Inspiration and Instruction: Doc Tate Nevaquaya’s Comanche Flute Music

By Daniel Garrett

Doc Tate Nevaquaya, Comanche Flute Music
Produced by Verna Gillis
Smithsonian Folkways, 2004

Doc Tate Nevaquaya’s Comanche Flute Music, recorded in 1978 by Verna Gillis and Bradford Graves, is an essential music lesson, beginning with greetings in his Native language and English, and featuring songs of nature, courtship, and victory played on different flutes, and ending with a social dance song.  Introductions to the compositions are given before their performance by Doc Tate Nevaquaya (1932-1996), an Oklahoma Comanche flutist and painter.  Doc Tate Nevaquaya talks about the eagle as a natural fact and a symbol, recalling his own observation of an eagle, which he found mesmerizing and inspiring, leading to the piece he plays on a Comanche cedar flute with six note holes, releasing a hollow, reedy, sharp, wavering sound.  Doc Tate then plays a song, a melancholy vibration of breath-driven notes, long, twirling, sad notes, the song composed by his son that the young man refused to name; and Doc Tate gives the tune his son’s name, “Edmund Wayne.”  Subsequently, Doc Tate stops to explain the sound Native musicians were trying to get on the flute, an ancient, beautiful instrument that was once identified with men, and taboo for women; and he demonstrates a loud, deep resonant tone as the intended imitation of voiced chants.

On Comanche Flute Music, Doc Tate Nevaquaya describes listening at night to nature and communal youth meetings, listening to the chants and the laughter.  When Doc Tate was a young boy, he heard an instrument—and remembered it—and was later told it was a flute playing a courting song.  He sought out the instrument.  Doc Tate Nevaquaya speaks of an Oklahoma moon that allows view of long distances, and plays a song he composed about the moon, a song that evokes nature with its mournful romantic quality, its thick tenderness.  Then he performs an old Comanche flute song composed by Chief Wild Horse, a relative, who created it upon return from a war journey: some of the instrumental song’s phrases are short and full of force, and some of the notes exultant and long—but there remains a certain solitary even melancholy tone for this apparently triumphant music.  (Something in it, probably the rhythmic shifts, reminds me of improvised African-American music, jazz.)  Why melancholy?  It may be that sadness is almost always touched when human existence and its lost possibilities are considered.

Doc Tate Nevaquaya admits that some songs are shared by different tribes, and he plays one such piece, a flute wind song in tones that echo and wail; and follows that with a Nebraska “Omaha Wind Song,” which has a jaunty rhythm, full of turns as it goes on, and in the song I hear something that, funnily enough, brings to mind the music theme from the old “Hawaii Five-O” television show.  A ninety-year old Sioux man gave Doc Tate a song that Doc Tate plays on a Sioux flute with five note holes: it’s not a pretty sound, but it is earnest, natural, solitary, simple, fragile, sounding both old and impermanent.  “If You Really Loved Me (You’d Come Back)” is a romantic lament.  Doc Tate talks about the fact that many Natives, once known for their own special spirituality, have joined western churches; and Doc Tate plays a Comanche tribal hymn inspired by religion, “Jesus I Always Want to Be Near to You,” which actually does have the kind of sustained intensity one expects—but, then, so does much else here.

The beauty of the moon, observed in summer and winter, led to Doc Tate Nevaquaya’s “Comanche Moon Song,” and it is easy to imagine a fiddle or violin playing the lines that the flute does.  The sound could be that of a wolf howling, or a score for a man who keeps diving deeper and deeper into water.  The dance song that closes the collection, a calling, conversational, shouting, whistling piece, is the friendliest send-off.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today.  Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader.  He has an internet log, “The Art Notes of a Solitary Walker,” focused on visual art.  He has written a novel, A Stranger on Earth.