Flutist Spends Decades Learning Native American Styles

Nov 9, 2017

Gary Stroutsos with Zuni drummer Florentine Johnson
Credit Jan Nickman

This year’s Michigan Festival of Sacred Music will feature a performance by Gary Stroutsos. He’s a flutist from Seattle possibly best known for playing Native American styles. Stroutsos will play Saturday, November 11th at 11 a.m. at the Kalamazoo Nature Center. 


Stroutsos spent more than 25 years learning from Native peoples, but he isn’t Native American himself. He’s a Greek, Italian, and Lebanese guy who grew up in Vermont.  

Stroutsos says he fell in love with the flute when he was a student at Grand Valley State University.

“I went to East Lansing and stood in line for five hours to get in the front row for my idol at the time in 1973, the great British band Jethro Tull with Ian Anderson on flute," he said. "The next day I bought a flute in a pawn shop and started to self-teach myself.”

Stroutsos didn’t end up creating a rock band. Instead he got into American jazz and Afro-Cuban rhythms. Stroutsos says he studied with jazz greats like James Newton and Herbie Mann and got to meet Latin favorites like Poncho Sanchez and Tito Puente.

Stroutsos says jazz was a tough business. He says he had a hard time getting enough people together to play gigs and he didn’t like the environment at the clubs. So he left. Then, something else caught his ear.

“I had heard a Lakota, American-Indian flute player named Kevin Locke that recorded a solo flute record in Harney Peak in South Dakota in the black hills and it kind of captured my imagination,” said Stroutsos. 

Stroutsos says Locke’s sound spurred him to better understand the culture and music of the Lakota.

“So I journeyed to Bismarck, North Dakota on my own and found some of these Indian people that I first came up with in the late 1990s,” he said.

That’s when Stroutsos signed on to the Native American record label Makoché out of Bismarck. According to the label’s president, Stroutsos was one of Makoché Records’ first musicians and is the only non-tribal member on the label to this day. Stroutsos says the Native American artists on Makoché wanted their music to reach a wider audience.

“People didn’t really understand a lot about the music that was coming from the plains of Dakota except for a lot of the pow wow groups,” he said. 

Stroutsos says the flute is used for many things in Native American cultures, but in the plains it was a romantic instrument.

“The young men played love songs to attract a woman,” he said.

Stroutsos says it wasn’t enough for him to be able to play these indigenous melodies, he had to make the songs “sound like the land.” He says there are unique pauses in Native American flute music that are essential to the sound.

“It took me so long to understand this ‘cause I used to play really fast," he said.

Stroutsos says his friend Paul Thompson—a Navajo man who, Stroutsos says, was the first Native person to make wooden flutes for non-Native people—would tell him it's all about hearing the music in-person from the people.

“I think a lot of people struggle with playing the Native flute because they’re trying to get to that sound, but a lot of them haven’t spent the time with the people," said Stroutsos. "You can’t get it from records and listening, you have to go in and come out the other end.”  

Stroutsos would go on to adapt many Native songs for flute—including some from the Mandan, the Zuni, the Navajo, the Salish, and the Hopi people. He says he collected a lot of stories along the way.

“Learning about the Zuni sunrise song and the morning prayer song and how the men went out and sang and it echoed across the canyon walls and it welcomed the day," said Stroutsos. "I can tell you some stories and then I can play the story on the flute.”

Stroutsos’s own sound is a mixture of all of his backgrounds. He says he draws from Native American and Afro-Cuban rhythms in his music. Stroutsos says sometimes he even takes a melody he’s learned and puts it into a jazz structure.

In fact, he says he was one of the first people to do this in his song “Shi Ni Sha—I Am Walking” back in 1997. In it, Stroutsos starts out with a Navajo chant, improvises, and then goes back to the chant.

Stroutsos says a lot of tribal elders appreciate hearing his music. He remembers one woman in particular in Montana and what affect his flute had on her.

“She started crying and I thought I did something wrong and she said, ‘No, it just reminds me of my relatives and days gone by. We don’t hear the flute anymore in the valley,'" said Stroutsos. "That’s profound stuff.”

Stroutsos says he realizes that not everyone wants to hear this kind of culturally-steeped music from a white man. But he says it’s not about him—it’s about preserving musical traditions and remembering the people he learned from.

“It’s not a form of entertainment. I’m not doing a ceremony, but it’s kind of a life-way for me. You create positive bonds through the music and I bring people to a spirit of place," said Stroutsos.

Flutist Gary Stroutsos will perform with percussionist Carolyn Koebel Saturday, November 11th at 11 a.m. at the Kalamazoo Nature Center. The Nature Center will also screen the documentary “Remembering the Songs: Music of the Zuni, Navajo, and Salish Peoples” which features Stroutsos’s music.