Flute Facebook Page here: https://www.facebook.com/YuccaFlute
4 thoughts on “Grooving Native Vibes – Interview with Native Yucca Flute Maker Joe Yeatman”
Mendes, this is my favorite article/interview. In the time since this was posted, I have released 2 albums (and am working on a third). The first 2 are on Spotify. Please check them out and follow me on Spotify.
Hey Joe, I’m happy to know you’re succeding! Keep rocking with yucca vibes, I’ll go check your tracks on Spotify!
I have I think three flutes from Joe. The last one is very special the sound is haunting, different from a high spirits flute. My wife chose a flute that is patinaed with a blue turquoise. I recommend his flutes for both the beginner and the experienced player. The sound is full. The mouth of the biggest flute I bought has an overhang that allows you to rest on your lip. That allows you to play quickly while taking a breath. The voice of the desert is no joke, You can hear the sound of the ancients in its voice.
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Thank you Ky. If I recall correctly, you have 3 and Lis has 2. So 5 in the family. Grazie to you both. Joe