Q&A with Gary Stroutsos – The Beauty of the Native American Flute

Though Native American Indian flute sounds are not typically associated with yoga, it is a happy marriage. Perhaps a case of different paths taking us to the same transcendent place…


Your background as a young musician who grew up in Vermont was in Jazz and Afro-Cuban music;  what was it that lead your path to intertwine with the Native American Flute  ?    

During my high school years I lived in both rural Vermont, my beloved state where I was born, and Michigan. When I attended college in Western Michigan I discovered UK progressive Folk Pop and later American Jazz which was the foundation for my flute artistry. When I moved to Seattle in 1979 I began seriously studying Jazz flute, which I continued studying later with two masters: James Newton and Afro Cuban flutist Danilo Lozano. What led me to first visit the Northern Plains of Dakota was the lifestyle of the night club atmosphere I was living in; the toxic setting of the music. I heard a Native American flute melody and found that the music was born in North Dakota. I went there in 1994 to start my journey collecting and respecting and sharing old tribal melodies, which is still going strong to this day.

Jazz players regularly improvise and solo, and carry that ability with them – is this something that you have brought to your playing of traditional flute songs ?

Great Question! I use the same mindset I used for my Jazz playing back in the day – taking the traditional flute melodies, stating the melody in it’s true form, then taking that melody and improving on it. Very few players of Native American flutes do this. In fact, one of the first examples of this is on my first traditional and contemporary release “Winds Of Honor” on a Navajo chant “Shi Na Sha”. I cannot tell you how much the “giants that roamed the earth” in Jazz helped me create a foundation in my own playing.

Is it the case that Native American Flute playing is handed down and taught in a kind of lineage? If yes can you tell us a bit about the people who came before you? Where did they live and what were their stories  ?

The haunting and plaintive sounds of the Native flute are very personal to every player; there is actually very little passed down through time. I have been very fortunate to work with cultural Native people who taught me family songs and gave me permission to play them in my own way. This has been such a gift for me which is why my commitment is to carry the music forward in a good way (a promise I personally made to the Native people I have had the honour of working with) which is a true form of collaboration without any politics or seeking out Native American encounters. It’s always a focus on the music as a “life way” for me.

As for the people who came before there are many many stories of elders who passed down both flutes and songs. My teachers Kevin Locke, Keith Bear, Bryan Akipa, Paul Thompson and many more all had an impact on me. The historical origin of my experience with the flute is a very long story mostly lived in the South West Canyonlands and the Northern Plains of Dakota. When I start my book of stories and songs more will be revealed. What I can say is that the sound of the flute or the essence of the wind captured my heart early on and I worked very hard to achieve what I call an “old tribal world sound”.

Your flute playing has a soothing and hushed resonance that brings a sense of calm and a connection with spirit, what was (or is) the intended context for flute playing ?

The nature of my one of a kind flute collection gave me a head start. It includes many flutes hand made by the finest makers we have today. Also, my world music background is very focused on “tone Poems”, which are haunting yet plaintive melodies with space to create what I call a “meditative soundscape” in my playing. I am not coming from Western musical theory. I like to explore the “un classical” in my playing; “Earth music” for lack of a better term. Master Paul Horn told me “…let them hear your soul Gary, think about all the possibilities in silence” and Master Abdullah Ibrahim says “…we submit to the natural rhythms of the universe”. I aspire to these quotes always in my playing either in the studio or in live performance.

The intended context in my flute music is to always go for the spiritual sound that can take people on a journey of spirit of place as a true sound traveler.

Flutes and all wind instruments appear around the world, and have likely been with us throughout our history – outside of the Native American Flute, what are your favourites to listen to  – and who plays them as they should be heard ?

Yes, so many diverse flutes, so many styles, it would take two lifetimes to even try and get close to all of the sounds globally.

As I stated before I first heard Hozan Yamamoto, Paul Horn, Herbie Mann, James Newton, Roland Kirk, Ian Anderson, Yusef Lateef, Charles Lloyd, Afro Cuban master Rolando Lozano and so many others. These players are my main inspiration and set forth my personal foundation of playing because their overall sound and their amazing solo abilities are so artistic and the sounds they recorded over the past 50 years are with me every day. To be honest no one wanted to be a Jazz master more than me but the challenges and the high artistic ability it takes were hard on me, and the more meditative sound seemed to fit my heart and soul.

As to the instruments themselves, of course the three classical concert flutes used by Jazz players: Concert C, Alto and Bass flutes.

Hozan Yamamoto plays the Japanese Bamboo Shakuhachi but to be honest it is very hard to attain the sound the Japanese players can evoke.

Rolando Lozano played a five key high pitched wooden traverse flute to cut through the percussion in Cuban traditional Charanga dance bands who used violins and later he used the 5 key wooden flute in Latin Jazz

I used to record the Chinese Xiao & Dize bamboo flutes which have their own sound but I do not play Chinese classical court music on them.

I am currently playing a replica of a 2000 year old (carbon dated) South West desert rim flute made of cedar. 4, 5and 6 hole rim style flutes are very haunting and are seldom played unlike the Native American cedar flutes we’ve commonly heard over the past 40 years on recordings. These replicas of ancient flutes are on the album Echoes from Prayer Rock and my new recording Earth Cycles.

