By Jeff Berg / Photos by Maria Kruse
My first experience with Native American flute music occurred about 20 years ago. Traveling south from my then-home in Montana to Utah, my goal was Capitol Reef National Park in Utah. I had not been there before, and felt that it was certainly a place that I needed to visit.
Several days of driving brought me to the visitor's center on a beautiful autumn day. Upon entering, I was immediately embraced by the gentle trilling of a flute. I recall the moment vividly, and was completely transfixed by what I was hearing. It turned out that it was a solo by noted Native American flutist R. Carlos Nakai. He is probably more responsible for bringing this genre of music back to us than anyone else, although there are a number of other notable flute players including New Mexico's own multitalented Robert Mirabal (Taos Pueblo), Joseph Fire Crow (Northern Cheyenne) and Bill Miller (Mohican). Other talented flutists nationally include the duo of Coyote Oldman (Michael Graham Allen and Barry Stramp) and Douglas Spotted Eagle.
Soon, fans of Native American flute music may be adding the name of Randy Granger of Las Cruces to that list. He is one of five finalists in this year's Musical Echoes Native American Flute Competition in Ft. Walton Beach, Fla., which was being held as this issue went to press.
If you've heard Granger at his recent performances—at the Las Cruces Museum of Art, the Organ Mountain Cafe, the Farm and Ranch Museum, or last month preceding the Mesilla Valley Film Society's screening of Trudell—or heard his latest CD, "Mourning Dove," you'll know why he's a rising star in the Native American flute universe. If you haven't yet had the pleasure, you're in luck: This month Granger will perform at the Birth and Wellness Fundraiser at the Blue Teal Winery in Las Cruces on May 6 (see Body, Mind & Spirit section in this issue) and at the Normal Heart Fundraiser on May 27 (details to be announced). On June 9 he'll perform at the Albuquerque Pride Festival.
I first met Randy Granger about six months ago at one of those many events at which he performs—prior to a special screening of a film called Christmas in the Clouds last November. The audience of 300 (give or take) was thoroughly taken in by his talent.
Yet Randy Granger is a newcomer to the world of flute music, having only been playing the instrument for about two years. His musical background extends far back before that, however. He's earned several music scholarships along the way. And during high school and college, he taught drum and guitar.
Originally from Hobbs, Granger first came to Las Cruces to attend NMSU, after graduating from Hobbs' College of the Southwest with an associate's degree. "I was a journalism school major, but never used my degree," says Granger, who looks a bit like Paul Simon. "When I went back to Hobbs, I worked for the daily paper there for a while, the News-Sun. But it was in circulation work, not in the newsroom."
As anyone who has worked in the circulation department of a daily newspaper knows, sooner or later, no matter what your position, you end up helping to deliver "down" routes, paper routes temporarily without a regular carrier. That not being a career of choice, Granger began to concentrate more on his lifelong interest in music.
"I was fortunate enough to be part of a touring Jazz group, and we went to California. I was a drummer and singer, and also did some choreography, and we ended up at a Disneyland-type venue. After the tours ended, I went back to California with some cousins with the idea of really getting involved in the music business."
But that turned out to be a negative experience, Granger says, as his time in California became one humiliating incident after another. "We had to pay to play in Los Angeles, and it was really disheartening to learn that the music industry is the way that it is.
"I soon ran out of money, and moved to Albuquerque. I did small tours, did some recording of my music, in a modern rock group called Peat. We did fundraisers, festivals, and rallies, too. While in Albuquerque, I went on a lot of sojourns to El Paso to play."
Perhaps surprisingly for someone who makes liltingly lovely music on the flute, Granger admits to being a big fan of the rock group KISS. Other influences or admired musicians include Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Steve Earle and the late, great Warren Zevon.
"I also play the didgeridoo now," Granger says. The didgeridoo is a wind instrument thought to be developed by indigenous Australians more than 1,500 years ago.
Even as a rock musician, Granger had a great interest in other genres of music, including mariachi and cowboy tunes, and he has even sung opera professionally. But now he mostly concentrates on his own music.
But as the old joke goes, what do you call a drummer without a good friend? Homeless. Granger soon learned that even though he wasn't exactly homeless, he did need to have a day job to supplement the bit of income from his musical ambitions.
