Tony Duncan has been performing with hoops for more than 20 years, and is a five-time World Champion Hoop Dancer. Tony Duncan is also an internationally recognized Native flute player. He performed twice for former First Lady Laura Bush and appeared on MTV, The Tonight Show and was in a music video with Nelly Furtado.
Using what he has learned from flute masters such as R. Carlos Nakai and John Rainer, Jr, and his father, Ken Duncan, a noted Apache storyteller from Arizona, Tony Duncan has just released his latest album, Purify, from Canyon Records.
In a conversation with ICMN, Tony Duncan talks about the beauty of the Native flute, the meaning behind his album and offers insights on how to reach his level of success.
What was your Native traditional upbringing and introduction to the flute?
My father is San Carlos Apache, my mother is from North Dakota, from the Mandan Hidatsa Arikara tribes from Fort Berthold. She’s from White Shield, North Dakota. This is where I get my two styles of dance and music. I’m a hoop dancer and a fancy dancer, a flute player and a singer of Apache.
The first flute I ever played was an Apache River cane flute, because that is what my father made me. He played them. As I got older, I received cedar and wooden flutes from my mother’s people.
What would you say about the sacredness of a flute?
The flute is a teaching tool that not only serves as a way to court women, but it also teaches respect for women. When you play a song for a woman, you do it in respect and with honor to her.
The flute is also a way of healing and way to bring yourself into balance and peace. The first teachings I learned about the flute were that when you are finished carving your flute, you would use cattail pollen and sprinkle that pollen in the image of a butterfly over the flute, that way your music will float just like the flight of a butterfly.
You do this with prayer. Because everyone who will be listening, you are hoping to give them good energy, good feelings, good blessings and good health, while leaving them with a sense of peace.
How have you learned to play the flute over the years?
I first started at about 10 and now I’m 33. I used my first flute, the river cane, all of the time. My father encouraged me to listen to R. Carlos Nakai and John Rainer, Jr. I toured with Nakai. He has been a wonderful mentor.
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What would you say to someone wanting to play the Native flute who has no clue where to start?
I would say, listen to the Native flute artists that inspire you. If there is a music that touches you or your soul, listen. Once you find the person you connect with, stay with that.
Any words for potential young flute players?
First find a nice flute. Practice scales which begin with all holes closed then open one at a time. The first thing I learned was “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” which was an easy song. Eventually I learned social songs and more. Practice and don’t give up. Always work hard. One of the key things among people who are successful is that they are always trying to better themselves.
What was your process for creating your Purify album?
My previous albums have been melody-driven. This album is more driven by a feeling. The album arose from a photograph by Barry Wolf. He showed me an image that really resonated with me. I felt as though I was going to the next direction of a human being as a father and a husband and a teacher. When you give Apache prayers you hold out your hands that way. I thought this photo would represent an album cover with a new sound.
Why did you choose the title Purify?
I was born in Phoenix and sometimes the constant city noise invades us. When I go into nature with the flute, it is a way to find balance in ourselves. This album is a way for the listener to purify and wash away those things that affect us.
What has been your experience of working with Nelly Furtado?
Nelly Furtado is one of the most positive people I’ve ever met, and I think that has so much to do with her success as an artist. There is a lot to being talented, but a work ethic is a much bigger part of it. I learned this going on tour with her. We would start before the sun came up and finish sometimes on the tour bus at three in the morning. But then again at 8 a.m., I’d see her smiling.
She’s been amazing to work with. We did the Canadian national anthem.
You got a little bit of flack for that Canadian national anthem because of incorporating a Native flute and social media went pretty negative.
Yes it was very interesting to see how things progressed. I saw everything from behind the scenes of course. but she ended up visiting a small school on a reserve in a first Nations community. The students didn’t know about it, she flew me in and another guitarist. The students wanted to see the same anthem we performed. The entire thing left a very positive impression.
She is an awesome artist.
Have your children been influenced by Native culture?
My daughters are finding their own dance styles; my one daughter loves jingle. My son loves hoop dancing and he hits it like he plays soccer or football. It’s amazing to see.
What’s to come for Tony Duncan?
In June I will be performing with Nellie Furtado in Canada for Aboriginal Peoples Day.
I’ll be offering dance and flute workshops the 24th and 25th of June at the Eiteljorg Indian Market in Indianapolis.
You can also hear an archived radio interview with Tony Duncan on Native Trailblazers online Native American radio show and podcast.
Follow Vincent Schilling (Akwesasne Mohawk) – ICMN’s Arts and Entertainment, Pow Wows and Sports Editor – Follow @VinceSchilling