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Forbes and Yola Christie: Windward Flutes By Robert Bigio Irish flutes, folk flutes, simple-system flutes—what can we call these instruments? They are often used to play what is commonly called Irish music, although even that term is of doubtful accuracy since a lot of it is not Irish. ‘Conical-bore wooden flutes’ is rather a mouthful, but perhaps that will have to do for now. Whatever we call them, there is a large and growing market for these instruments, and just as there are some terrific musicians playing them, there are some terrific craftspeople making them, such as Forbes and Yola Christie. Forbes and Yola Christie set up Windward Flutes in Shelburne, Nova Scotia, just seven years ago, and have already developed a formidable reputation. Forbes worked for many years for two of the leading makers of modern flutes in Boston, and Yola trained as a silversmith. Their backgrounds could scarcely have been more different: Forbes is from a working-class family in Scotland, and Yola is from a long-established family in Boston. Forbes was born in Aberdeen into a family of fisher folk and grew up near Perth. He admits to having been a tearaway as a boy, but he had always had an interest in flying. He grew up near two air force bases and a flying school where as a schoolboy he earned pocket money cleaning airplanes, and there was an aircraft engine test facility nearby, where he got to know the engineers who were working on Rolls-Royce engines. Such was Forbes’s natural ability in figuring out how these engines worked that the engineers arranged a scholarship for him to a very good school. The class system, though, works in mysterious ways: his parents refused to let him go on the grounds that he might develop ideas above his station. Forbes remained at a local school, which he hated, and a year later he found a unique method of getting himself expelled from school before running away to join the Royal Air Force. During his years of growing up near Perth, Forbes was much influenced by his uncle John, who was his mentor, role model and at times surrogate father. John was his grandmother’s brother, who lived with her after her husband, Forbes’s grandfather, had died young when his fishing boat was sunk by a German U-boat in World War I. Forbes spent every holiday from the age of seven with John, working in his machine shop beside his house. John taught him to use hand tools and machine tools, and Forbes helped him with his projects, making small, working steam engines and ship models, and finishing a boat he built, on which they often sailed. ‘I remember learning from him how to navigate the coast in the fog by ear and reading the wave patterns,’ says Forbes. ‘He was a father to me, strict, but consistent with his own self-discipline.’ And John had more to offer: his library completely lined the walls of two rooms which were his quarters, to which Forbes had complete access to read anything—engineering manuals, novels, shipping journals, philosophy and plenty more. ‘Uncle John more than made up for what I did not learn at school,’ says Forbes. Forbes also developed a fascination with internal combustion engines, and even as a boy he tuned and rebuilt motorcycles, and later built engines from scratch. This fascination with engines has continued to this day, and still informs his knowledge of airflow and even aids in the tuning of the flutes. Many children hate their school, but few will have expressed their feelings in anything like as dramatic a method as Forbes used: he blew up his teacher’s desk. Such an action will seem scarcely credible to anyone meeting him today: he is now a gentle and contemplative man, but he says that as a youngster he was always interested in bangs and flashes, and in a Victorian book he had found instructions for making fireworks. He loathed his teacher, a Mr. Hunter, who was a terrible bully, and settled on this explosive method of getting his own back on him. ‘He would enter the classroom in the morning, bang his desktop down and pull up a pupil at random to strike him with a tawse,’ says Forbes. (A tawse is a strap formerly used in Scotland to hit children on the hands.) One day, when the teacher slammed his desktop down, it flew back up at him with a bang and a purple flash. He fell back on his chair in surprise, and the chair blew up as well. Forbes was the only person in the class not shocked, so his guilt was clear to the teacher. Forbes was sent to the headmaster, who expelled him. Before he left, Forbes explained why he had done it. The headmaster asked if the class teacher’s actions had kept the class quiet. Forbes admitted that they had. ‘Well, it works then, doesn’t it?’ said the headmaster. ‘It was a different time!’ explains Forbes. Telling his family what he had done would have been worse even than being in Mr. Hunter’s class, and Forbes could not face returning home. Instead, he cycled off to the local Royal Air Force recruitment centre and signed up. Surely, I asked him, his parents needed to sign his papers as he was only fifteen years old? ‘Well, I did that myself,’ he said. ‘I went away for a couple of hours and signed my mother’s signature with my left hand and my father’s with my right.’ When he returned, the recruitment officer told him to hold out his right hand, gave him a coin (the traditional King’s—or Queen’s—shilling) and immediately started shouting at him: ‘You’re in the air force now, so stand up straight!’ He didn’t see his parents again for a very long time. Forbes stayed in the air force for two years but was medically discharged after an injury. He spent the next four years working in the Perth Museum doing restoration and model-making before re-joining the air force as a fitter and engineer, working in cryogenics, hydraulics and general engineering. He stayed in the air force until 1984. Yola’s background could hardly have been more different, although because of her rebelliousness she finds similarities between her upbringing and that of Forbes. Her father’s family had arrived in America in the 1600s and settled in Boston. They were comparatively well-to-do, educated and well-connected. Her mother was born in Poland into a similarly established family—Yola’s grandfather had been a diplomat in the Polish embassy in Washington who stayed in America when the Nazis invaded his country. Yola’s father was a scholarly man who spoke thirteen languages and who had a great interest in Buddhism. He wrote a three-volume book on the history of Buddhism in China, the research for which caused him to move his family to Hong Kong for five years. The similarity with Forbes’s upbringing is that both spent much of their time outside of school on their own, running rather wild in the countryside. Both Forbes and Yola grew up without television and both had parents who grew their own food. Yola’s father may have come from money, but he was in a sense the black sheep of the family: bookish and not at all interested in business. There is another similarity between Forbes and Yola as well: Forbes lived in the Far