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Lac du Flambeau Tribal Member performs with Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra for world premiere composition

Darren Thompson.
Tara Rose Weston
Oglala Lakota
Darren Thompson.

Darren Thompson was at school at Marquette University when he became entranced by the wood flutes used in the scores of the Lord of the Rings films.

“When I heard the flute played in the score it reminded me of a story when I was about five years old in Lac du Flambeau which is where I was born and raised,” said Thompson.

The story told to him by an elder was about how it used to take five to six people to connect hands around pine trees.

Now, it only takes one or two.

“What she was referring to was witnessing the extraction of timber from the Lac du Flambeau Indian Reservation and from that came a lot of sadness. And from that came a comment that she had made that we used to hear these trees sing to us,” said Thompson.

The wood flutes in the music immediately brought Thompson back to the memory.

While he grew up never hearing flutes by the musicians in the Lac du Flambeau community, he knew Native American’s had their own versions.

So as a freshman in college he set out to teach himself the instrument.

Nearly 20 years later, nominated for a Native American Music Award and working on his next album this year, Thompson has made a name for himself with the instrument.

It’s allowed him to perform throughout the world.

His talent has also made him sought after, including by the music director from the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra in Madison, Andrew Sewell.

World Premiere

Originally from New Zealand, Sewell was getting ready for the performance of a piece composed for a short film from his home country called Kōtuku.

Kōtuku is a white crane found in New Zealand.

At crucial points in film, the bird appears and it’s accompanied by the Māori flute. Māori being the indigenous people of New Zealand.

The composer, Chris Blake, says the symbolism of the bird and flute was critical to the piece.

“The flutes have this very important role of representing the kōtuku or, in this performance perhaps, the crane, bringing peace and somehow trying to, I guess, sort of heal the wounds that the music is about,” said Blake.

Because of COVID restrictions in New Zealand, Thompson said the orchestra struggled get a Māori flutist to come out for the performance last month.

Instead, Sewell and his wife sought out Thompson because of the similarities between the Māori flute and the Native American one Thompson plays.

They were in Manitowish Waters and decided to just visit Lac du Flambeau to see if they could track him down.

“They went to the only grocery store in Lac du Flambeau and started randomly asking people if they knew who I was,” said Thompson. “Surprisingly, one of the people they asked was the boyfriend of my sister.”

While Thompson no longer lives in Lac du Flambeau, he was able to get connected with Sewell and the orchestra.

Through their conversations, they found the connection to the music went beyond the similar sounding instruments.

“There is a significance of the crane in the Ojibwe people’s culture and their history that I just felt the similarities in something thousands of miles away,” said Thompson.

Adding to the challenge was the instrument.

With a limited amount of time, Thompson had to find a craftsman who could make a flute tuned to the minor pentatonic scale of E.

“A lot of people don’t realize this, but most indigenous instruments and not tuned to the western scale of music because they’re not western musical instruments,” said Thompson.

Thompson receive the instrument two days before the performance.

The way this flute was designed meant he had to plate with his left closer to his mouth and his right toward the bottom, the opposite of how he normally plays.

“I was very nervous for that reason alone. I wasn’t nervous about the crowd. I wasn’t nervous about the performing with the orchestra. It went very well. The instrument sung very clearly, very loud. It all worked out how it was supposed to,” said Thompson.

On March 25th, Thompson and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra performed the world premiere of the Kōtuku composition.

Unlike the musicians around him, Thompson wasn’t following sheet music.

“I don’t play by musical scales or by musical notes. I play off feelings and emotions,” he said.

The entire experience was emotional for Thompson and the other artists involved.

While it was Thompson’s first time playing in an orchestra, it was also the musician’s first time performing with an indigenous musician in this way.

“For them it was a totally new experience with music. What I heard from a number of them was, ‘I just wanted to stop what I was doing just so I could hear what you’re doing,’” said Thompson.

The experience was made possible by a series of events and connections that brought together people and cultures separated by half a world.

And it’s an experience that will stay with Thompson forever.

“It was just unexplainable. It was the most remarkable, happy experience I’ve ever had, and they were all a part of it,” said Thompson.

Audio in this story is courtesy of WISC-TV in Madison.

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Katie Thoresen is WXPR's News Director/Vice President.