"I ended up working at the All Indian Pueblo Council office in the drug treatment centers," he recalls. "I would travel to the pueblos doing HIV education, and became an HIV counselor and coordinator. I got involved with the different pueblo health boards, and as I was going to the different places, I would hear the flute music.
"I was struck by the stillness, peacefulness and stately silence of it. Just driving into the Jemez or Isleta (Pueblos in northern New Mexico), I would be in the middle of a lot of housing with a lack of electricity and a lack of Wal-Marts, and I was aware of this sense of peacefulness."
Granger also worked at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque. But he hadn't thought much about his own Native American heritage, until a Zuni friend stayed with his family for a time.
"He introduced me to Native thought, culture and so on. As it turns out, I am part Native American, but it is of undocumented ancestry. The confusion is similar to that of (American Indian activist) John Trudell. My great-great-grandfather on my Mom's side was Tarahumara (a Native Mexican tribe who mostly live in the Copper Canyon area of Mexico). But he found someone else with his wife one day, killed him, and fled to the United States. My Dad's side probably has some Apache in it."
Granger discovered all of this after having a DNA test done because he couldn't get a straight answer about his lineage. Besides being part Native American, he has German, Spanish and Asian ancestry. "It also showed that I had two percent Saharan African," he adds.
Granger was so fascinated at what he learned that he now encourages those around him to get a DNA test to help identify their ancestry.
His parents and ancestors were not on the Dawes Rolls, named for Massachusetts Sen. H.L. Dawes, which record land allotments given to Native Americans after 1887 and remain a key genealogical resource for those seeking to prove their Native ancestry. "And I still don't have a clear idea of which part is Native American, but I think the largest place that it lives is in my heart."
Life in Albuquerque started to turn sour for Granger after a few years. "I was involved in everything (musical) in Albuquerque and also worked in some clubs in Santa Fe," he says. "But the city started to become too violent, and I moved to what I thought was a better part of town. But my neighbor's house was robbed, and I started to think, 'This is crazy.'"
Another time, while sitting in the world-famous Frontier Restaurant in Albuquerque, Granger watched as a man involved in a fight fell into the window of the restaurant.
But the last straw came when Granger was standing in line at a video store in the city. "A guy comes in and just starts yelling at the clerk: 'DO YOU HAVE BOOGIE NIGHTS?' He is screaming at her, so I said, 'Maybe after she is through helping that customer, she can help you.' The guy goes out to his car and pulls a sword! A sword! He followed me out of the video store and to a Walgreen's."
All of Granger's limbs appear to still be attached and in working order, so apparently the guy left to go find his video.
"Having a saber pulled on me over Boogie Nights. . ." Granger shakes his head.
So, it was on to Las Cruces.
Here Granger has managed to combine his other skills with his music to make a living. He has also been a licensed masseuse for 15 years, a Web designer, a published poet and a writer. Cooking is something he enjoys doing, but has not tried to do so professionally yet.
But he admits, "Everything I do has a creative edge to it."
Certainly that's true of the story of how Granger came to learn to play the Native American-style flute. "I had a dream one night, and in that dream, I was shown that in the middle of the Earth, that Native people were playing the flute. One woman was playing constantly, and if she stopped, people all over the world would stop.
"If you could hear how the universe would sound, it would sound like a flute in the key of F."
Ordering his first flute just over two years ago has proven to be a life-altering experience. He was invited to play at a festival in Zion National Park, Utah, a while back, and late last month he performed with the aforementioned Bill Miller and Coyote Oldman at the Musical Echoes event.
Granger's unique style often blends two very traditional types of music—the Native American flute and traditional Americana-type songs, such as "Shenandoah" and "Amazing Grace."
"You cannot play the flute unless you are in a peaceful state," he says. "The flute can't disguise what you are feeling, since it affects your breathing. I have to be in a calm state, and the flute forces me to be present, to be in 'pure vibration.'"
Many flute players make their own instruments. Granger has no interest in doing so, he says, "but everyone always asks me that."
Granger is also very aware of issues that are facing Native people across the country. He is not currently as active as he would like to be because of other commitments, but his songwriting often reflects this awareness, such as these opening and closing verses from his song, "One Little Indian":
Contact information for booking and
for buying Randy Granger's CDs is
Senior Writer Jeff Berg likes to listen.