Steev Kindwald is playing the Indian double flute Alghoza for 20 years now. Only after 20 years “one is able to make the instrument sound well”, said his master in Rajasthan once – provided one devotes his time fully and completely to study the Alghoza. Playing the Alghoza is the first thing after waking up and the last thing right before going to bed. Steev plays the double flute several hours per day. He says, it is so much more than merely playing and practicing the instrument. Playing the Alghoza is a state of being, a way of life. And it’s also a balancing act between assimilation and diversification: the art of living like those people that have internalised the Alghoza up to the point of perfection. At the same time, to develop one’s own style of that music, and to form it individually. Helen Hahmann interviewed Steev Kindwald (who also is a recognised expert for asian mouth harps) in the summer of 2019 at DAN MOI in Taucha, Germany.
What was it like to learn the double flute in India with a local master?
If you´re playing these instruments, it can be an enormous commitment, particularly among musician castes, if you want to join and get in, you should do it correctly, you should respect it. And obviously, if you give more, then you get more. On the other hand, you don’t want to become a puppet and just copy traditions.
My main master was very clear. He said for the double flute, “When you learn these songs, it´s only the beginning, it´s very little, it´s almost nothing. You learn the song – Ok. But then, where are the variations?” So every man and every women (in this case it´s men, because they play the double flute) have their variation of their faith and style. As westerners and modern people we may forget that we don´t just copy the songs, we actually play variations. And your variation and mine will be different and then it becomes art and genuine culture.
What did your master for the double flute tell you, when you approached him with the desire to learn his music?
Well, he said, “If you want to play such music, you need to live the same as we do as best as you can. You don´t play your music in our house, you play our music only.” Certainly they would not teach me their language directly, because it´s rather secret, because that´s their private space. In India, private space seems not to be based on physical space, so they create a space for themselves with language. So he said, “You wear the clothing we do, you sleep as we sleep, you eat as we eat, you get sick as we get sick, you drink as we drink and you play as we play and you do the best you can.” Then you can perhaps get the spirit.
Many young people, who spend their time with technology, their music sounds like that. And then the older generation, they look physically very different as well, spend their time definitely with nature and animals, day and night. They live in those very natural conditions and eat natural food and speak the older language and wear traditional clothing, which is not a costume for them. It is their clothing. Those people definitely have a different sound in vibration and colour.
For how many years are you learning to play the double flute?
My teacher said after 20 years the good sound will start to come! So, I´m now with the double flute for 20 years and I´ve been visiting the desert regions as regularly as I can over the past 20 years. My rule is, when I become very sick, I need to leave the village and take a break. It´s a sort of energy saying, “it´s time to do your practice”, because the masters can teach you, it´s very fine, but you have to practice! The practice is almost spiritual in India. The practice is the very big center. So you practice ideally in the very early morning before you put any water on your face, before any tea, before anything, so your body just wakes up and starts doing these things. So there are two questions I´m often asked, when I return: How is your family? And, how many hours do you practice daily? This is another way of dealing with music and arts and your body, because this music is very physical. We are doing a lot of breathing and rhythmic control and sometimes very fast technical layered patterns, it becomes something that is very physical, but also very mental. One could say, these intense experiences of daily practice for 20 years are re-programming our DNA and it becomes a sort of automatism.
It sounds like a very hard way to learn and to live?
It´s just really committed, you know. I think, it depends on what you do with your life energy. Hard or not. It´s just putting in your time for this. Hard may be a modern view. I wouldn´t say, “it´s hard”, it´s just what we do. We wake up and do this until we sleep in the village while the hot winds blow, it´s very simple, or until you just can not do it any longer! My teacher and I would do these “trance/fill in patterns”, we call them “Lehras”. He would put down his watch and would say, “20 minutes one pattern, you start now”. So we could say, it is a hard method for a western system, but you actually learn very well! If you do these kind of things, you play 20 minutes one pattern, you´ll forget your name! It´s really a yogic method in the sense of dealing with sound. In Japanese, there is a simple translation of the word music : “The pleasure of sound”.
What is the history of the double flute, where does it come from?
Its history does actually seem to be based on being with animals. In the desert, the animal is central to everything: to the clothes, to the traditional houses, to the fire, to the food, to the drink, and to the way of life. So the animals have enormous influence. Basically there are goats and camels, and some water buffalo and cows, and now there are sheep coming, but that´s very modern as they are not so suited to the climate. There are a few horses, too, but it´s not common as providing the right food is challenging. We would say, the majority is goats and the minority is us humans! So, how we speak with the animals influences the music, which is very classic for shepherds worldwide. This shepherd culture is mixed with a kind of Sufism. The Sufism that spread in this area is mixed up with the stories of the Indus Valley civilization.
