Minnesota Sounds and Voices: The medicine in Michael Charette's Indian flutesby Dan Olson, Minnesota Public Radio
SUPERIOR, Wis. — Michael Charette says he learned to play the flute in off hours from his day job as a baker. And he says smiles from people eating his baked goods give him the same good feeling he gets from making music.
"When I'm there baking breads and stuff I have the energy with me and I'm putting it into my breads, into my baking, and I'm pushing it off to the people and then they're giving it right back," he says.
A member of the Red Cliff band of Ojibwe, Charette grew up on the reservation along Lake Superior's south shore, where the beach and the Apostle Islands were his playground. If scenery is a measure of wealth, the land the Red Cliff band calls home is rich beyond measure.
Charette remembers "endless summers of running around with friends, playing on the docks and jumping off the fishing boats until we got yelled at."
But the scenery didn't pay the bills and couldn't buy music lessons.
As a kindergartner in the Bayfield schools, Charette remembers hearing the sound of other kids down the hall learning how to play instruments.
A teacher offered him music lessons, but poverty was a constant reality on the reservation and his own family didn't have enough money to pay for them.
"I'd sneak out of kindergarten and go and check it out and investigate, and I would sit while the other kids were getting piano lessons and I'd sit and listen, I'd listen to those tones," he says.
By his early teens, he wanted to know more about his American Indian heritage. Relatives gave him an Ojibwe name -- Laughing Fox.
"So I started to use that persona, 'Baapi Wagoosh,' or Laughing Fox, to show other kids how to be proud of this. This is part of our heritage. This is part of our culture."
Then he picked up the flute on his own, teaching himself to play in what perhaps sounds like an unusual way: Through boxing. During childhood into his early teens, Charette spent years training and learning combinations of punches.
Later, living alone in the woods as a young adult, he was struck by how learning flute fingerings reminded him of competition in the ring.
"I'd hear different combinations of my fingers being lifted, and it was just like that: jab, jab, straight right, left hook. But instead, it was this finger, that finger, and they made these beautiful tones," he says.
Now 33, Michael Laughing Fox Charette has taken his flute playing to schools, stages and the recording studio. He wants to make the music his life. But for the moment he works other jobs. Just as when he was a child, music doesn't pay the bills -- yet.
Instead, Charette says playing music is medicine. He visits schools and tells students, including American Indian young people, how his experience can show them how to survive the challenges of youth.
"I'm sharing part of the peacefulness that I had felt in the woods, when I played in that shaft of sunlight, when I was playing in that light rain, when I was in the winter time and it was cold outside and I had that fire inside," he says.
Michael Laughing Fox Charette will perform Saturday outside at the Twin Ports Bridge Festival.
- All Things Considered, 07/06/2012, 5:55 p.m.