Peter Ali is proud of his Indigenous flute playing, his Native heritage from Mexico and his opportunities to connect cultures. As he embarked on his musical journey, he also realized that his flute guided him on a spiritual journey as well. He shares his quest with us in this candid interview.
Interview by Dawn Karima, Native American Culture Editor
DK: Great to meet you! What do you want us to know about you right away?
PA: Hello, my name is Peter Ali. I am the Son of Mustafa Amar Ali of Morocco and Juanita Buzani of Mexico. Peter is my given name not an “ethnic” name, as with most parents from different cultures or countries. I was named at birth by my father's Uncle's wife.
DK: Fascinating! Have you always been musical? Do you celebrate your tribal roots through music?
PA: Yes, my culture comes through in my music for sure, but before I started playing the Native flute, I wouldn't have known or understood who I was, really. I mean as a kid growing up in Southern California, I really had no concept of culture. As the oldest of 3 kids, we grew up middle class, as both parents came from a good work ethic and were what we here in the US would consider “poor”. We were told we were half Arab and half Mexican. As a kid I didn't see color, culture or ethnicity….I was just a kid who was brown, who could speak a little Spanish because my parents, even though they spoke to us in English, they spoke to each other in Spanish, so I picked it up by listening. Also, the majority of people that worked on the chicken farms my dad worked on were Hispanic. I grew up listening to the music of both parents that didn't make any sense to me, but now I appreciate it more even though I still don't understand it.
I very briefly took trumpet lessons in grade school, then dropped out cause I had trouble learning to read music and I didn't feel very encouraged by my parents.I didn't know that my Grandfather on my dad's side was a flute player until many years later. At some point in my 30's, I was interested in playing the guitar and even took lessons but it wasn't until I was 40, that I would dabble with music again. One day, as I was heading near the pier in downtown Poulsbo, WA,I could hear the sound of the Native American flute. I also noticed there was an Art Festival happening that weekend, so I was drawn to the music.
I finally came upon the booth of Native flutes being made and sold by Tom and his son Matt Stewart of Stellar flutes. And playing their flutes was a man named Charles Littleleaf from the Warm Springs Reservation in Oregon. So, I spent most of the day listening to him play. It really pulled my heart and he even gave me a few words of encouragement. The Stewarts also invited me to try playing one of their flutes but I said “no thanks” since I didn't know how to play anything and I was pretty shy at the time. A month later, I drove to the home of the flute makers in Shelton, WA and I decided to buy a flute and give it a try.
I still didn't know my Grandfather was a flute player. So, as we say, a flute picked me, I went home and practiced with just some basic information. I took my flute pretty much everywhere, on the ferry, to the park and such . Slowly, I started to get a little better, considering I was teaching myself to play.
Eventually, I began to have more confidence in playing the flute, which led me to start playing at Open Mics and joining what's called a “Flute Circle”. Eventually, we started our own group. The purpose of our group was to welcome ALL who were interested in the Native flute, regardless of heritage, color, etc and creating diversity and education to those non-Natives about the importance of one's culture and heritage. At this time, we were also able to reach out to other local Native musicians and storytellers and invite them as guests to share in our community. We were even lucky enough to have world famous Native flutists visit our flute circle, like R.Carlos Naki and Kevin Locke.
DK: Fascinating! How did you know that you were destined to play music as your career?
PA: One of the first times I played was at an annual event called Skagit Eagle Festival that took place in late January or February. It was a 2 day weekend event and I was there to facilitate a Native flute gathering. The main event was held that evening in the Gym and usually the guest was a Native American performer or dance group. Sometimes a National act like Native flutist Robert Tree Cody, whom I also got to meet. Anyways the guest that evening was local musician and storyteller Swil Kanim,who is a Lummi Tribal member and a classical violinist. While I was in the audience waiting for the evening's event to start, Swil Kanim came over to me and asked me if I would like to get on stage and play a few songs. Now, I can't remember if we had already met at another event, but none the less he knew me and asked me to play. So, I agreed, but was very nervous. I think I was still kinda new at performing in front of large audience.
DK: Now that you are enjoying career success, what are some of your favorite accomplishments?
