A brief history

It is a haunting sound, ancient as the peoples who lived out their lives in the forests and on the plains of the North American continent thousands of years ago, a plaintive call of eerie beauty, evocative both of human longing, and of the dark sweet mysteries of nature itself. This is the sound of the North American native flute, and it is a sound you can hear today, deep in the heart of the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island. It seems natural that these flutes should be made here, in the ancestral homeland of the Cowichan peoples, a land of forests, rivers and lakes. Here the sound of the flute echoes through the cedars, like the spirit of the forest itself, and floats across the lake with the primordial purity of the call of a loon. Rommy Verlaan calls the song of these flutes “heart song”, and in her workshop on a rural property along the shore of Cowichan Lake, she works with precision and artistry to craft these beautiful instruments. Each one is unique and is destined to help someone give voice to the longings of the soul.

Also called Lakota flutes, or love flutes, Sioux legend has it that the first North American flute was made by a young Lakota man living on the Dakota plains. Despairing of being able to win the heart of the young woman he desired, the youth travelled deep into the woods to be alone with his feelings, and to seek inspiration. As he slept, Woodpecker pecked holes in a branch and the wind blew through the holes making a beautiful music that lifted the young man’s despair, giving him hope. Guided by Woodpecker, he cut down a branch and fashioned a flute. When he played it for the woman he loved, she was immediately drawn to him, and he won her love; and from that time forward the young Lakota men played flutes to court their love interests.

It is early January, and a wood fire is burning in the fireplace of Rommy’s living room. At the end of an unpaved lane, on a rural road, this house has an unpretentious homestead feel that bespeaks quiet industry and a simple lifestyle. It is an older west-coast home, with large windows off a sunroom on one side, but an otherwise traditional, rather than modern, feel. A comfortable couch sits in front of the fire, and Rommy, with an affectionate small dog in tow, is relaxed and hospitable. The room is cosy, and is filled with paintings by her partner, Zak. One is of Rommy standing tall against a spare background suffused with light. With her long red hair and flowing dress, she looks like a Celtic princess at one with the elements, very much the sort of person one might expect to be making these ancient instruments that evoke a spiritual connection with nature. The fact that she also hangs a shingle as a master level Qi Gong therapist reinforces the impression that she is a natural woman in touch with the intangibles. The making of musical instruments requires practical skills, however, and two doors, one at either end of the living room lead to two separate workshops: one is that of her partner, Zak Stolk, the well-known luthier; the other is her own workshop where she creates her flutes.
Rommy had always been an artistic person, but her creativity blossomed when she moved to Vancouver Island years ago. Entranced by the powerful draw of the island’s natural environment, she soon found a creative outlet painting scenes on driftwood she would find on the beach, and in photography.

Rommy found her passion for making Lakota flutes in Zak’s workshop when local musician, Cree multi-instrumentalist, Ed Peekeekoot, brought his prized red cedar flute to be repaired. It had been run over and was broken into a number of pieces. He had carefully brought all parts with him, and Zak worked to put the flute back together. An extra pair of hands was needed and Rommy put her hands on the flute. Zak so expertly repaired the flute that you could not see the damage it had sustained, and Peekeekoot was able to use it at his CD release party.

Rommy felt drawn to the flute and it occurred to her that here was something creative she could do and make a business of: she could learn to make these flutes. This was an audacious undertaking, as she was to discover. It took her three years to fully learn the craft required to make the exquisitely beautiful flutes she sells today.
First she had to decide what kinds of wood to use, and learn about each. She mostly uses local wood, such as red and yellow cedar and arbutus, but also some more exotic woods, such as purplewood, and ebony. Each wood is slightly different to work with, and has different acoustic properties, with the harder woods resulting in a brighter sound, the softer woods a more plaintive, soulful sound.

The construction of the flute requires careful work. Rommy starts with two pieces of wood, and hollows out the halves with a router, before gluing the two parts together. She then hand carves the mouth piece. Next is the flue, which connects the mouth chamber to the sound chamber. North American native flutes are unique amongst traditional flutes around the world in that they have two chambers. The air blown into the mouth chamber is directed through the flue and out through the true sound hole into the sound chamber. Rommy uses brass to line the flue, and the wood must be meticulously carved on either side of the brass plate at the precise angles required to create the “sweet spot” that ensures optimal sound quality. Rommy uses a succession of files of different thicknesses, often finishing with a nail file at the end, since the result s she is seeking is “give or take a hair”.

