Rolfe Richter is a 45-year-old Passamaquoddy musician whose flute music led to our meeting about a year ago at the annual Maine Indian Basketmakers sale at the Collins Center in Orono. Rolfe, who is from Perry, is a quiet man. If he hadn’t picked up one of his handmade wooden flutes and begun to play, I might have missed him standing behind his vendor’s table.
“You know that thing that happens when there’s music playing, and it interrupts a conversation? Suddenly you’re just listening to the music.” Rolfe said.
That is how Rolfe described his affinity for music — especially native flute music. It grabs his attention, and perhaps tugs a little bit at his soul. He would like to achieve that kind of sound himself, a sound that speaks to something in each listener and tells a story.
Rolfe has played Native American flute music for decades, and a few years ago he began carving wooden flutes himself. The instruments he’s made are beautiful to look at and to hear, but he is humble about the craft. Some of his flutes achieve exactly the sound he wants, but he isn’t able to reproduce it consistently yet. On the other hand, there appears to be a unique relationship between Rolfe and each instrument that he creates. That may be even more valuable than consistency.
“Each one has its own personality, its own story to tell,” he said.
Communicating through stories comes naturally to Rolfe, not just through his flutes, but also in conversation. He told a story about being a small boy in “Sipayik,” the Passamaquoddy name for the Pleasant Point Reservation where he grew up.
“When I was very young, I’d peek out from the hallway and see my mom dancing to some kind of music. I’d be there holding my teddy bear, and I’d sneak up behind her and dance with her.”
That, he says, is the origin of his love for music.
Rolfe spent his first 14 years in Sipayik, on the reservation. He was raised Catholic, but as an adult he has grown to feel most spiritually drawn to his Native American ancestry. He tells another story about his grandmother, a strong, intimidating woman who was the head of the family.
“You never talked back to Grandma,” Rolfe said. “If she said ‘eat your squash,’ you ate it.”
Still, a day came when Rolfe was in his 20’s, riding in the car with his Grandma. She was a devout Catholic, and asked Rolfe in that stern tone, “Have you been to church lately?”
“You have to go to church. You were baptized into the church,” she proclaimed.
“I was scared to death,” Rolfe told me, “but I heard myself say, yeah, but I was born Native American. I was thinking, oh my god, I just talked back to Grandma.”
To his surprise, his Grandmother answered, “You know, you’ve got a point. You’re right.”
That was an important affirmation of Rolfe’s nature-based spirituality, which goes hand-in-hand with his music. A lot of Native American music, Rolfe explained, is not rehearsed but played spontaneously, “from the heart.” So the music emerges from the spirit, and it reaches the spirit of others.
Thanks to the backing and support of Donald Soctomah, one of the most important leaders of the Passamaquoddy tribe, Rolfe was able to produce a CD called “Dreamwalk.” It includes poetry that Rolfe wrote, and some of them tell a story.
One day Rolfe was playing his flute on an ocean bay where whales hadn’t been seen for years. Whales are known to have exquisitely sensitive hearing. A few days later, whales appeared in the bay. Rolfe couldn’t help feeling that perhaps they had heard his music.
I played for you once
By the waters of my home…
At the ocean’s edge by split rock.
And, not long after,
you showed me that you were listening.
I will never forget.
Rolfe has gathered moving stories from people who hear his music. I witnessed one myself last Saturday, when a woman hurried up to Rolfe’s vendor table at this year’s basketmakers sale in Orono.
“I’ve been thinking about his music for two years,” she said excitedly as she wrote her check for a CD.
Rolfe was told about a mother-to-be who insisted upon having Rolfe’s CD playing while she was giving birth. No other music would do.
Stories like this one inspire Rolfe to keep working on both carving flutes and playing them. He is working towards producing another CD, but Rolfe has a job working in the duty-free America stores in Calais. The demands of making a living can make it hard to find time for art.
The music of Dreamwalk is meditative and evocative. When I listen to it, my mind summons up images of a bird on a misty lake, or that whale out on the sea.
I asked Rolfe how he feels about the CD.
“I can’t believe it’s me,” he said. “Someone else was creating that music with me.”
Wherever Rolfe’s music comes from – something greater than himself, the spirit of the trees from which each flute is carved, or something in Rolfe’s ancestry that speaks through him – it is filled with stories that move the soul.
You may contact Rolfe for a CD by writing him at: PO Box 88, Perry, ME 04667. Some CD’s are also available on Amazon.com.
Robin Clifford Wood welcomes feedback at email@example.com