PA: Some of my favorite accomplishments? In 2008, I was one of several performers that got to play for the Dalai Lama during the “Seeds of Compassion” tour, thanks to my friend and performer Gene Tagaban. When I was diagnosed with cancer 2008/2009, I played my flutes in the chemo treatment Center, while undergoing chemo. When my treatment was over, I felt it necessary to give back, so I would just randomly stop at the cancer center and play for people going through chemo as well as playing for someone in Hospice.
Every year on the 4th of July, Swil Kanim,Gene Tagaban and I get to perform together at an event known as the annual 4th of July Naturalization Ceremony, where about 500 people are sworn in as new Americans and we get to welcome them. Getting to play at the Tulalip Tribes Summer Concert Series for a couple seasons as one of the “openers” for National acts such as Kenny Rodgers, Chicago, The Doobie Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Pat Benatar, Billy Idol. Performing annually at the Stillaguamish Tribe Festival of the River and Powwow, where I got to meet and play a song for Buffy Saint Marie!
A few years ago, I was asked along with Native performer Gene Tagaban by a Native friend who is in the U.S Army and worked at the time at Madigan Army Hospital near Tacoma, WA to come and perform for the staff during November. That was pretty cool. I was able to donate 10 Cedar flutes to the staff to use as a source of healing for the solders coming home from being injured in war. I felt really good about that.
Last year, getting to play by request as well as Swil Kanim and Gene Tagaban for our State Senator Maria Cantwell (D) at a rather large luncheon honoring 5 other women in politics and getting to meet U.S Vice President Joe Biden was excellent. I really felt honored to share music and words of healing at a special dinner gathering hosted by the Tulalip Tribes for the Marysville and Tulalip First Responders that were involved on the scene at the tragic shootings at Marysville Pilchuck High School, teachers and staff were also at this event.
DK: How does your tribal heritage influence your music and life?
PA: I just try to live my live in a good way, I try to be aware of every living thing around me, to listen to Elders and share what I know about the Native flute with others. What I hope my music does besides put a smile on your face, that it puts you at ease, makes you calm, heals your spirit. I also encourage young and old people, such as those that take my class at Northwest Indian College,that I can teach then to play the flute. I remind them that the word “I can't” does not exist in Native language and never give up on being what you what to be in life.
DK: Has the flute changed you at all? Has it changed your life?
PA: I overcame being shy and I was able to build confidence. I was able to beat cancer. Then, I lost my job and with the good advice from friends, I was told I should be performing more and teaching so that is what I'm doing now and still working hard to achieve more. I've always felt that if you sit and do nothing, then nothing will happen, no one is going to give you anything, you have to be strong enough to help yourself. When people see that, then they are more apt to help keep you on the good path.
DK: What are the most important qualities of a performer? Good and Bad?
PA: Be open, be honest, be on time to your gigs, don't double book. Look and talk to your audience with a sincere heart. Because I also teach how to play, I offer to share my talent with all Native and non-Native people, young and old. Bad things? Well, that's easy… doing drugs, abusing alcohol, not being honest, being selfish and having an ego.
DK: Do you have any favorite musicians?
PA: Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, Steve Howe of Yes and Stevie Ray Vaughn. I love their style of playing guitar and this is what I grew up with. Other music I love to listen to is traditional and contemporary music from Scandinavian groups like Fribo (a neo-Nordic group from Scotland-England-Norway), Vasen (from Sweden), Frigg (from Finnland) and Angelit (Finnish -Sami Folk music). I like music from other places and I like the music of R. Carlos Nakai, Kevin Locke, Robert Tree Cody and Buffy Saint Marie, all whom I've met at gigs.
DK: After such varied life experiences, do you have any warnings for those just starting out in music?
PA: Warnings? Be cautious of people that try to tell you what “they” think you should do as a Musician and Artist. Use your common sense, but advice is ok. So,first of all, I would tell them I think its great that they would want to perform, but you want maybe to make a living at it? You're going to have to work your butt off , especially if you're doing this by yourself. Are you shy? Well, then get over it! I was very shy up until I starting feeling good about myself. Then,I was confident. Most of all,you have to put your heart into it.
DK: Anything else you would like us to know about you?
PA: What else is there to know about me? I am trying very hard to make a living doing what I do, albeit a late start. My mission is to share my music and culture…the story of me. What I do is about healing and hopefully bringing people of diverse cultures and beliefs together. I would love to get my music out to others. Other than that, I would like to leave the Earth a better place for the next Generations.
DK: Thank you so much!