East during his air force years, and Yola spent five of her teenage years in Hong Kong. On returning to America, Yola was sent to a boarding school for girls in New England. She was more than a bit of a rebel (although not to the extent of setting off explosives in teachers’ furniture) and, like Forbes, contrived to get herself expelled and went instead to an ordinary high school. She thrived there and got into a top art school, the Rhode Island School of Design, which she adored. She studied illustration and photography, but in her final year she spent most of her time in the silversmithing department, where she studied with the renowned Jack Prip. She then went to Europe where she worked in graphic design with Librairie Hachette in Belgium and France before moving to Scotland to live with her Polish émigré relatives. She liked Scotland, decided to stay, obtained a teaching qualification and taught art and French. In the summers Yola would study silversmithing with one teacher or another. One summer she travelled to Orkney to study with the distinguished silversmith David Hodge. As it happens, Forbes was also visiting David Hodge, an old friend of the family. Forbes was about to be sent to Oman by the RAF, but in the three days they had together before he left they fell desperately in love and agreed to marry. They wrote reams of letters to one another before Forbes returned from Oman. ‘He was on a stretcher after a back injury,’ says Yola. They married six weeks later, by which time Forbes was back on his feet but under doctor’s orders to avoid repetitive motions. ‘I expect the doctor knew exactly what he was saying!’ says Forbes. In 1984 Forbes was released from the RAF and sent to a training centre where he learned carpentry and cabinet making. There was little work to be had in Britain at the time, so Forbes and Yola, with two children and another on the way, decided to move to the USA. They found a derelict house in Harvard, Massachusetts, which they rebuilt, and Forbes worked first as a carpenter and then with an engineering firm working in cryogenics, which he had done in the RAF. Yola, meanwhile, carried on with her silversmithing. One day she was looking for a firm to do some casting for her. It happened that her daughter was having violin lessons near where Chris Abell, the flute maker, had his workshop, and she had got to know him. Chris suggested that Yola visit Brannen Brothers, the firm of flute makers where he used to work, to see how they produced their castings, and Yola spent a day there. When she returned home she said to Forbes, ‘I have seen Utopia—you must work there!’ Forbes applied for a job at Brannen’s and got it. Forbes spent ten years at Brannen’s. He was part of the team that made flute bodies, and he drew and polished many of the headjoints, and he observed every stage of the making of the instruments. He was the person who produced the bodies for all the Kingma System quarter-tone flutes. Afterwards he spent five years working for Powell Flutes, where he was in charge of the body-making department and oversaw many improvements in the production. He had always been interested in wooden flutes and in the folk music that he had grown up with in Scotland, and when he was asked to restore some old instruments he measured them and studied them carefully. After a time, he and Yola decided they could make some themselves. ‘You see,’ says Forbes with a little smile, ‘after working with aircraft engines for so many years I thought I knew something about how air flows through pipes.’ So, he left Powell’s, and he and Yola moved to Nova Scotia to make their own flutes. Why Nova Scotia? ‘For a start, we chose a lovely place, Shelburne, which is close to Lunenburg, where Chris Norman runs the Boxwood Festival. [See an article about Chris Norman here.] Forbes was prepared to cobble together somewhere to work in the garage, but Yola insisted they build a proper, secure workshop. The building they put up would be the envy of any instrument maker: three levels, with a machine room downstairs and a clean room above, plus a guest suite for visitors, a study and a place for players to test flutes in comfort. Forbes and Yola tried two basic designs of flute: a four-joint one based on the flutes of Rudall & Rose and a three-joint one (with the left and right hands on one piece of wood) based on the eight-keyed flutes sold in the nineteenth century under the trade name ‘Pratten’s Perfected’. They measured a number of flutes and found remarkable similarities, even between flutes made by different makers, and finally settled on the Pratten design: they had measured more examples of this, and it requires one fewer socket and tenon joint. They work together: Forbes is the engineer who does most of the machining, and Yola is the artist who matches the wood grain on each flute, oversees the production system, does the finishing work on the instruments and, of course, produces the silver keys, which she forges entirely by hand. They use three woods for most of their flutes: African Blackwood (Grenadilla), Mopane and African Olivewood, and have also used Vera, Boxwood and Kingwood. The finish they produce on their instruments can only be described as fabulous. These flutes look as beautiful as they sound. Windward Flutes are based on an old design, but Forbes and Yola are not afraid of using modern materials such as carbon fibre to reinforce the sockets. These are not reproductions, after all; they are made for modern musicians who use them in a way the customers of Rudall & Rose or Pratten would not have considered. They produce keyless flutes (popular with players of traditional music) as well as flutes with up to eight keys, and they can supply ‘future-proof’ instruments: keyless at first, but with the blocks in place to attach keys if the customer later wants them added. Their latest venture is a flute that is convertible in pitch by a semitone for players in folk sessions who want to be able to change key (from D to E flat) without having to change flutes: the player simply replaces the tuning slide and footjoint and carries on. To make this work, they modified the bore and the undercutting of the toneholes and altered the venting in the footjoint. They continue to work on new models, too, including a flute based on a particularly fine Rudall & Rose as well as three others: a flute pitched a whole tone below a standard one, an F flute and a piccolo. Forbes and Yola were invited by Chris Norman to be the featured makers at the Boxwood Festival in 2007 and have appeared every year since. I first met them when I was invited to Boxwood in 2008. I was (and remain) most impressed by their craftsmanship and by the beauty of their instruments. Why the name Windward Flutes? Forbes explains that they preferred not to use their own names. Yola designed their logo, which can be seen either as their initials or as a sail on a boat, which is appropriate as the little town where they live, Shelburne, sits on a large, well- sheltered harbour much loved by sailors.
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