So as a matter of fact no one seems to know or care where these double flutes came from! The history is alive and traditional people often have little interest as they are still in the flow of life as it were. They might have come from Europe as there are many double flute traditions in Southern Europe that root back to the time of Alexander the Great in today’s Macedonia, I think. That is a very strong possibility and indeed surprising as we often imagine that many things came from Asia to Europe – absolutely not, things came from many directions! I can not find any old images of double flutes anywhere despite many years of research. The older double flute music is known to have come into the Indian subcontinent through the Balochistan region of Iran.
Why I chose this region (or it was chosen for me!)? This particular area, technically, has one of the most advanced and living traditions of the double flute in the world. I fell in love with the desert and I often sense its call – even in my free time I often wander there at night in the sands.
What are the names of the double flute and what are they used for?
There are so many names. The classical name anybody uses in the modern world is Alghoza (Algooja). Then also Satara, we call them Pava, Jodiya Pava, or Jori, or Joria, Beenoon. There are so many different names, but you are simply dealing with two whistle flutes and many variations of these flutes and many many kinds of tunings. They are used for calling rain, for thanking the rain, for various ceremonies, for ancestor and trance work, and for singing poetry (we play the poetry of Hazrat Shah Abdul Latif). In the Balochistan region they are openly dealing with a lot of trance work. There is trance work in Rajasthan, too, but I´ve never seen it, it´s quite secret. Perhaps that is the best way to protect such important inner work. Most double flute people are shamans, however they would never tell you this! So it´s an instrument connecting nature and daily life, trance and story-telling.
How is music integrated in the social life of Rajasthan?
The lineage of musician caste I´m dealing with is, verified on paper, 600 to 800 years old and generally it doesn´t get broken, it never shall get broken! However, there are people that are just not good musicians, which does happen every now and then, so they take up farming or work in the textile industry. The musician castes work under a patronage system. They work under the Sindhi-Sipahi, which is one type of Sindhi guardian caste, shepherds. The musicians work for them and play their ceremonies and, perhaps more importantly, sing the songs of their lineage. So basically the musicians are genealogists, which is quite common in a lot of older human cultures. The family of the patron gets bigger, so the families of the musicians inevitably get bigger, too, and you get an enormous network of relationships. They live from this music, and after the ceremonies they would get paid with gifts like animals, grains or today it is even gold or money as well. And then there are private ceremonies for marriages, circumcisions, death ceremonies, and even poetry for older men’s stories. There is an incredible variety of ceremonies involving family life cycles. Then there is also the music of the Sufi saints, that is something else altogether!
Have you been able to learn some of this repertoire?
Certainly. To protect their work, the caste I´m involved with is traditionally not allowed to teach you their music. So when you´re there and you know this, you don´t even think of requesting or trying their actual music as that can bring your relationship to an end! I studied their repertoire myself, but then I ask them what is suitable that goes outside of their personal repertoire. You need to know the rules in order to have a trustful relationship with those people. But they are not going to tell you this, so the minute you start requesting their songs, maybe they just say, “Ok, let´s have tea, it´s time to go home.” So they will try to take care of themselves, and that makes sense to me.
Can you describe the double flute a bit more in detail? What does the instrument mean to you?
We are basically talking about two whistle flutes or recorders. One is the drone, which we call “Nar”, meaning cane reed as they were made of this material in former times. That is the male part. The other flute is the chanter/singer we call “Madi”, and it´s female. I play them every day for 20 years. It´s only 20 years, it means only starting, but it´s enough to feel that it’s part of my life. For me, this particular form of double flute is a treasure for humanity. You are working with very simple objects in a sense, but because they are in a pair the matching must be perfect. You are dealing with something that is very difficult to balance despite its simplicity. We have a drone and a singer, we have an octave and 2 or 3 notes up and 4 to 5 notes below, depending on the fingering you´re using.
To explain the double flute technique: Constant circular breath either steady in the Doha or introduction and then rhythmic breath following the notes and melody. The flutes are in a non-attached pair so the drone needs to be stable and always in tune with the chanter so the player is often doing subtle movements to fine tune the pair of instruments while using the tongue and breath accents to give various types of staccato – and let us not forget the melody and its accompanying patterns, which are also used as a communication context, because the melodies are songs and poetry with well known themes. And the octave is achieved by delicate cross-fingering while the drone is stable plus following the rhythm. So ultimately one has a complete instrument playing melodies and variatons in a clear rhythm with a drone and various modes within each drone as that note can be retuned. There are at least 8 possibilites of tuning and modes within each tuning plus transposition depending on the skill of the player. It keeps one’s breath engaged! Since it is so physically demanding, I make an effort to keep healthy, especially while on tour and performing regularly.
Everyone seems to enjoy the double flute anywhere you go. That is very interesting as I have seen this joy from the vibration of the double flute in my performance in over 15 countries! Even if they don´t know what it is, it does not matter, it always seems to bring happiness or pleasure. It seems to be something humans connect to, and it is definitely quite alive in the desert regions that I go to.
