Geri LittleJohn has been making Native American style flutes for 24 years. And to her, even after all this time, each flute she makes is unique, a combination of woodworking and soulcraft. Transforming a piece of wood into an expressive instrument is an adventure, a joyous journey, an exploration in finding the perfect voice for that one flute.
After graduating from Duke, she began working with renowned flute maker Hawk LittleJohn in an informal apprenticeship as she tried to figure out what was next for her. That apprenticeship grew into Woodsong Flutes and marriage and a shared life or craft, land stewardship, ceremony, and community. After Hawk's death from cancer in 2000, Geri dedicated the next few years to raising their son born in 2001. When she came back to flute-making, she did it under a new name, Green Grass Flutes, to honor the process of grieving and renewal. About seven years ago, Geri began playing flutes publicly. With that shift in focus, from maker to player/maker came another name change. Wicozani Flutes.
She has been a featured performer at numerous Native American Flute festivals and opens and closes the Lake Eden Community Arts Festival in Black Mountain twice annually with flute song. She has played to greet the sun and to put the day to rest, at births, weddings and at death beds, for yoga workshops, weekend retreats, ecstatic dances, and in service to her Community. This makes her rather unique as a flute maker. In addition to being one of the few women crafting flutes, she is that rare combination of healing sound practitioner, performer and maker. Understanding the importance of the flute's voice in not only being pleasing to the ear but also effective on a more subtle level has translated into choosing to spend as much time giving a flute its voice as giving it its form. She speaks in person with every person interested in receiving one of her flutes to ensure that the instrument they receive will be just the right one.
Geri and Hawk eventually married and settled into the rhythm of making flutes, working side by side in their greenhouse, and doing Ceremony together. They worked long hours at a craft they both loved and developed a reputation for fine instruments with sweet voices. With the release of R. Carlos Nakai’s “Canyon Trilogy,” demand grew. They began experimenting with making flutes in many pitches and different configurations. “We were part of the movement that took the native flute from a folk instrument to one that could be played with other instruments, taught in schools, and featured in symphonies.” They made flutes together for eight years. In May 2000, Hawk was diagnosed with cancer. When Hawk was close to dying, he said to me, ‘One day you are going to be better known as a flute player than a maker.’ I laughed at him, but it stuck in my head and planted a seed.
“A few years later, a musician friend encouraged me to play more, to stop being stingy with my gift. ‘Just say yes whenever anyone asks you to play.’ So I started saying yes to opportunities to play as service. Those ‘yeses’ took me a lot of places: nursing homes, memorial services, births, weddings, deathbeds, yoga studios, meetings at non-profits, and local festivals.”
Geri says Hawk’s premonition was right on. “I’m surprised at how often when I meet someone locally, they look at me and say, aren’t you that flute player…?” Geri’s transformation from flute maker/player to maker/performer started when her friend, well-known Native Flute Player and Grammy award winner Mary Youngblood, asked if she would do a duet with her at the Potomac Flute Festival where Geri was selling her flutes. “I said yes, thank you. As I was sitting in the audience waiting to join her, I asked myself, do you want to go up on that stage as Mary’s friend Geri the flute maker? Or do you want to go up on the stage like you belong there? I realized that I wanted to go on stage to offer my music and love of the flutes I make. I came home and asked producer Mark Fields to ask Peter Kater, ten time Grammy award nominee, who pairs his masterful piano playing with the flute playing of R Carlos Nakai, if he would let me play a song at his Jubilee performance. To my delight, he invited me to play three songs with him.
“When I perform, I open up sacred space. I play very simply. The flute-maker side of me allows the flutes themselves to sing and let whatever wants to be expressed at that moment be expressed while speaking directly to the hearts of the people listening. My first flute teacher was Hawk and he always said, ‘If you couldn’t sing, the flute is your other voice.’ Hawk would also say, ‘Keep ego out of the way and become a hollow bone.’
“I really focus on that. I ask that Spirit keep me out of it and that the listener receives whatever they need at that moment. Each time I play a healing sound concert or simply offer up a song as prayer, I call upon my years of participating in Ceremony. As I work with flutes in an intentional way, I begin to understand how important vibration is – how everything vibrates at a different frequency. By working with these frequencies, energy can be shifted. Music heals – the body, mind, and spirit. A low flute can connect a listener with the earth that supports us, nourishes us, and gives us life. A clear, high pitched flute speaks directly to our spirits. As a wind instrument, the flutes remind us to breathe.
“The whole experience is an inner journey. When we play the Native Flute, there is always an invitation to center, to release and to receive, and then to integrate. When I play a concert, it is my hope that the listeners leave feeling lighter, more loving, more connected, nourished, awake and aware.
“Trees are some of my best teachers. They are my friends. Within the trees there are all the elements: sunlight, wind, water, the sound of the birds. They’re rooted in the earth and teach us about the value of stillness, show us how to dance in one place. I often speak about our relationship with trees. We are each others’ lungs. Every time the trees exhale, we inhale. When we sing or play a wind instrument, our exhale is music. Working with wood keeps me deeply connected, grounded, rooted. I started making flutes from branches about eight years ago. They force me to work with what is. It’s an amazing thing to take a branch and help it have a voice.”
Native flutes are actually instruments of transformation. “Yes, they play music but are so much more. When I am working with someone to craft a custom flute, I spend time to see what’s going on in his or her life. I ask why they want a flute and what they hope to do with it. I think about that person and their dreams while working, allowing time to be part of the formula. Some flutes I make because a piece of wood calls out to me.
“When a person purchases a flute I share the tools that will help them experience and explore it. I don’t give a set of exercises but help them remember how to be expressive. They are also welcome to come by the studio to get pointers. I have encouraged people to find their own branch for a branch flute. One woman did; she knew just the tree, a mulberry her father had planted. She wanted a flute to play for her daughter who was having her first child. It sat there for the longest time and I didn’t feel compelled to work on it. One day I received this call saying her daughter had miscarried. I thought, ‘Wow, I can’t make this high pitched flute now because they are grieving.’ Later I got the go ahead internally to start it, so cut the branch in two and spent time working on it. Shortly after, I received a phone call from the woman saying her daughter was pregnant again. I sent the flute and she was able to play it when her granddaughter was born. She went on to use the flute to work with abused children and so for her, it wasn’t just about the flute. It totally transformed her life and gave her purpose to make this huge difference in the world.
“Before there was the word there was vibration according to Sufi belief. Many of the Lakota songs are ‘vocables’ and have no words but even in the ones with words, the vibration comes first. The vibration of the flute goes everywhere and I have learned to focus more on playing for healing. I just want to play a loving energy while feeling joyous and hearing the sound coming out. In the end, if that is all I did, that would be enough. It’s a gift.”
With Geri’s tutelage and encouragement I gained the confidence to play the native flute… to connect at the heart level with this beautiful instrument of transformation, which was a lifelong dream. At the moment I am patiently and eagerly awaiting the birthing of my new flute! Thank you Geri for what you have imparted to me and the healing vibration of your flutes that touches our community and the world!
Text from article by Sophia Noll and WNCWoman.com