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Forebears' Music Is Gentle on His Mind

Native American flutist Bill Neal tries to convey the soothing aspects of his craft to the audience.


An outstretched hand hovers over a pond, then lowers until just the fingertips kiss the pond's silent face. The touch is brief and gentle, but it sets the still surface into soft, circular ripples.

It's a soothing image, one that Native American flutist Bill Neal says he tries to impart to audiences wherever he goes. Neal--a 53-year-old Cherokee who performs under the name Elk Whistle--has spent the past four years sharing the image with others, and through it, he hopes, a sense of peace and unity with the natural world.

Saturday evening he will take part in two performances with Chumash storyteller Giorgiana Valoyce-Sanchez in the La Sala Auditorium at the San Juan Capistrano Regional Library as part of the library's Multicultural Arts Series. The volunteer-run series presents music, dance and visual art about twice a month.

"I often play with my eyes closed. . . . I can tell the music is affecting people because of what I hear," Neal said. "Initially, I may play louder and quickly to overcome the noises around us, but when I quiet it down and hold some of the soft, sustained notes, the room gets really hushed. That's when I know I'm getting to people."

An Air Force brat, he grew up in various places, and except for a few stories passed onto him by his mother, he knew little about his heritage. As an adult, he began reading up on the subject, but it wasn't until a few years ago that he became an active member of the Native American community in Southern California.

He began attending local powwows, including the Southern California Indian Center's annual event at the Orange County fairgrounds, where he first ventured into music.

"I was invited to sing with the Red Spirit dancers, a Native American drum group, so I started learning the phrasings and vocalizations and throat techniques of traditional music." Neal, who now lives in Yorba Linda, says he was influenced heavily by the recordings of Carlos Nakai who was, Neal says, key to raising public awareness of Native American flute music.

"By that point, I was hearing the songs in my head all the time. When I got my hands on a flute, I realized I could sing those traditional songs through it." Although he had no prior musical training, he soon was in demand as a performer at the powwows and his career grew steadily from there.

His Elk Whistle Native American Flute Ensemble opened the Dance Kaleidoscope's world cultures program at the John Anson Ford Theatre in Los Angeles last summer. He has recorded "Songs From Turtle Island," a collection of Native American flute songs he created with another artist, and he is at work on a self-produced solo recording that he hopes to release early next year.

Last week, he was invited to join the Orange County Performing Arts Center's From the Center roster of artists who perform in schools. He performs solo almost every weekend and frequently joins Valoyce-Sanchez and other Native American artists in concert.

In San Juan, Neal will wear Cherokee regalia, but the music and the instruments he will play can be traced to dozens of tribes. He calls his cedar flutes "plain flutes" and says they are typical of ones commonly associated with the Lakotas and Comanches. The tunes are his own interpretations of traditional music he has heard throughout the Native American community, and each is performed a little differently at every performance, colored by his mood and the feeling he gets from the crowd.

Though he says he tries not to be preachy, he often uses his performances to speak out on the plight of all Native Americans in Southern California, home to the largest concentration of Native Americans in the United States.

As part of his performances here, he will accompany Valoyce-Sanchez as she presents Chumash stories and original poems (she will present several pieces without music as well). Neal says Native Americans consider storytellers "keepers of wisdom" because they pass on knowledge from generation to generation, and he considers Valoyce-Sanchez, who teaches in the Native American studies department at Cal State Long Beach, to be one of the best around.

He says she honors him by calling him "keeper of songs." He bears another name, given to him by a spiritual leader: "Sings With His Heart."

When he's not playing, Neal will share legends that explain the significance of the flute in Native American tradition, including a Lakota story that tells how all the world's animals and birds gave the flute its voice by putting their songs into it.

"I think we're at a point where people are realizing how important the traditional wisdom of the Native American people really is . . . especially in regard to the environment," says Neal, who spent most of his pre-musical career working in environmental management.

"These flutes come from a time when the sounds we heard were the sounds of nature . . . the sound of water running over rocks and wind through the trees and the songs of birds, frogs and crickets. If people listen quietly, they can hear those songs, and the flute can take them to another place."

* Who: Elk Whistle and Giorgiana Valoyce-Sanchez: Keepers of Song and Story.

* When: Saturday at 7 and 9 p.m.

* Where: La Sala Auditorium, San Juan Capistrano Regional Library, 31495 El Camino Real, San Juan Capistrano.

* Whereabouts: From Interstate 5, exit at Ortega Highway and drive west. Turn right onto El Camino Real. The library will be on the left, just past the mission.

* Wherewithal: $3-$6; seating is limited.

* Where to call: (714) 248-7469.

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