Establishing the tuning of the flute is the next challenge. Traditionally these flutes were not tuned to a specific key, and the flute on which Rommy modelled her first attempts had “grandfather tuning”, meaning that the length of the two parts and the placement of the holes were determined by the dimensions of the player’s hands and arms. Rommy quickly discovered that people wanted instruments in specific keys so they could play with others. Today, North American native flutes come in many tunings and various numbers of finger holes, but the most common tuning since 1980 has been the pentatonic minor scale. Rommy’s flutes are all in minor pentatonic keys with six holes, the five notes of the pentatonic minor and one additional hole, which can remain covered, or be incorporated to extend the tonal range of the flute to include the relative major key.
Placing and creating the holes is slow, deliberate work. Rommy starts with the bottom hole, placing it according to the mathematical formula that determines the required pitch and continues working on sizing the hole until it is perfectly tuned to her electronic tuner. She then works her way up the flute, creating, and tuning, each subsequent hole.

When the flute is complete, Rommy attaches the animal carving, or totem. This is a key functional element as well as an aesthetic feature of the flute. It seals off the flue so that the air is directed efficiently into the sound chamber. Rommy carves loons and whale totems, and sometimes Zak will carve totems of other animals for special orders. The totem is tied onto the flute with a leather strap handmade by Rommy.

She finishes most flutes with walnut oil or tung oil, initially, and many are also treated with a varnish created by Zak, or with bees wax and mineral oil. Rommy makes the beautiful lined, cloth bags, consulting with the customer to determine fabric of choice.

Each flute is unique, and Rommy often makes custom orders. Sometimes this includes decorative painting on the flute by Zak. Rommy prides herself on the sound quality and the beauty of her flutes, but also on providing excellent customer service. Recent customer, Jill Jeffrey, is enthusiastic about her experience purchasing flutes from Rommy. After purchasing a minor flute at the Sidney market, she and her husband went on to commission a g minor flute made of arbutus, with a whale totem. Jill found Rommy to be very accommodating, and is thrilled with her flute’s “deep, rich tone” and “wonderful workmanship.”

It has been ten years since Rommy started selling her flutes at the Duncan market. She currently makes and sells approximately 60 flutes a year. They range in price from $275 for a cedar flute to $2000 for an exquisite ebony flute, with a bear totem carved by Zak from the ivory of a walrus tusk from Northern BC. Her flutes have found homes locally and as far away as United States, Scotland, France, Japan, England and Australia.
The challenge of surviving as an artisan, according to Rommy, is at the same time the secret to success: perseverance. She has learned to accept that there is a cycle of ups and downs: “If you really believe in what you doing, then trust in the flow of it. Trust your instincts… Don’t worry about looking at what others are doing: focus on doing what feels right for you.”

Learning to make Lakota love flutes has launched Rommy on a rewarding journey. She has learned how to use tools to create a precision instrument out of wood, something she never anticipated herself doing. In addition, her flutes have given her the gift of music. Not previously a musician, she has learned how to play the flutes she makes, and now gives workshops twice a year, teaching others.

Apart from the aesthetic appeal of the instruments, the fact that they are easy to play is one of the things that Rommy thinks draws people to her flutes. People don’t need to know music, or develop an arduous technique, to express themselves musically on these flutes. Rommy believes, however, that the appeal is something deeper. She has had people at her stand at the Duncan market cry when they hear the sound of her flutes. She believes that when people hear the haunting, soulful sound of the Lakota flute, it resonates somewhere inside them, connecting them to that soulful part of themselves, to an ancestral voice that we have become disconnected from. She believes that the sound of these flutes helps take people back to that place. Time and again, she hears that the purchase of one of her flutes has launched someone off on a journey of self-discovery. For Rommy, knowing that her creative endeavours are contributing to something so life-affirming is one of her greatest satisfactions as an artist.

You can find Rommy and her flutes at the Duncan market on a Saturday, and sometimes at the Sidney market; or, visit her website online at Heart Song Flutes to see some of her work.