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A Celebration of Hopi Music Heritage

Written by Craig Baker

The Watchtower

Hopi Musical Heritage and Spirituality Collide at the Grand Canyon – The Ongtupqa Project Needs Your Support

This is a story about coming home. It’s also a story about music, and about shared visions. It’s the start of a new history of the American West – a new dawn, another chapter. And it all begins with a magic flute, said to have the power to bring the rain.


The Discovery

When archaeologist Earl Halstead Morris led a Carnegie Institution Expedition to the Prayer Rock District of Northeastern Arizona in 1931, the crew discovered thousands of artifacts distributed throughout fifteen caves. Among them were four hollow, reedless flutes—two broken, two intact. The site, as a result of this find, came to be known as Broken Flute Cave.


At the time of the discovery, it was impossible to precisely date the instruments. But research completed in the 1960s suggested that the flutes were constructed sometime between 620 and 670 AD. Despite the conventional understanding at the time, this meant that they were much older than the wooden Plains flutes from the 1800s that have become an archetype of Native American music today. Still, the modern academic and archaeological communities knew precious little about those instruments uncovered by Morris’ expedition in the Four Corners Area more than eighty years ago. At least, that is, until now.


The Search for Answers

In the mid-1990s, ethnomusicologist Matthew Nelson began working as a volunteer DJ for KXCI—a community radio station, in Tucson, AZ—where he hosts and curates a weekly showcase of world music for a program called “Global Rhythm Radio”. It was early in his tenure there that he met world-renowned flute player Gary Stroutsos, who was traveling through Tucson with a group of Native American musicians at that time.

Originally trained as a jazz musician, Stroutsos transitioned into studying wind instruments from cultures across the world, including Chinese, Afro-Cuban, and Native American origins. He told Arizona Public Media that his goal when studying cross-cultural genres is to make his best effort to faithfully recreate the spirit of a particular culture’s music without adding any “New Age trimming.” His music was featured on the Ken Burns' documentary Lewis and Clark: Journey of the Corps of Discovery, which led to an invitation to play for then-President Bill Clinton at the White House. Stroutsos is also the only non-native artist ever invited to record on the label, Makoché Records, which is dedicated to recording indigenous music.

During the course of their conversation, Nelson learned that Stroutsos played a replica of one of the instruments found in Broken Flute Cave, though neither knew much about its origins. Nelson suggested reaching out to local Native American musicians, which led them to the traditional Hopi vocalist, Clark Tenakhongva.


The Vision, and the Origin of the Hopi Long Flute

Nelson and Tenakgonva had met briefly at a music festival and so, when Nelson called him about a potential meeting on the Hopi Nation, Tenakhongva acquiesced. The night before their meeting, Stroutsos dreamed he was playing his flute in an old adobe house on a high mesa, and that his song conjured clouds which brought rain.

They met at Tenakhongva’s office, where he was working for the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. A brief chat quickly led to talk of Strotusos’ flute—still in the car at this point—and Tenakhongva asked him to play it. Nelson said he could see an instant shift in Tenakhongva’s demeanor as Stroutsos began to play, and the two men were asked to perform that night for the Hopi singer’s family – many of whom were respected traditional cultural practitioners from the Hopi Tribe. 


Tenakhongva informed his guests from Tucson that Stroutsos’ flute was a Hopi instrument, lost to the Hopi for more than 500 years. 


It Came to Him in a Dream

Stroutsos played that night in an old adobe house on First Mesa and Nelson explains that he and Stroutsos presumed that to be the end of their journey. But then Tenakhongva explained his own vision.

He said that one of his songs had come to him in a dream and, in that dream, he was singing at this place high on the mesa. The clouds began to gather and build, then started to move toward him. Finally, it started to rain. But, Tenakhongva, explained, when he awoke, he would try to sing the song from the dream, but it never sounded right – as if something were missing. The missing piece, he said, was Stroutsos’ flute.


A Historic Recording

Stroutsos and Nelson left the Hopi nation late that night. They were caught by surprise, however, when Tenakhongva called two days later to invite them to play with him in a sacred place—near the site of the Hopi origin story, on the south rim of the Grand Canyon in the famed Desert View Watchtower. The Watchtower was built by renowned “architect of the southwest,” Mary Colter, in 1932 and was modeled after similar structures built by ancient Puebloans in sites like Mesa Verde, Canyon de Chelly, and Chaco Canyon.

In October of 2017 Nelson arranged the permits and hired a sound engineer and videographer. Stroutsos booked a flight back to Tucson from his home in Seattle, and the three traveled together to Ongtupqa—the Hopi name for the Grand Canyon—for a single night of recording in that sacred space. Tenakhongva sang original compositions in his native language, Stroutsos improvised on the flute, while Nelson (realizing that stretched-skin drums would not have been available when the original ancient flutes were made and played) kept rhythm on clay pot drums.

The result was a total of nine finished tracks that approximate the way Hopi music may have sounded more than 1300 years ago. The final recordings are not modified in any way, and the music was played live, without the benefit of a rehearsal or the opportunity for multiple takes. 


The Ongtupqa Project

Currently, the trio is running a Kickstarter campaign from which they hope to raise $7500 by June 2. The money will allow them to fund the final mastering of their audio tracks in CD and downloadable format, as well as the production of an accompanying DVD featuring interviews with Tenakhongva about Hopi history, culture, and the tribe’s deep, spiritual connection to the canyon they call “Ongtupqa."

Says Tenakhongva, “My only hope is the music will resonate with the world. As Hopi we were born within Grand Canyon and when we are done we return back to the womb of our mother. This is the cycle. This is the Hopi way. And these are songs about that special place."

The Ongtupqa recordings represent a return to the Hopi people’s spiritual homeland, and Tenakhongva says everyone is invited to partake in the blessings bestowed on them by this historic music and its connection to the Grand Canyon—Ongtupqa—itself a Hopi house of worship.

For more about Ongtupqa — the canyon and the project — visit Ongtupqa.com.

To contribute to the project, check out the Ongtupqa Kickstarter page.

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