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Yellowknife Flutes

In Lawrenceburg, flute maker and musician Fred Keams is keeping an old tradition alive through his Yellowknife Navajo Flutes. Keams makes each flute by hand, and says it takes approximately a week to create one from start to finish. The results is a unique and beautiful sounding instrument.

Keams’ journey as a flute maker started when he had moved away from home and was going through a period of depression.

“One day I was sitting outside on the porch, and my cousin brought out a flute,” Keams remembers. “I heard this beautiful sound, and it just touched me inside. I didn’t look, I was looking down, and I heard him playing for about a minute. Then afterwards, I looked at him and he was playing a Native American flute. Ever since then, it just stuck with me.

“When I started making flutes, I went through all the trials of different wood: hard wood; soft wood; exotic wood,” says Keams. “Hardwood has a really solid sound. Exotic wood fluctuates more up and down, high and low.”

Cedar is a traditional material for Navajo flutes, and Keams says it can stand up to condensation without losing its sound, which is a concern in humid Kentucky. Keams uses a table saw and a router to bore out the wood for each flute. He drills the holes and will ultimately use a hot iron to burn the holes, tuning them to the right place.

“The traditional flutes are five-hole, but we added the sixth hole to play patriotic songs like Star-Spangled Banner, Taps, Amazing Grace,” says Keams. “But the traditional five-hole—they call that a grandfather flute—is not tuned to any key. It’s tuned to the maker’s ear.

“I think the flute is a very special instrument from the creator and for Mother Earth,” says Keams. “We go out and we get the wood and we bring that wood to life. We pass it on and help others feel better. It’s good medicine.”

This segment is part of Kentucky Life episode #2507, which originally aired on November 17, 2019. Watch the full episode.