When he's in the middle of a bamboo forest, Erik Sampson hears music.
Today, though, Sampson isn't in the jungle. He's standing before a clump of bamboo rooted inside a nine-foot-square planter fashioned from railroad ties, in a sunny part of the back yard of his five-bedroom, three-bath, $232,220 ranch home on an acre of land in western Davie. Usually, he hooks a trailer to the back of his Ford Bronco and travels to Fort Pierce or Homestead to harvest bamboo on acres of land where it grows so thick that it creates green shadows. Today, he is reenacting the harvest for the benefit of New Times.
Today, a clump of bamboo symbolizes the forest; the one stands in for the many.
Wearing khaki green shorts and a T-shirt hanging loose on his lean frame, the 50-year-old Sampson, his auburn hair loose and flowing around a full beard, springs toward the planter. He pantomimes ducking and jabbing his way into the thicket.
And then he says the stuff about hearing music. He's been doing this for 32 years, so long that he can look at a stalk and know what kind of musical instrument it will make. He points to a ten-foot-tall shoot in the planter that's about a quarter of an inch wide with 18-inch-long segments. "That will make an F flute," he comments. He points to another and another. "That will make a low Irish. That will make a G major. That will make a B flat."
Sampson hurried outdoors to give this minilesson on the mechanics of flute-making because he also wanted to demonstrate what he calls "The Parable of the Flute Maker." Sampson is not just a musical craftsman. He has mined his vocation for spiritual truths. He gives talks at churches, and he and his wife, Linda, have delivered spiritual messages and performed Christian dramas at churches, youth halls, boot camps, and prisons throughout the United States and Latin America.
Sampson uses "The Parable of the Flute Maker" to inspire the audience. It's a story he tells to illustrate the truth that everyone is born with different gifts. In the homily, Sampson likens himself to God and the stalks of bamboo to the rest of us. "It is the picture of the master coming to the multitudes and of his wanting to work with us so that we can be his instruments and he can play us in the marketplace of being," he says.
Once upon a time, Sampson was a Vietnam War protester/street performer/high school dropout who evolved into a New Age dabbler/Buddhist/Taoist/vegetarian/sorcerer/pagan/spiritual beggar/sometime-commune-dwelling wanderer/truth seeker. He developed the dramatic persona he uses today to sell his flutes at fairs and Renaissance festivals after he left his New York City home in 1969 to tour with a street-theater group protesting the Vietnam War. In San Francisco, the troupe took an absurdist bent, and eventually Sampson left to begin his own quest for spiritual enlightenment. He walked through Latin America wearing a white tunic and flowing pants with his hair halfway down his back, carrying a staff decorated with feathers. Whenever he played his flute in public, which he did often, crowds would gather. In that life, when some Guatemalan Indians shouted "Jesus!" upon seeing this apparition, he secretly harbored the idea that perhaps he was Christ returned as the one who sees the one in the many, or something like that. As "the teacher."
The hubris. The hubris. Through diligent meditation, he says, he saw auras around people and energy fields around plants. He believed that with enough practice, he would be able to shed the corporeal coil and travel astrally. In Hawaii, he lived in a lean-to under an avocado tree, subsisting on avocados and rainwater. When he decided material possessions had blocked enlightenment, he threw away his comb and let his hair go ratty. Back on the mainland, wandering to visit friends in Coconut Grove, he met and fell in love with a woman who called herself Ray Sun. She too lived in a lean-to, wore white garments, and aimed for a purer connection to the earth.
Their journey through New Age spiritualism, vegetarianism, Eastern religions, and biblical readings eventually led to a conversion experience in 1975 at a Pentecostal church in Woodstock, New York. During the service, both Erik and Ray Sun found themselves in the aisle. Sampson spoke in tongues. Both became born-again Christians and moved into a Christian commune in Eugene, Oregon.
