Flutes from around the world make the music of ‘The Lion King’

When you think of “The Lion King,” a vast landscape comes to mind – an African savanna with giraffes, zebras and, of course, lions.

Likewise, the accompanying music is comprised of distinct aural cues that draw the mind to Africa.

But most of the instruments in the orchestra pit aren’t African. The flutist – Darlene Drew – uses 15 varied instruments from around the world to make up the wind section of the ensemble. Her flutes come from China, India, Romania and Ireland, as well as a few other distant corners of the Earth.

Drew and the rest of “The Lion King” cast and crew will perform at Belk Theater Aug. 6-Sept. 1. The show, based on the 1994 Disney movie, opened in 1997 and is well-known for elaborate costuming inspired by Balinese puppetry and traditional African masks. Directed by Julie Taymor, its music was written by Elton John, Tim Rice and Hans Zimmer.

“The flutes in the show evoke the sound of ancient cultures with their earthy sound and unique expressive abilities,” Drew said. “The composers … worked with New York flutist David Weiss, who specializes in ethnic flutes, to create the palette of sound that depicts the African savanna and its inhabitants. It was a true stroke of genius.”

More than a decade ago, Drew lived in Chicago, making her living by performing with symphonies and chamber groups.

At the invitation of a friend, she attended a performance of “The Lion King” in Los Angeles, sitting in the pit and observing the acrobatic routine required from the flutist. She decided to pursue a position in what she calls “the show of all shows for a flute player” and took a year to familiarize herself with the varied instruments. She’s now been with “The Lion King” for 10 years.

Why so many flutes?

Some of the flutes are used to represent characters. Young Simba, who is destined to rule the pride lands, is indicated by one of the smallest, brightest flutes; a mellow Irish flute represents Rafiki, a wise monkey; and a low, breathy flute is used for Simba’s power-hungry uncle, Scar.

“It seems like the lower flutes signify wisdom,” Drew said, “either the wisdom of Mufasa or Rafiki.”

The modern Western flute has keys that adjust pitches so it can play all the notes in the scale – that’s all the black and white keys on the piano. But many of Drew’s ethnic flutes omit notes because of how they’re tuned and their lack of keys, which is why so many are required: different flutes present different notes.

While this makes for more cargo for the touring show – all flutes are packed in large ice chests to prevent climate damage and transported by semi-trucks – “there’s also a lot of expressive freedom that comes along with not having keys on an instrument,” Drew said.

“That’s why they use these instruments in the show – a lot of bending and sliding, doing different things with the sound that you can’t really do on a metal, modern instrument.”

Being able to manipulate so many instruments, each with its own culture and convention, is hard enough, but quickly interchanging them throughout the show requires choreography.

“It’s like a ballet,” Drew said. “After having done this so long, I can tell if I grabbed the E flute instead of the F flute, though they look exactly alike.”

She can tell, but to avoid even a hint of confusion, she sets her flutes in a semi-circle around her, each positioned at the right angle depending on when and how fast she needs to grab it.

Unavoidable difficulties

Though Drew has a wide hand span, something that benefits her with most flutes, she can’t quite reach all the notes on an Indian flute, one that experts stretch their hands for years to be able to play. She tried playing the out-of-reach note with her big toe; it didn’t work. She called the manufacturer to ask if she could alter the instrument with a drill; they said no, that would ruin the flute. She did it anyhow and continues to use the adjusted instrument.

There are some passages that skip down the scale on a large panpipe, an instrument without any sort of contextual marker for where you are – it’s like a piano without black keys, just a long row of indistinct white keys; there’s no way to tell which is which. For these parts, Drew marked the pipes she needs to play and looks in a mirror on her stand so she can see her clues.

Some might find it difficult to play the same music for 10 years, but Drew has never tired of it.

“There are some shows, that if I was playing them for 10 years, I might be ready to jump off a roof,” she said. “But this show never gets old. It’s like getting on a really well-trained horse and going for a ride. ... And each ride is different in very tiny, enjoyable ways.”