Review | World Flutelore: Folktales, Myths and Other Stories of Magical Flute Power
World Flutelore: Folktales, Myths and Other Stories of Magical Flute Power. By Dale Olsen. Urbana- Champaign, Chicago, Springfield: University of Illinois Press, 2014. [XX, 264 p. ISBN 9780252079412. Paperback: $28:00; Cloth: $85:00].
Reviewed by Rose Boomsma / University of California, Los Angeles
In his book World Flutelore: Folktales, Myths, and Other Stories of Magical Flute Power, Dale Olsen sets out to uncover recurring themes about flutes from around the world, displayed through various types of stories. Taking from anthropology, ethnomusicology, folklore, and organology, Olsen presents stories from every corner of the world to highlight topics such as gender, morality, sexuality, and power. Within each chapter, a main story serves as the foundation for this topic and the author then provides other examples to prove his point, including case studies, other myths, and personal experience. This book is stock full of information from various parts of the world, displaying the popularity of the flute, not only throughout the world, but also throughout history.
In the introduction entitled “Prelude,” Olsen lays out three reasons that flutes have magic and power, which he reiterates in the conclusion. First, power is imbued to flutes because they are breath instruments, connecting them to the human body. Secondly, whistle tones or overtones produced by flutes let them be heard from afar and subconsciously. Thirdly, flutes are often pointed to as being capable of playing beautiful and appealing melodies (xvii, 192-193). These themes can be seen in different aspects throughout the inner chapters of the book and are the most solid connecting material presented in this work.
While Olsen does take some time to discuss organology, mostly in the first chapter and then briefly throughout when he describes crafting processes and flute types, he does so in a way that is exclusive to his works, instead of relating it directly to widely accepted practices. In the first chapter, he introduces his own created organological system of classifications instead of a more widely utilized system, such as Hornbostel-Sachs. He refers to this system as “Olsen Categories” (4) and discusses seven different categories of flute, which he exemplifies with pictures. While his categorization is detailed and accurate, it would have been more helpful to use a general system that readers could apply outside of his book.
While Olsen does include a brief transition at the end of each chapter, the individual segments do not necessarily flow well into one another, as the topics are often varied, even within one chapter. For example, chapter two is prefaced by a story from Brazil, in which a turtle creates a flute from a jaguar’s bone and later passes the instrument on to a taunting monkey (13). This story leads into a chapter that discusses flute making and materials, includes three case studies from various cultures, and then ends with a brief discussion of flute symbolism. Chapter seven details the legend of how the knowledge of maize cultivation came to the Yupa of Venezuela—through the wisdom of a flute-playing stranger named Oséema (90). This Venezuelan story leads into a discussion of flutes and nature, where Olsen discusses topics including procreation, harvests, and wind representation. Chapter ten, entitled “Flutes and Death” is prefaced with a version of the famous Pied Piper story, where a rat catcher lures rats and then all the children of the town away with a flute (129). This chapter includes a tangential segment which debates whether flutes or oboes are being discussed when the word “pipe” is utilized. These are just a few examples of the plethora of topics covered both within each chapter and throughout the entire book. Because of the numerous stories and topics covered, the book has an overall eclectic feel, rather than coming across as a work with a singular thesis.
In Olsen’s brief conclusion, he promotes the need for ethnologists and folklorists to focus more on the flute in their analyses and he reiterates his three points about why flutes have magic and power, adding that the flute creates a unique connection between humans, animals, and the spirit world, and that it has widespread healing capabilities (194).
Theoretical principles are not central to this book though he does reference Claude Lévi-Strauss and Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff’s interpretation of his works in regards to sound symbolism. In the beginning of his book, when he discussed the myriad of story types that he would utilize within his work, including contributions from religious books, opera, and oral legend, I was struck with the seeming disparity of these story types and wondered what kind of legitimate connections he could make among them from an academic standpoint. He left out much of the settings of stories and this takes away much of the necessary understanding needed to fully grasp them. As the book moved on, I began to think of this book more as an exploration of interesting flute stories for the flute player and enthusiast, rather than an in-depth historical or anthropological study of cultural similarities.
Dale Olsen loves flutes and his passion about them shines throughout the pages of this book. For the fellow flute lover, this book could be an intriguing read. For the anthropologist or ethnomusicologist, however, this book is a sweeping generalization that tries to band a myriad of different things together through the flute. While I do believe that the flute plays important roles throughout the world, and that folklore and storytelling often help uncover different aspects of culture, historical background and context are needed to do this scientifically. So while it is interesting to hear many stories around the world about your favorite instrument, perhaps this book should be looked at as merely a starting point for in-depth study of what the flute means as a worldwide phenomenon.