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HORSE HAIR, UTE FLUTES & OTHER LIVING TRADITIONS

Before there were boomboxes and Snelgroves and other courtship devices of the American West, there was the Ute flute.

For hundreds of years, young men of the Ute Mountain Ute tribe would fashion a flute out of cedar, taking special care to re-create their intended's favorite sounds: the call of an elk maybe, or an eagle's cry. Sometimes the suitor would create a sound like his girlfriend's voice or like his own.Aldean Ketchum's generation doesn't use the flutes much anymore. But eight years ago, when he was in his early 20s, Ketchum decided it was time to learn to carve the traditional instrument as a way of honoring his past.

Signing up with the Utah Folk Arts Apprenticeship Project, he began to study with his grandfather, Billy Mike. The old man and the young man would search the land near their home in White Mesa looking for just the right cedar, one they could lop a chunk of bark off of without destroying the tree itself. Then Mike showed his grandson how to carve and decorate the flutes so each one had its own distinctive look and sound.

Now Ketchum is a master flute builder himself and the embodiment of the "living traditions" that the Salt Lake City Arts Festival likes to celebrate at its annual folk and ethnic arts festival.

Because this is the state's 100th anniversary, this year the Living Traditions Festival has invited artisans and performers from outside Salt Lake County for the first time.

Also new this year is a crafts market, where participants will sell the kinds of items they create at the festival's 31 crafts demonstration booths.

The festival will feature the cultural traditions of Utah's American Indian and cowboy past, as well the traditions of its newer citizens - from Armenian needlework to Maori dance.

All together there will be 40 cultures represented, including Hmong, Basque, Persian, Thai and Tongan.

In many cases, the traditional crafts and performances represent endangered cultural species: the kinds of labor-intensive, old-fashioned arts that can easily die out if people aren't vigilant.

Clay Christensen of Lehi learned "horse hair hitching" from his father, although more than one person has assumed he picked up the craft in prison. "You don't need sharp tools and it's very time-intensive," Christensen explains, so it's a popular prison work activity, particularly at the Deer Lodge prison in Montana.

Originally, he says, horse hair hitching was brought by Spaniards to Mexico, then was imported to the American West in the 1800s. In those days, cowboys and ranchers decorated their own bridles and reins with the technique.

These days, Christensen buys his horse tail hair by the pound. He twists the strands into threads, then weaves the threads around nylon string in a half-hitch knot. He makes up the patterns as he goes, sometimes imitating Navajo rug designs.

Now about one year behind in his orders for larger items such as bosals and reins, Christensen also makes bracelets and checkbook covers, which he sells in trendy shops in Aspen and Boston and Park City.

A $600 horsehair bridle might take Christensen 200 hours to make - sometimes in front of the TV when he gets home from his job as director of applied technology education with the Alpine School District. Although horse hair hitching is tedious work, Christensen finds it relaxing. And it's rewarding, he says, "to produce something out of a natural product that wouldn't be useful to most people."

Christensen is now also teaching his 12-year-old son Brett the cowboy craft. Both will be at the Living Traditions Festival this weekend, demonstrating how they're keeping the Old West alive.

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ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Festival schedule

The Living Traditions Festival, a celebration of Salt Lake's folk and ethnic arts, runs May 17, 18 and 19 on the grounds of the Salt Lake City-County Building, 450 S. 200 East.

The festival begins Friday at 6 p.m. with a performance by the Red Spirit Singers and Northern Ute Bear Dancers. Friday night's performances will also include the Louisiana zydeco and Cajun music of Geno Delafose and French Rockin' Boogie.

The festival features performances, crafts demonstrations, a crafts market and food from Utah's diverse populations.