Music for Meditation, Reflection or Therapy, Day or Night
An Interview with the NightDancers
When you ask someone why he or she likes a band, performer or style of music, the usual response is either, "they're awesome," “they rock" or "it's fun stuff." People tend to say that music is simply for entertainment. And as for musicians, the reason they play music either involves "the call" to do so or the ego-driven need to stand in front of a crowd. But why do we even have music? Is it, as Shakespeare stated, "to soothe the savage beast"? It's not like it's life or death. Or is it? For Gera Clark and John Sarantos, who perform on Native American flutes as the NightDancers, music is that deep. Mr. Santos started with the simple desire to express himself musically, but discovered that the Native American flute, by its nature, takes one beyond pigeonholed functions, including new-age "meditation" music. Ms. Clark's journey to music started with desperately needing something of a life line at a critical time. She states: "After a prolonged critical illness, I began to put my life back together...While on this spiritual path, I discovered the Native American flute." In this era of art-as-diversion, or lifestyle accessory, it is a wonderfully pleasant surprise to be reminded that, as Clark and Santos reveal in the interview below, music is a powerful and healing force.
[Mark Kirby] What kind of music was played in your home when you were growing up?
[Gera Clark] My mother played classical music on the piano as an escape from her existence as an urban housewife raising four children. When I started school, my mother went back to work and I noticed her appetite for opera increased dramatically. My father fancied himself as being Bing Crosby and I would catch him now and then trying to learn the cha cha. Meanwhile, my sister would sneak in rock and roll. We aspired to write music together in the style of Carol King. We also listened to some of my relatives' records, one being Seamus Ennis, my grand uncle who played the Uilleann pipes (an Irish type of bagpipes).
[John Sarantos] During my early years, my mother would play classical and operatic music when I was in school, but very little music was played while I was home except at Christmas.
[Mark Kirby] What kinds of music have you studied prior to the Native American flute?
[Gera Clark] As a child, my mother would bribe me with soda to take piano lessons because she wanted me to be a child prodigy. When I was able to travel on my own, I took up the traverse flute, which I carried with me for three years.
[John Sarantos] I tried learning the drums from the junior high school music teacher, but he told me I had no rhythm and would not work with me. After attending a Jethro Tull concert and being inspired by Ian Anderson's flute playing, I tried the transverse flute, but was told by my flute instructor that I was tone deaf and she wouldn't work with me. I tried singing, but I was told that I was tone deaf by three major Los Angeles voice coaches and they would not work with me. I tried guitar and banjo, but it was hard to play just cords as I could not sing along with myself. Then I discovered the Native American flute.
[Mark Kirby] How did you come to start playing Native American music in general, the flute in particular?
[Gera Clark] After the death of my husband and a quick rebound marriage and divorce, followed by a prolonged critical illness, I began to put my life back together. I also began searching for beauty. While on this spiritual path, I discovered the Native American flute.
One day, I found myself about a hundred miles west of New York standing outside a Tibetan Buddhist Temple, when suddenly I heard the most beautiful sound. Following the powerful, yet haunting sound, I discovered it emanating from a Native American flute, played by Ed Callshim (Ponca Sioux). After this experience, I finally found a flute of my own at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York. Later, when traveling to Niagara Falls with my teacher, Amy Lee (Iroquois), a deep desire to connect with my earlier travels in the southwest was awakened. On one particular journey, I found myself exploring the canyons along the Rio Grande. Eventually I was led to the mountains and the Taos Pueblo, where I heard that haunting sound drifting through the air. I followed it to its source, a little adobe. Looking inside, I met a kind and talented gentleman who encouraged me to play the native flute. That gentleman, unbeknownst to me at the time, is one of the finest Native American flute players in the world, John Rainer, Jr. (Taos/Creek). Leaving New Mexico with renewed faith, I was led, via The American Indian Community House in New York, to Franc Menusan (Muskogee Creek). He became my extremely patient mentor for several years.
On my birthday, I flew out to an R. Carlos Nakai (Navajo/Ute) concert with the San Francisco Symphony, where I learned about the Renaissance of the Native American Flute workshop in Montana. I came back to New York and booked myself a flight to Montana, which was where I met John Sarantos, and our musical partnership was born.