Which repertoire are you playing?
I´m mixing four or five double flute traditions and pieces that originally aren’t double flute songs, but that I adopted. Recently, I adapted a lot of tunes from the Nar, the ancient four-holed Ney style flute of that region. I´m also mixing Japanese songs or Indonesian arpeggios. My phrasing is Jazz and of course I have my own self-created repertoire. When I meet with traditional desert musicians, they would say, „Open up your heart, show me what you know, play something for me“. The first time I played for my master, his first word from his mouth was, “ah, Jazz, that´s Jazz!”. I was very impressed that he knew of this kind of music and thought, “ok then, that´s what it is.” It´s that phrasing that we know from childhood. The musical or cultural side from my family I know is from Transylvania. That kind of music is rather similar, it tends to be very fast, you are dealing with a lot of changes, music that is based on drones, pedal points and modes, so it´s not that far away. Now I´m mixing even more and more, using a lot of different rhythms and changing modes. In India, you generally should not change the mode within the songs, but in Persian music you can. I love to do this, it creates the blue-note-effect. We are playing consciously, which is the very point here. It´s not only music. We are playing and it does something to you; It´s about the effect, not just the form.
What do you want to achieve with your music?
When traditional people share their music, we can say it´s a gift. In reality, it´s a responsibility once you start getting into the culture. I´m deeply satisfied to live from my music. Inspiring people is extremely important, as so many have inspired me! And to continue this work, because it is really a pleasure. When I perform 3 to 5 nights a week, I´m very happy. I practice many hours daily anyway, so it´s very easy and natural. Really, it´s ecstatic music. To bring people inner joy, outer joy, to bring them pleasure, to bring them feelings or something inside of themselves, you are dealing with states of consciousness.
I have also compiled a huge body of traditional field recordings over the years, which have not been published yet. I pay the artists who I recorded. I discreetly take care of the families, of their problems, that´s what I put my life into. Some of these traditions are actually going away, so it might be the time to release them. I have compiled an enormous body of recordings of jaw harp music from central and eastern Indonesia, a lot of double flute music and I have recorded all the Nar masters in India (the ancient four-holed Ney flute of this desert region), that I could find. I have only seen nine masters in 20 years, that is not enough as they are so rare now! I´m also interested in and have recorded a lot of traditional trance/ecstatic festivals in Asia, meaning trance where people are working with states of consciousness in a spiritual context. I worked with a lot of tribal people in Burma and the border in Thailand for many years, to honor these traditions and maybe inspire people for the future.
My most recent work has been the triple flute that I developed where there is one drone and 2 chanters in non-unison tuning that can play across each other in both legato and staccato. One really needs to open up for that kind of breath! And the other one is my creation, too, the Jajbina, a 1.5 metre cross-blown circular breath based trance pipe! She has 7 registers and is still in development after around 12 years of intensive practice. There are only a few limits in the realm of deep practice and breath! And I must not forget the Saluang – the trance flute of the Minangkabau people in Sumatera, where I do research on their trance flute traditions – 4 holes in a large piece of bamboo blown almost exclusively in the multhiphonic mode with circular breath!
Which other flute cultures did inspire you?
In the last seven or eight years I´ve been very strongly interested in music archaeology. I´m reproducing a lot of the ice age and other period flutes. By the way, the oldest undisputed flutes/clarinets are found in Germany! I´m also working with the ISGMA, the International Study Group of Music Archaeology. We work with musical instruments to see where humans come from. So we know that 41.000 years ago humans knew the second, the minor third, the fifth, the octave. I have verified that now from many working models. The blockflute we know existed at least 32.000 years ago. And then there is the whole world of ancient Egypt – a fascinating variety of flutes I have worked on...
What does it feel to play on replicas of ancient flutes and to reproduce ancient sounds?
When you play paleolithic flutes you definitely will find these great in effect. I was playing some of the findings I made copies of from Hohle Fels in the Ach-valley, the Ice Age period flutes/clarinets from Germany. I was playing them for some people at the Ancient Trance Festival and there was definitely quite an effect, because this is from your ancestors, the sound of them. Mammoth hunters, very strong people without a doubt, who survived several ice ages. They were living and travelling in valleys where there were microclimates. I consider a lot of these instruments as time machines. So recently I´m interested in collecting antique Japanese Shakuhachi. When people say, “why would you want this, they are hard to play and out of tune. I said, „well, because they are time machines that show us a window of sounds that are indeed in tune within the context of the period of non-westernized Japan”.
So you play with time and the concept of memories. When you dispose of the concept of equally tempered tuning, which has only existed actively for less than 200 years, you are basically playing with frequencies of all of our ancestors and the nature which has nurtured our species.