Their conversion wasn't without its moments. When Ray Sun announced she would again use her given name, Linda Marie, Erik was flabbergasted. It seemed to symbolize everything he had been striving against. "When she had to go out and buy a bra, I freaked out," he recalls. "When she started eating meat, I freaked out. When she went out and bought clothes that weren't white, I freaked out. At the time, I defined spirituality as outward stuff -- how you look, how you act -- but inside there was a raging war."
The couple married in 1976. They began speaking about their spirituality on a honeymoon in Guatemala. Erik contacted a pastor there who invited Erik and Linda Marie to appear on a radio program to talk about their conversion. When crowds gathered around Erik as he played his flute, they developed a dramatic performance with a religious theme. Back in the States, they first staged the show at a church in North Miami. Soon, invitations from other churches arrived.
The births of five children and the creation of a pretty conventional life followed. But despite their radical change of perspective, the home in western Davie, the small swimming pool, Erik and Linda still think of their lives allegorically. And Erik still makes flutes.
Over the past 32 years, he estimates he has made more than 112,000 musical instruments. Today, he makes 50 kinds of flutes, as well as bamboo saxophones and clarinets. He made his first flutes from dried bamboo stalks he harvested in Guatemala. At the time, he believed using live bamboo was wrong. It required taking life. But the dried stalks were too brittle and cracked. Then Sampson cut sprouts that were too green and full of water. They disintegrated and couldn't be used. "Bamboo is always talking to you if you stop and listen," he says. "Actually, they were yelling at me." Today, it takes him about two years to transform a stalk of bamboo into a flute, clarinet, or bamboo saxophone. If the customer requires it, he can tune the instrument to concert grade.
If Sampson's operation sounds like nothing more than a sweet hobby, then maybe you need to listen to the bamboo. Last year, he raked in $184,000 selling flutes at Renaissance festivals and craft shows and over the Internet. After expenses for airline tickets, hotels, booth rentals, flute bags, and other costs, he earned $84,000 in profit.
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Highly regarded Venezuelan flutist Pedro Eustache, who works as a soloist with the New Age musician Yanni, is one of his satisfied customers. Eustache has purchased four custom-made bamboo saxophones from Sampson. He played one of the instruments during Yanni's concerts at the Taj Mahal in March 1997. Yanni liked the sound of Sampson's sax so much that he wrote the song "Southern Exposure," recorded on 1997's Tribute album, to feature the bamboo instrument. Eustache says the shape of the bamboo stalk, which affects the quality of the sound, is more like a clarinet than a saxophone. On Eustache's instruments, Sampson cut nine holes instead of seven so that the range would be comparable to an Armenian duduk. "It is like a sax meets a clarinet meets a duduk," Eustache says. "It is very pliable. You can take it in different directions."
Sampson began selling recordings several years ago. He got the idea after he realized that some customers might want to buy his music rather than learn to play a flute. He now sells tapes ($10) and compact discs ($16), including the offerings Flute Salad and Back to the Fluture. Sales of the recordings account for about a quarter of his business, Sampson says.
While New Times talks flutes with Sampson back in his workshop, the telephone rings. And the reason for Sampson's super selling success becomes apparent. "God bless you," he answers. "This is Erik." Joanne Brenner, who is visiting nearby for the summer, found Sampson through his Website, www.eriktheflutemaker.com. She is curing some stalks of bamboo back home in Long Island and wants to confab with Sampson over how to make a flute. "You've come to the right place, my dear lady," Sampson declaims with exaggerated aplomb. "I am the village flutemaker." When Brenner arrives at the workshop a few minutes later, she tells Sampson she might like to buy one of his instruments. "Are you interested in a flute or a saxophone?" Sampson asks. He then performs a number for her on both the Native Indian flute and the alto sax. Brenner, who played saxophone in high school, is impressed at the size of the sound. "I'm a music lover," she says. "The sound you are getting from that is just amazing."
Brenner buys a sax, a flute, an instructional video, and two compact discs of Sampson's music. By doing so, she contributes $140 to the village flutemaker. Sampson is pleased. He believes he has brought happiness to Brenner and more music into the world. "Every instrument that goes out of here must show my love of God and my love of my neighbor," he says.