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
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
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.