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Imagine, this gifted artist and flute maker lived only a couple of hours down the road from me!
Six months later when I had all but given up hope of hearing from John Rainer Jr., my phone
rang and John was at the other end apologizing for not getting back with me sooner.
It seems he lived at the San Carlos Rez only during the winter and spent the balance of
the year in his home in Utah. He was married to a San Carlos Apache woman.
Mr. Rainer was very gracious and generous with his time. We spoke for almost an hour, during
which he revealed to me that he was no longer making flutes because the saw dust had
compromised his health.
My hopes of owning one of his flutes fell and rose again with his second revelation that he had taught a good friend of his, Dan Fruen, his style of flute making. Dan was a high school science teacher in Utah. John assured me that Dan could make me a flute with that special tuning. What came next really excited me.
"Tell Dan to send me the flute when he has it completed," John said. "I will personally tweak it to give you that sound you are looking for."
So I phoned Dan Fruen in Utah and Dan agreed to make me a flute. Six months went by and no flute. One year and two inquiries. No flute. And so Dan Fruen remains a mystery, and I still do not own a John Rainer Jr. flute with the special tuning. The closest I got to a John Rainer Jr. flute was when I ran across a young man at a street festival in Globe, Arizona, who claimed to be John Rainer Jr.'s son. He was selling John's cassettes as well as very modest, standardly tuned, small pine flutes that he said his father taught him to make.
Five years later I found myself in Taos, New Mexico, about to do an art and craft show. My wife and I arrived a day early and decided to visit Taos Pueblo. This wonderful, old adobe village sang of generations of Taos Pueblo Indians -- artists, craftsmen, women baking on old clay ovens, children and dogs running carefree down its dusty streets. I thought I even heard the strains of distant Indian flutes in the air.
On top of the counter sat a lone pine flute, its bird wobbled out of alignment with its nest, the edges of its finger holes jagged and splintered. John knew what I was thinking and answered before I could raise the question.
"Yes, I recorded Taos Rain Dance with that flute." My eyes widened. "Would you like to try it?"
He handed me the battered flute and I placed it to my lips, remembering to cover the thumb hole that John included in many of his flutes to gain that additional range. At long last I was about to play a flute with that special tuning that only John Rainer Jr. seemed to have. Now I could make that same sound that had haunted me since my trip to Second Mesa at Hopi.
I smiled, fingered the holes, and blew. I was stunned to silence. The old pine flute sputtered like a tired old car, too long on the road and too short on gas.
Mr. Rainer smiled politely, both of us now keenly aware that the magic was in the flute player, not the flute.
The Magic of John Rainer Jr.
It was in an Indian crafts store at Second Mesa on the Hopi reservation that I first heard the flute music of John Rainer Jr. "Taos Round Dance" wafted throughout the store in the most plaintive flute I had ever heard. I bought the tape cassette and listened to it over and over again on my drive home to Apache Junction.
The liner notes to the cassette identified the artist as a member of the Taos Pueblo tribe in New Mexico, as well as a flute maker. In fact, all the songs on the cassette were recorded with Mr. Rainer's own flutes. And so here was the explanation for why I could not duplicate Mr. Rainer's sound with any of the flutes I owned. There was something different about his tuning.
I felt an urgency to contact Mr. Rainer and have him make me a flute with his unusual tuning. So I wrote the artist a letter and mailed it to the snail mail address at the San Carlos Apache Reservation.
I followed the sound and came to a small shop with a sign over the door that read "Songs of the Indian Flute." That sound was unmistakable. It was John Rainer Jr.'s recording of "Taos Round Dance."
I stepped into the dark, coolness of the store and announced, "Hey, that's the flute music of John Rainer Jr."
A tall, husky man greeted me, shaking my hand. "I'm John Rainer Jr."
A flood of memories washed over me and for the briefest of moments I tasted again the disappointment of Dan Fruen and a John Rainer Jr. tuned flute. I introduced myself to John and brought him up to date on my past history with him, Dan Fruen, and a young man who claimed to be John's son.
"That would be me, John Rainer Jr., the second," interjected a young man seated behind the counter.
John Rainer Jr. and Saggio
Taos, New Mexico
"Songs of the Indian Flute" had been re-released on CD. I snatched a copy of volume two from the counter,
bought the CD and handed John the three CDs I had recorded. He started to reach into his money box. I stopped him.
"Your music has been a wonderful gift to me, John," I said. "I want my music to be a gift to you." We said our goodbyes and John gave me Dan Fruen's phone number, encouraging me to call Dan and have him make that flute for me.
I smiled, nodded and left Taos Pueblo with the greatest gift of all -- the magic is in the flute player, not the flute.