by Amanda Wyatt
For Hawk Henries, the flute is more than just a musical instrument — it’s a teacher, a spiritual guide and a gateway to exploring and appreciating cultures across the globe.
For the past 25 years, Henries has been performing and handcrafting his own flutes out of his home in Maine. Nationally recognized, he travels across the country to share his music — and his stories — with eager listeners.
Last week, Henries made his way to the Hayground School in Bridgehampton, where he spent the week working with students as a visiting artist. Last Thursday evening, Henries’ visit culminated in a public performance at the school for the community.
A member of the Chaubunagungamaug band of Nipmuck — a people indigenous to what is now Southern New England — Henries plays a mix of both Native flute music and instruments from around the world. As he travels, he totes with him not only his own homemade flutes, but instruments like the Australian didgeridoo, the West African kora, and Zimbabwean mbira.
But as a teenager growing up in New England, Henries was not particularly interested in indigenous music or culture. In fact, he was unaware of his Nipmuck roots until he met his father at the age of 17 — and his initial reaction was less than enthusiastic.
“In retrospect, I find it interesting myself that I rejected all of it,” he admits. “When we first went to some cultural [events] — we went to some powwows and ceremonies and other things — none of it made sense to me. I had no context and no knowledge, and I thought it was rather hokey.”
But as he got a bit older, Henries says he began to do some soul searching.
“I’ve always been creative and there’s always been outlets for that creativity, but there was an aspect of that that didn’t meet a need that I had,” he says. “What some people would call a spiritual need.”
One day, while sitting at home thinking about a ceremony he had attended, Henries remembers, “it became really clear… All the little happenings, the little things that I had pushed away, they made sense then. I was eager then to go and to learn more.”
At the same time, Henries’ passion for the flute also took some time to steep. While he enjoyed listening to many musical genres — he’s particularly fond of Baroque music — music was “something I had never really delved into.”
“I was listening to Native flute music and one day, almost literally, it just sounded completely different and I knew that was the instrument I needed to spend time with,” he says.
While he has learned from other musicians, Henries is largely a self-taught musician.
“The flute itself was the teacher,” he explains.
And as it turns out, he is also a self-taught flute-maker. In fact, his foray into flute-making was rather a happy accident.
“My family gifted me my first flute, and I thought I could improve the sound of it,” he says. “It was already a nice flute but I wanted to make it better — and I ruined it. And I also knew that they weren’t going to buy me another flute, so I had to figure out how to make it work again.”
Today, in addition to performing, Henries makes and sells his own flutes. Many are crafted from wood — some of which he collects himself and some of which is given to him by carpenters and others who know of his work. He notes he can even carve flutes out of sunflower stalks, burdock and other plants.
Between carving, shaving, sanding and burning, making a flute without electrical tools takes about 40 hours on average, Henries says, but it’s well worth it.
The instruments he doesn’t make are usually gifts from others, he says. Occasionally, he will trade a homemade flute for another instrument, but the majority are from friends, family members and even strangers.
And Henries couldn’t be happier with his eclectic collection of instruments.
“I’m like a child in a candy store,” he jokes. “And now that I’m getting older, I’m not really concerned with what it sounds like. I just love the journey.”
Most of the instruments he plays “come from really old traditions, bard-like traditions,” he says. Being able to learn about these traditions is a perk of playing music.
“I’m really happy that the flute itself kind of opened doors to my exploring music and the cultures behind the music,” he says. “A lot of my interest is to learn about the people who use them and their culture, their tradition, their way of being on the earth.”
“A large part of what it is that I do with music is to examine ways that we can make our relationships healthier with each other, between peoples and ideologies and cultures, and music just happens to be a nice tool to do that work,” he adds. “But it’s also a ticket, because a lot of people just like to hear music.”
To learn more about Hawk Henries and his flutes, visit www.hawkhenries.com.