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Friday, September 15, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Lure of the Native American flute

Seattle Times staff reporter

A few years ago, Gary Leatham was a scientist and recruiter for a Seattle biotech firm when the sound of a Native American flute called to him from a sales booth at Folklife. Within 20 minutes he'd learned the scale, and for half an hour afterward he became the vendors' poster boy: Look! Anyone can learn to play!

Now Leatham is among those behind Pacific Northwest Flute Quest 2006, a first-ever local gathering of Native American flute enthusiasts. It features three days of music and workshops, including performances by Grammy-winning flutists Mary Youngblood and Robert Mirabal. Admission is free, though some workshops require fees.

The event runs today through Sunday at St. Edward State Park in Kenmore. Organizers hope Flute Quest will be an annual event that could eventually rival Florida's Musical Echoes, currently the country's largest flute gathering.

Youngblood will also lead a flute-playing workshop for 100 Snohomish fourth-graders, who'll receive PVC-pipe flutes made by Washington Flute Circle.

The flute circle, one of several in the region, is sponsoring the festival with a grant from 4Culture of King County.

Brent Haines was inspired to put together the event after attending Musical Echoes two years ago. "It's such an important thing for people to have access to this music," he says, convinced of the instrument's transformative, healing powers. "I've watched it change people's lives."

Like Leatham, Haines was once a biotech recruiter. One day, he noticed the flutes Leatham was carrying around in his backpack and thought: I could make one of those. Both have since left their science careers to focus their energies on flute making, playing and selling.

The Native American flute, with origins dating back 600 years, has a following distinct from those who prefer silver flutes (those held to the side and associated with classical concert playing). Enthusiasts tout their affordability — quality starter flutes run between $40 to $80 — and quick learning curve.

"It empowers you to play the first day," says Leatham, who along with wife Margo, a didgeridoo player, founded Woodinville's Ancient Sounds, a world-music group. He often prefers his native flutes to its pricier cousins. "You don't really outgrow it. You just get more fancy."

Mark Bargen, a retired Colorado State Patrol sergeant who's been playing for less than a year, is already comfortable enough with the instrument to perform at church services. "I own, like, 30 flutes now," Bargen says.

Haines says he was drawn in by the instrument's haunting, mellow sound, which has a range close to human speech and reflects the personality of its individual player. "People feel they're being talked to," he says.

The flute is also commonly heard in film, including Gene Hackman's "Behind Enemy Lines" and a handful of Steven Seagal movies. This weekend's event will feature the instrument used in musical forms ranging from new age to rock.

More information is available at www.flutequest.com.

Marc Ramirez: 206-464-8102 or mramirez@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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