Branches Breath: For the love of the flute 

In honor of the anniversary of Sufi poet Jalal ad-D?n Rumi's birth, the Turkish government invites select world musicians to perform at its annual International Mystic Music Festival in Konya, where Rumi made his permanent home.

Officials extended the opportunity to three Indiana-based musicians this September, welcoming American Indian-style flute trio Branches Breath to share the stage with a handful of other groups, including performers from Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia's Altai Republic, India and the Sudan.

Out of more than 200 musical acts that applied to be part of the festival, only six were chosen.

"We were astounded by the offer of the trip," says Jeff Gegner, who plays flute, guitar and percussion for Branches Breath. "We played to an over-packed house and were well received. After the concert, people came up to us in tears. We didn't rehearse, since we mostly improvise, but we did stylize our music to be as moving as possible."

Gegner, the director of Havens Auditorium and the IU Art Gallery on the Kokomo Campus of Indiana University, traveled to Turkey for the sixth annual festival with his bandmates Richard Brooner, a software implementation consultant from Jeffersonville, Ind., and Jason Chaplin, a nursing student from Avon, Ind., as well as Chaplin's wife, Aliya, the band's press manager.

"The festival organizers were specifically looking for an element of mystic music from the North American continent," Aliya says.

A search committee sent invitations to the American Indian Center of Indiana, who passed along the information to Branches Breath. While the members of the band are, for the most part, not American Indian, Chaplin has ancestry a few generations back.

"My great grandmother was Eastern Band Cherokee from Tennessee," Chaplin says, "but I found this out after I started to play. The flute is the connection, regardless of bloodline; it has an old song and an old story to tell."

Although Brooner and Gegner share no bloodline with American Indians, Gegner's family shares in their history. "My great grandfather was adopted by a tribe of Fox Indians in the 1800s and lived with them for years in Iowa," he says. "In hard times, he shared his land and foods with them, and they considered him to be one of the tribe."

A cross-cultural instrument

At the Mystic Festival, more than 1,000 people, including some Turks with a keen interest in American Indian culture, attended the trio's concert. "One of the requests of the festival organizers was that their audience walk away with an understanding of the Native American flute," Aliya says, "because the indigenous flute of Turkey, called the ney, is similar to the Native flute in spirit."

The trip to Turkey was a life changing experience for the band. "We learned so much musically and philosophically, and we were blown away by the respect the people of Turkey had not only for our music, but for the history of the Native American flute and the people who created this breathtaking instrument," Chaplin says.

The three flutists in Branches Breath may play on native flutes, their style is better described as jazz, blues or fusion than traditional American Indian. "Our songs are almost never just one flute, unless it is with a guitar, piano or percussion," Chaplin says. "We may play three flutes in the key of D minor but span three octaves. That means one of us has a flute about eight inches long, the other is a flute about two feet long and the third flute is nearly four feet long."

A Native American style flute requires different care than the traditional "silver" flute used in marching bands and wind ensembles. Tuning isn't as straightforward on a Native American flute as with an orchestral flute. Each native flute is tuned to a different key, depending on the material used and length of the instrument. Thus, playing in more than one key requires more than one flute. Chaplin owns 40 flutes, including a Turkish ney.

According to Chaplin, few American Indian flute makers exist today, especially those who craft instruments by hand, using traditional methods and materials like cedar, box elder or river cane. "The first flutes were made out of what was available where that tribe lived," Chaplin says. "They didn't have a lot of options, considering the tools available."

Friends of the flute

Gegner says a camaraderie exists among flutists of different cultures. "Once someone that plays finds out you do too, you become instant friends," he says.

That's just what happened when the future members of Branches Breath when they met at an Indiana Flute Circle event in January 2008. Chaplin was performing in the lobby of the Hilbert Circle Theatre prior to a performance of Louis Ballard Jr.'s "Incident at Wounded Knee." There, he met Gegner and Brooner, who were also performing, and who seemed excited about the idea of taking their show on the road. A month later, Branches Breath began a stint of 25 gigs their first year, performing in churches and for non-profit organizations.

"We knew right off we were supposed to be doing this," Chaplin says. "Jeff is a sound engineer, and Richard has a bachelor of music in composition from the University of Louisville. I really could not have asked two more perfect guys to form a group."

In the past year, audio engineer and independent musician Adam Riviere, who plays the flute, didgeridoo and percussion, began performing with the group as a supporting artist. "I was originally trained as a jazz musician and from there I began to study world music," says Riviere. "I am an indie artist, but love every part of being in the Branches Breath family."

The Branches Breath trio released their debut album, A Walk through the Woods, earlier this year and hopes to release a second CD in 2010. "It will comprise mainly of the music we performed in Turkey," Chaplin says. "We played some great pieces there and want to share them."

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