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Adirondack Sketches: Joe and Jesse Bruchac

Joe Bruchac (left) and Jesse Bruchac (right)

Joe Bruchac and his son Jesse Bruchac are experts in some of the Native American music traditions of the Adirondack region. It was with great pleasure to have the opportunity recently to sit down with them to discuss the Native American flute and some percussion instruments for my Adirondack Sketches project. Not only did I learn a great deal, but I got to hear some beautiful music at their Ndakinna Education Center near Saratoga Springs.

These two extremely knowledgeable men demonstrated several percussion instruments and techniques for me, including some rattles and rawhide drums. They have several examples of these instruments in their collection at Ndakinna, as can be seen below:

A rawhide drum (front, to the left), some Mohawk water drums (seated on the rear of the top of the display case), a bone rattle (in the rear, next to the left-most water drum) and some turtle rattles (inside the display case, center)

After a physical tour of the center and the instruments that Joe and Jesse brought with them, they sat down with me and demonstrated the uses of both the percussion instruments and several flutes, along with some traditional sung melodies. The scales used in both the sung melodies and with the flutes generally involve the pentatonic minor, with the flute capable of more chromatic pitches (using half-hole fingering techniques) and “blue” notes, with which one can achieve a beautiful and haunting blues scale. Joe and Jesse talked about the fact that the Native American flute has made its way into jazz and other American genres, making it very versatile and adaptable. This is great for the purposes of my project! Jesse demonstrated the flute and included some great ornaments that are idiomatic to the instrument such as pops, clamps, flutter tongue, trills, etc.

Most flutes produced today are tuned to a particular scale in concert pitch. This means they can easily play with other instruments or with one another. Joe and Jesse demonstrated this by playing a song together on two C-tuned flutes. There are also double flutes, which produce a drone pitch along with the melody. In their original use, flutes would be crafted by the flutist in whatever tuning best suited them. This was not a problem, as they were generally not designed to be played in ensemble, but to play what musicians would refer to as “lonesome songs.”

We then moved on to talk about drums and rattles. Joe and Jesse demonstrated the two prevailing beat patterns in Native music of the Adirondack region. The first was what Jesse referred to as a two-step pattern, a kind of quarter-eighth-quarter-eighth pattern, as in 6/8 meter. The second was more of a straight beat, like repeated eighth notes in a 2/4 meter. These would often be highlighted by “honor beats,” moving the mallet to the center of the rawhide drum, for example, making the tone louder and deeper and bringing the drum beat out over the sung melody.

Joe explained that unlike African drumming, these drums would always be played with a mallet or beater, and there is a cultural reason for this. Just as one would should never strike a child with his or her hand, one should not strike a drum with his or her hand. The rattle, however, is most often played by striking the instrument into the palm of the hand.

I inquired about melodic shape, as this may be something I would like to incorporate in the piece. Joe and Jesse talked about how many of the melodic shapes that developed in the Adirondack region were influenced by the presence of the French Jesuit missionaries several hundred years ago, so if one listens carefully you would hear a number of similarities with Gregorian Chant. This is extremely helpful for me to realize, as it brings it very much into my wheelhouse as a church musician (For example, if you watch the video recording of my choral piece Bless the Lord, you will hear that the opening thematic material is an adapted chant.) I also like to use some modified blues scales in my concert music, so knowing that this scale (itself a modified pentatonic minor) is often used with the flute is also extremely helpful. Mohawk songs, however, are less influenced by European missionaries and tend to have more call-and-response repetition and use of open intervals (fourths and fifths). Joe demonstrated by singing one of these songs for me.

This was a fascinating meeting. I hope to remain in touch with these gentlemen as I continue work on my Adirondack Sketches. I encourage you to check out all the myriad good works that these men do by checking out their sites here (Joe) and here (Jesse).


Saratoga Arts made this project possible with an Artist Grant funded by the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.

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