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Littlesunday’s “Sweat Ceremony”


Jonah Littlesunday played his Native American flutes in mostly original songs and told stories about growing up Navajo. Alone with his pet timberwolf one starlit night with the campfire burning, two mountain lions approached. His pet caught their scent, “peed” on him, thereby saving the full-blooded Navajo. Out of that came “Timber Wolf Song,” animated in compelling indigenous tone.  

A warm, humid Sunday at the Saltonstall Mansion in Peabody led Littlesunday to declare our afternoon a “Native American sweat ceremony.” The expansive porch with its lakeside setting had filled with observant folks.

No wonder Jonah Littlesunday, now on a national tour, is progressively recognized as both a representative of Navajo life and a Native American flutist who dreams songs for that instrument, but he cannot read or write music. Born and raised in Gray Mountain, Arizona, he is in New England for the first time.

Some years ago while on a walk, Reiki teacher Karen Pischke found herself tracking the sound of such a flute coming from a nearby street corner in Scottsdale. That turned out to be Littlesunday’s flute which, she says, spoke directly to her soul. Thanks to Pischke, who occupies an upstairs office in the Mansion, all of us encountered, in an hour-and-half close-up gathering, the original American culture.

The two-chambered flutes of varying sizes all with six holes contain power, can sooth, heal, and play a “romantic” role. The wife-to-be would be seated before her husband-to-be who would court her with his flute. “Loves Lullaby,” his wife’s song wafted warmly, devotedly.

Bells strapped to his right foot often paired with Littlesunday’s flutes. Amplification and minimal electronic effects partied with this 21st-century expression. One of the effects came from his “foot hitting the mike stand,” that would be the drumbeat, the Navajo’s account of the heartbeat. Inflections made evident naturally through breathing, vibrato, and tonguing streamed, never encumbering Littlesunday’s purer bent.

“Navajo Blues” voiced Littlesunday’s plight of stage fright, a severe case as he candidly told us. His elders advised him to “add a beat, change your perspective.” All those listening on the stately Mansion porch immediately caught onto the blues sounding scale of our African-Americans. (Did I even hear a subtly nuanced flatted fifth?)

Littlesunday played at John McCain’s funeral in Washington DC before throngs, including international media. He was more than pleased with all the attention; so why not let us know that major networks, the Navajo Times, and Alice Cooper, who has established a center in Phoenix to guide the young, are giving him far more than passing glance.

He seemed surprised when answering my question, is there a word for “music” in your native tongue. Not to my surprise, no such word exists. “Music,” rather, always has been closely allied to celebration, to healing, and more. Littlesunday then unplugged the electronic setup to demonstrate traditional styles.

The Navajo two-step, a couple’s dance compares to the waltz, he said, but my counting during his playing found no triple beat but a duple. Did he mean that as with the waltz replacing the minuet, couples now could actually touch?

“Southern California Beat” went wickedly fast, so fast that the Navajo flutist’s foot quickly tired. And, he informed us, beat boxes were nothing new to the Native American Comanche style, one in which he both vocalized and fluted “with a little bit of me.”

All stood at Littlesunday’s request as he delivered an “honor song” to America’s veterans, vivid cross-culture communication here and elsewhere speaking volumes for this amicable storyteller-musician. One caveat, though, more music music-making, more succinctness in the storytelling.

N.B. the ten-year-old Jonah received the timber wolf cub orphan from his grandfather after they found the mother shot dead and left in the forest. Beauty and respect ran deep throughout this rare afternoon in New England.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University.  He is the author of 20 Little Piano Pieces from Around the World (G. Schirmer). He has composed music for the Native American flutist and publisher James Pellerite.

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