I also play a boxwood replicated GA Rottenburgh 1744 six hole one key Baroque flute. This flute is one of the most copied Baroque flutes made today. I also play some UK folk theme music but I like the mellow tone for meditative sounds.

Then, of course, my Dakota and Navajo made traditional cedar 5 and 6 hole hand made bird head flutes which may be the finest flutes made in today’s market by two of the finest makers. As well as my drone, contra bass cedar Native flutes are of great interest to me as well.

I get a sense that what is important to you is to carry the music forward and to play it well  – can you please elaborate on this for us  ?  

To quote Paul Horn (to me): “…Keep the music going!” Or my Native friends say “…Keep playing the old songs and take care of them in a good way…”   This means always working on the respected melodies and polishing them like gems. What is important is not how many songs you know, it is which ones you can really play from the heart. The older I become the more I realize it is not about me, it is about sharing with young artists the beauty of the diverse flute sounds I have studied and carried with me for the past 30 years.

Charles Lloyd Jazz master likes to say “…you can make a better world through music and sound…”

The very fact that I have recordings of these great giants’ music and have seen and spoken to many of them over the years is such a blessing!

Native American music for the flute is misunderstood. Many players do not have knowledge of the traditional aspects or a true foundation if they come from outside of the Native traditions. Yet I can only share what has been shared with me in a good way and can never judge or speak about other artists’ quests – either Native or non Native. I was offered a window into private worlds due to my passion to learn and record the music of the Native world – a true art form that deserves more respect. One must always “play up to the music”.

You’ve recorded and played in a number of sacred spaces, from the canyon lands of the Southwest, to the Great Plains, and to the West Coast where you now live next to the Salish Sea  – Can you tell us about some of these sacred places and what they bring to your playing, and what your playing taps into in them  ?

The unique opportunity to record in many sacred sites over my career is like a dream that is so so special for me. The South West canyon lands have always been special for me. My recording inside Canyon de Chelly is one of the highlights of my life.

Last summer at the Grand Canyon with my Hopi friends was also special. The recordings along the Missouri river hold such memories of dreaming of the days gone bye for the people of the river. The Oregon Coast has a whole other zen-like meaning to me, and a very different sound than the South West or Northern Plains. All these places tap into the natural world and the rhythms that give me the inspiration to create the melodies in the moment.

Maybe this is why I am so honoured to carry forward what Paul Horn did with his recordings in sacred sites over 30 years ago. He so inspired me that I am going to record a tribute to his ground breaking release in 1968 “Inside The Taj Mahal”.

Please finish this sentence;  “Music is…”

Honour to be part of.

A life way for me.

A universal way to communicate with diverse artists.

Settles differences we may have.

Brings smiles, cry!

Jazz pianist Keith Jarrett famously said that “Silence is the potential from which music can arise”  – please talk about the spaces between the notes and how silence features in your flute playing.

Well well, now your in the realm of Miles Davis who taught Paul Horn and Keith about the space one needs to have in their playing.

I try to find this silence in my playing more than ever now. I have come to realize this quest for sound is not always an athletic event to fill all the space. The long tones from heaven are hard to do; one has to have the patience in their phrases. This is what I am trying to do more than ever now with my latest recordings and in my live performances.

I also feel not having a classically trained sound and background. Having to use my ears and instincts throughout my whole career has helped this silence quest in my sound. I look at it as always working “with the sound” or as Charles Lloyd says, “… as a servant to the music” – I so like that!

Or, “discipline is the key to freedom”.

Imagine you’re off on 6 months of travels and can take one flute with you – what would it be and why  ?

My 2000 year old replicated Hopi flute for it makes me play long tones, though second my Alto silver flute reminds me of Paul Horn’s sound or my Dakota Elk flute sounds like an old tribal world… so maybe I need three pipes!


Gary Stroutsos headshot - Q&A

About Gary:

Gary Stroutsos performs world flute music drawn from many traditional cultures. Evoking a spirit of place and the voices of the land, his work includes internationally-acclaimed recordings at sacred sites, using the unique acoustics and history of each great space as the starting point for musical exploration: A shared moment in a timeless place, where flute melodies, ancestral and modern, play off one another and songs come alive, buoying and breathing through the generations.

Originally trained as a Jazz flutist (studying with Jazz master flutist and composer James Newton, and Afro-Cuban flute master Danilo Lozano), Stroutsos’ work now features American Indian music, as well as Chinese, Cuban and American Jazz stylings – all styles and traditions reflecting his diverse musical influences. Gary has become perhaps best known for his haunting work on the Native American Flute, and is acknowledged to have made a significant contribution to the preservation of American Indian music and culture. Himself a Greek-Italian-American, Stroutsos has had the rare opportunity to journey into the indigenous cultures and communities of North America, where he learned how to play the Native American Flute. During this time, Lakota, Mandan-Hidatsa, Navajo and Salish Kootenai Elders asked him to set their songs to his flute, which has undoubtedly been invaluable in the development of insight and the character of authenticity that his recordings embody.

Stroutsos has worked and recorded with many American Indian artists, including collaborating with Navajo flute maker Paul Thompson, a work which expresses the enduring legacy of the American Indian flute and its recent reintroduction into today’s society.






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