Native Americans show handmade instruments at music industry convention

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Susan Valot/KPCC

Native American drums, gourds and flutes made by hand by Alex Maldonado, who sells them at Indian markets. This was his first time displaying his instruments at the NAMM show in Anaheim.

A blues band rocks the stage in the Native American Pavilion at the recent NAMM Show at the Anaheim Convention Center. A handmade native drum set is center stage, adding a traditional component to the blues. This is the first time ever that the giant NAMM Convention for music industry professionals has included a pavilion for Native American music and instrument makers.

The walls of the small room are lined with tables showcasing drums, flutes and even electric guitars.

Flute and drum maker – and native flutist – Alex Maldonado breaks out a binder that shows how he makes the hides for his drums at his Arizona home.

"I get it as basically fresh meat, you know," Maldonado says as he points to pictures in the binder. "And I have to put it on a rack and clean it off. That’s washing all the mud off it and, you know, manure and stuff."

Maldonado has been making drums by hand for about 15 years. That’s his set on stage at the NAMM Native American Pavilion.

He started with flute making two decades ago after a surreal experience at a truck stop when he was a truck driver.

"I hear this flute playing in Oregon in a deserted rest area and I stayed there I figured five minutes and it ended up being two hours. And the next thing you know, I was hooked," Maldonado remembers.

He says his brother reminded him that their uncle had taught them how to make flutes as kids.

Maldonado used that childhood knowledge as a jumping off point to build a business selling handmade and hand-painted flutes, drums and gourd shakers at Indian markets.

He says NAMM, which is aimed at mainstream musicians, was a totally different experience.

"A lot of 'wows,' a lot of 'oohhhs.' And, you know, I kind of feel like the guy at a carnival where you come up and you’ve got a pony there to give people pony rides. That’s how it’s been with the drum set and then they look at everything else that I’ve made and they’re really impressed," Maldonado says. "Even though you’ve got a sea of instruments downstairs, you know, they’re coming up here and it’s like a lot of people haven’t really been exposed to native instruments, which to me is kind of surprising because I’ve been doing it most of my life now."

That is the kind of reaction the US Department of Commerce and Small Business Administration were looking for when it teamed up with NAMM to help create this year’s Native American Pavilion.

Don Chapman is Commerce Secretary Gary Locke’s senior advisor on Native American Affairs. Chapman is also a musician and part Native American – and he says it’s no surprise that NAMM included a special section for Native Americans.

"They’re trying to expand, like any organization, trying to expand their constituency," Chapman says. "But also they recognize that Indian gaming has had really strong repercussions across the economy of the United States and with that, there’s a lot of entertainment associated with it. You have stages and you have entertainment going on, then you’ve got people buying professional audio equipment, professional lighting, sound stage, back line equipment and all that, which is what NAMM is all about."

Chapman says bringing Native Americans to NAMM also helps with President Barack Obama's goal to beef up international trade.

"Across the Department of Commerce, we’re all focused on that, especially the International Trade Administration, my office, the Economic Development Administration. We’re very much focused on how we can increase trade," Chapman says. "So bringing, getting tribes and native businesses to be here to meet with international companies to get exposure and be able to sell abroad is first and foremost."

Chapman says the Commerce Department also teamed with NAMM to help set up free instrument repair and technical training online for Native Americans. He says that could lead to jobs in the Native American community.

"When you look at the reservation and the plight of the cycles of desperate situations on reservations that are hard to break, if you have a dream like music, if you’ve got something that can carry you beyond your situation, and a passion, and you can learn those things and possibly develop a career in that kind of market, then it’s a beautiful thing," Chapman says.

This is the first in a two-part series. Next, we’ll take a look at some of the music coming out of the reservations. It may not be what you think.

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