[John Sarantos] My mother, who was 84-years-old at the time, introduced me to the music of the Peter Kater and R. Carlos Nakai duo. Mr. Kater, who is of German heritage, played piano, and Mr. Nakai the native flute. I discovered that I too like the sound of the native flute. I went to a Kater and Nakai concert in Chicago, where Nakai mentioned a week-long workshop at the Feathered Pipe Ranch in Helena, Montana. I had a choice of paying about $1,200 for the flute workshop taught by Mr. Nakai and his partner and flute-maker, Ken Light, or going to Japan for two weeks, all expenses paid by the school where I was teaching. I chose Montana.
[Mark Kirby] What lead you to play this kind of meditative music?
[John Sarantos] We don't think of it as only meditative music. We worked hard to stay away from falling into that stereotype of musical style on our CD. Although a lot of people use our record for meditation, they also use it for healing and relaxation. Several people who have cancer told me that they find inner peace while listening to ‘Montana Crossings'.
[Gera Clark] In fact, after John had his cancer surgery last year, we decided that 10% of the gross sales from ‘Montana Crossings' would be used to buy flutes for cancer patients. So far, we have donated flutes to cancer flute circles and individuals in New York City, Chicago, Lansing, Michigan and Jefferson City, Oregon.
[Mark Kirby] Are Native American flutes more like shakuhachi flutes or transverse flutes in terms of technique?
[John Sarantos] Neither. The shakuhachi can take three months just to get one note. The transverse requires many hours of playing to learn just the basic scale. The native flute is one of the easiest instruments to play. I have taught elementary children to play the native flute, and they have started playing songs in about five minutes or less.
Photo by Sandro Lamberti
[Mark Kirby] Describe the flutes that you use in terms of size, number of holes, type of wood, etc.
[Gera Clark] We use flutes ranging from four to six holes and from four inches to five feet.
[John Sarantos] Traditionally, most flutes were made from soft woods; for example, cedar and pine. However, when the Europeans came, they brought with them tools that made it easier to create flutes out of harder woods; some flutes were even made from old gun barrels.
[Gera Clark] Today, flute-makers are creating flutes from all types of woods, from cedars to walnut to iron wood, to even flutes made out of one of the hardest woods: ebony.
[John Sarantos] We also have a wide assortment of clay flutes based on the Aztec and Mayan cultures made by master flute-maker Xavier Quijas Xyotol.
[Mark Kirby] How did you arrive at the name of NightDancers for your musical duo?
[Gera Clark] One day John and I were talking and discovered that we both used to walk around our individual houses in the middle of the night without any lights on. We came up with the name Night Walkers.
[John Sarantos] However, most people we talked to thought that the name sounded too much like vampires or ladies of the evening.
[Gera Clark] After discussing a variety of names, we came up with NightDancers.
[Mark Kirby] When did you decide to record ‘Montana Crossings'?
[Gera Clark] John and I had been playing together for about two years. John would travel from Milwaukee during his vacations, and we would play for our friend Bob Hegler, who encouraged us to keep playing together. We enjoyed playing so much that we used to spend hours playing over speaker phones when John was still living in Milwaukee. When we started performing in local New York venues, people would ask if we had a CD they could purchase. After about a year of doing live performances, we felt that we had created a wide variety of songs that we wanted to share with others.
[Mark Kirby] Why did you choose to record at Avatar Studios in New York City?
[John Sarantos] I had been writing record reviews for the International Native American Flute Journal for about ten years and could tell when an artist used a home computer all the way up to a professional sound studio. If we were going to put our time, effort and money into a recording, we wanted it to sound the best it could. I asked several people if they could recommend a sound studio in New York City. Avatar Studios was one of the top three studios on several people's lists.
[Gera Clark] We were also very fortunate that Tino Passante of Avatar recommended Jim Anderson for our sound engineer. Jim understood the sound that we were striving to obtain, and he succeeded in capturing that sound.
[Mark Kirby] How are the titles connected to the songs you are playing? Are these titles indicative of what the music is supposed to evoke?
[Gera Clark] The titles are indicative of the inspiration behind the music.
[John Sarantos] Hopefully, each person will have their own emotional response to the music depending on their own journey.
[Mark Kirby] What types of events or venues do you play?
[Gera Clark] One of our goals is to help spread the beauty of the flute to others, whether it be playing our music for others to listen [to] or sharing our knowledge on how to play the flute.
[John Sarantos] herefore, we play in a variety of venues for all types of events. You can view our schedule at: www.nightdancersmusic.com and www.myspace.com/nightdancersmusic.