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Tony Duncan Braces for NAMA 2013 as Both Performer and Nominee

Profile of Tony Duncan, hoop dancer and flute player nominated for three Native American Music Awards. Duncan performs in Nelly Furtado's "Big Hoops."
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Five-time World Hoop Dancer champion Tony Duncan is accustomed to standard performance jitters from earlier presentations at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, The National Museum of the American Indian, the Billboard Music Awards, the Tonight Show and at the White House. But even the usually laid-back Apache/Arikara/Hidatsa/Mandan showman is a bit antsy at the moment, awaiting tonight's announcement of winners for the 2013 Native American Music Awards, where he will be not only a featured guest performer (scheduled to perform live on-stage with Furtado), but a triple nominee -- Best Flutist of the Year, Best Record of the Year, and Best Artist of the Year. 

With six albums already released, this year’s record nomination involves his latest (Earth Warrior on the Canyon Records label ) -- “a collection of evocative and meditative solo flute instrumental pieces, ensemble tracks with light drums, percussion, guitar and occasional vocals,” according to a review by World Music Central.

In a liner note biography posted by Aboriginal Peoples Choice Music Awards, Duncan is quoted as saying: “The instrument of the flute was passed on to me by my father who would play beautiful songs while I kept rhythm with a drum or gourd rattle. I’d watch him play with his eyes closed, music that floated in the air and settled in my heart and I’ve been in love with the sound of the Native American flute ever since.”

Tony Duncan holding the 2013 21st Century Skins Native Male Calendar, in which he is Mr. October. Photo by Lee Allen/AZFREELANCE

Although his musical successes have put him on tour with notable native artists such as fellow flutist R. Carlos Nakai, Joanne Shenandoah (herself a 2013 Artist of the Year nominee), and international pop star Nelly Furtado in a music video promoting Furtado’s single Big Hoops (The Bigger, the Better), Duncan, while relaxed and comfortable in the glare of a spotlight, also enjoys quality time with wife Kathy, their children, and other members of his family who perform as the Yellow Bird Indian Dancers.

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“Me and my dad do everything together, making drums, different kinds of gourd instruments, and all our flutes,” he told Indian Country Today. “Since I was a teenager, whenever we’d go back to San Carlos Apache country, dad and I would harvest a huge thicket of river cane. We’d cut a big bundle and take it to my grandfathers house in Peridot where all three generations would work side by side cutting the cane into segments and burning the holes, making 30-40 flutes at a time.

“Although we throw away quite a few that don’t make the cut, about half the flutes we make gave off a nice sound and of those, I’ve kept a couple including my one all-time favorite that’s on all my records. There’s just something special about that one. While all flutes have spiritual feelings, this one has a feeling all its own, an emotional , even mournful, sound. Small flutes are joyous and play happy melodies while deeper-tone flutes sound like the inside of a cave where a lot of our traditional Apache stories and songs come from.”

Duncan uses a lot of traditional songs and stories in his stage performances -- how things came to be, exploits of trickster coyote, how the woodpecker brought back fire from the Sky People, and how stars -- beautiful images in the sky -- shine brightly to guide night creatures. “The way I’ve always created music is from my father’s stories. All my music comes from traditional lore and I try to create musically that same beautiful feeling you get when you listen to those stories.”

Just as talent and tradition was passed from father to son in Duncan’s case, the cycle is starting to repeat itself. “You start life in an eastern direction when you come into this world, then move in a southern direction as a teen learning about life. As you become an adult and move to a western direction, you become a teacher before ending up in a northern direction as an elder, a culture keeper of our songs and our knowledge. I’m in the western zone now and have started to become a teacher. I love music, I love what I do and I want to share that enjoyment with others.”

Right now, the enjoyment he’d most like to share with others is to hear his name mentioned in the same breath as: ‘And the winner is...’