The cellphone rang. And rang. And rang. Suddenly and abruptly, the gentle melodic whistle of a flute began playing before being cut off by a generic voice mail greeting.
“That, that right there is Rob,” Matt Simmons, a man in his early 20s, said.
It was a cool Friday night in August as four men met at a table on the outdoor patio of Dorian’s Gourmet Pizza & Deli on Westcott Street. There was a breeze, just strong enough to carry a Native American tune through the open door and into the restaurant.
A middle-aged man with short jet-black hair and soft dark eyes, seated at the center of the table, removed a set of blanket-covered flutes from his backpack and carefully placed them on the table. After briefly hesitating, he selected a medium-sized wooden flute from the collection and unwrapped it. He then pressed it against his mouth and began to blow.
Four years ago, what now comes with such ease for Rob Benedict, a 54-year-old union laborer for the Onondaga Lake Cleanup, was unfamiliar territory. After playing the harmonica in blues bars since the ‘80s, Benedict had a chance encounter with an old, beat-up flute at a friend’s home that sparked an instant love affair.
“Rather than me choosing it, it chose me—it came to me. It said, ‘It’s time that you start playing me,'" he said. "So I put the harmonica down.”
Benedict’s curiosity about the flute first took root during a dinner at the home of Iroquois singer and Grammy winner Joanne Shenandoah, his friend of 20 years. After he briefly mentioned that he always wanted to play the flute, Shenandoah pulled out one of her old flutes and put Benedict up to the challenge.
“I just started blowing it and got nowhere with it and decided that somebody somewhere knows the key to this," he said. "If I handed any one of my flutes to you, you would be able to do absolutely nothing with it until you knew that one little trick."
For Benedict, Shenandoah turned out to be the key to unlocking the music within him and his flute. She quietly became his mentor, passing along the tricks of her trade. “Sometimes in life one does not understand what a few kind words of encouragement can mean to someone,” she said.
Four years of waking up at 4 a.m. to practice, teaching himself from online tutorials, learning to play by ear rather than reading sheet music, and getting private audiences from the likes of American country music singer Willie Nelson, paid off.
Recently, Shenandoah began inviting Benedict on stage to play the flute beside her. Her belief in his talent and future in the industry has even prompted her to frequently place last-minute calls to Benedict requesting his presence at her shows across the country.
“Only the best play with her," he said. "When she asked me to play, what an honor. She asked me, little ol’ me."
The flute, while a creative outlet, is also a cultural symbol for Benedict.
Describing it as a representation of what is missing from his Mohawk culture, he said playing the flute is a link to what he calls the "Lost Generation." Both his parents’ and grandparents’ generations were victims of forced assimilation by the Canadian government, shipped off to boarding schools and foster homes to “have the Indian beaten out of them," he said.
As a result, when members of the Mohawk community returned home as teenagers, their Native identities were compromised despite attempts from older generations to reteach the culture to their kinship, Benedict said. For him, the loss of his culture’s music has been especially damaging.
“Part of the Mohawk way of life was music and there’s been no one playing flute music. I thought it was important not to lose that,” he said. “I asked other established Native musicians if they would join me in doing this and they all decided they didn’t want to. So, I said, ‘I will do it myself.’"
Perhaps Benedict’s dedication to preserving his culture is deeper than keeping the Mohawk’s music history alive. It also appears to be a means of reconnecting himself with his own people, a bond that was broken by a rough upbringing.
Before uprooting Benedict and his 10 siblings from Ottawa, Ontario, to Syracuse, his mother suffered from alcoholism and drug addiction. His father, also an alcoholic and addict, was in and out of his life. When things hit rock bottom, Benedict and his siblings were separated and forced to enter the foster care system where Benedict remained for nearly a decade until he was 13.
Benedict said he believes he inherited a tendency toward alcoholism, so he quit drinking 22 years ago for fear of continuing a dangerous cycle with his own four children and ex-wife.
Reconciliation between Benedict and his parents was never possible.
“I could never look my mother in the eye before she passed. And I never asked her why," he said. "My father, it was the same way. After I was 15 or 16, he was never there growing up. When I got older, all the hard work was done and he was like ‘Oh my son, I love you so much … When he died, I didn’t feel a thing. I was like ‘Oh well.’”
As the four men sitting at the table in Dorian’s snacked on french fries covered in oregano while leaning back in their chairs to drink in Benedict’s music, the eldest of the spectators, a man in his mid- to late 30s, was unmoved by the music. Something else was occupying his mind.
“I lost my father three weeks ago,” Craig Bennett, a co-worker of Benedict’s, said. “I’m a flute player, too, and I’m really into Native American spirituality. I haven’t known Rob that long, but he’s had some good insight for me. It’s hard to explain.”
But Shenandoah said that this "insight" can be attributed to the restorative power of music.
“Since music is a healing force, the vibration of the music not only heals others, but oneself,” Shenandoah said.