Up to this time I owned and loved a wooden flute that was made in India. The strong wood revealed a lovely grain. A brass ring hugged the end of it, looking like a prince from a far away land. Rings of a faded green and red antiquing blended well into the dark brown recorder like flute that played both strong high notes and soft healing ones. It was this, my favorite flute that lived in my mouth and filled many empty spaces across the land with rhythms of a special sweetness and musical laughter. As I headed farther south into Mexico my love affair with my Indian flute was challenged by a man without legs. He seemed to be cut off under his belly button. He was begging and held out a rusty hat to a busy walkway by the market of Cuernavaca. Grey and brown dirt colors wrapped themselves around a four wheeled platform that held the stump of a man. Now and then a gentle coin would fall into his hat. Somewhere in that man I saw a treasure. Bringing my six foot frame down into his world, I began to play my flute . Our smiles met and our eyes twinkled together. I knew that the quality of his life would change if I were to give him my best flute and he were able to play it for a living. He accepted my gift and a lesson on tooting. I walked away a few inches taller on the inside.
Inside the market of endless vegetable stands showered by poor light and rancid air, I met a goofy crowd drooling for some fun. A giggling brown hand offered me what seemed like an innocent pepper. I knew it was coming. The crowd got thicker and this ' gringo' just didn't want to spoil the fun. As I bit into the fireball of a pepper, a roar of voices bounced laughter off the ceiling. Soon the water in my eyes prevented me from seeing them as Mexican electricity and killer bees stung my mouth.
When it was finally over, the market had returned to business as usual. I walked away nursing my exploded taste buds that were left dangling from the roof of my mouth.
When tomorrow arrived I was having flute withdrawals and went to visit the twinkling stump man. My heart sank when I noticed no flute, just an empty hat filled with years of waiting. I served my disappointed soul on the platter of my inquiry, 'Señor, where is the flute?' He replied with healing in his words, 'Oh, my flute is at home. I have to learn how to play it first.' My feet smiled and carried me into another adventure that has changed the course of my life for 46 years now. For you see, in the next town that I settled in, I was privileged to become a flutemaker and since then have had the blessing of making over 150,000 flutes. To put some more icing on the story, a friend sent me a dozen Indian flutes just like the original that I was to pick up later in an antique post office in Guatemala City.
How true Ecclesiastes 11:1 is as it cries out through the corridors of time:
Cast thy bread upon the waters and in many days it shall return.
Motivated by a burning desire to make a flute, I hollowed a dry corn stalk only to see it collapse in my hand. I knew then that I had to find bamboo. In the lowland of San Cristobal de las Casas in the province of Chiapas in southern Mexico, I began following the pointed fingers of the locals as to where I could find some cane.
'Ayyy...go up to the mountain' said one, and up I went. There I found chilly pine trees and an old man weighted down by the woodpile on his back pressed by a thick leather strap, pushing against his forehead. As if I were an old friend I bursted, 'Where is the bamboo?' He grunted in love, as if I were his grandson, 'Ayyy go back down to the valley'. And so I did. Down from the cold, to the earth were bananas and papayas grew, where streams came to rest, where the bamboo was to be found.
The clump of cane grew in the forgotten back yard of a shifting tin and wood structure belonging to a sick family rich in poverty. Amazed by their visitor from afar, the running eyes and noses and bare feet of little brown bodies followed me into my musical mission. The saw blade on my red Swiss Army Knife bit and rubbed the soft dry yellow stalks of what was to become the first of many flutes. The running eyes and noses came back to the squatters house where I noticed running ears. I was to trade my first bamboo harvest for medicine money for a very poor family shipwrecked in the sea of needs.
My walk home with a bundle of cane invited the neighborhood children to mark me on their list of curiosities. I cleaned the bamboo with wet rags and hunted San Cristobal for irons to poke red hot holes. In a demolished field where a structure once stood, I found enough bent metal rods, then walked to a carpenter's workshop. He was eager to help me along and let me cut, pound straight, and sharpen my new tools. Scraps of sand paper were collected and I ran off down the birth canal of destiny to a new life.
In the dwelling of Antonia, a Tenajapan Indian, I stocked Ocote, the flammable sap rich starting wood. A fire was brewed into red embers that gave me my first red hot irons. Sweet smoke filled the mud-walled kitchen and strange out of tune music awkwardly bounced about from the splitting air of my lips. A mouse came out to see the fuss. My heart danced with joy. I would soon walk down the street, a bag of flutes over my shoulder, smelling campfire sweet, and curious children would trail behind ready to jump on my bag of goodies. Everybody wanted a flute, I wanted a friend.
Erik the Flutemaker
14701 SW 18th Court
Davie, FL 33325