Brow Beat

André 3000’s Airport Flute Solo Was Amazing. Take It From People Who Know.

 André Benjamin on a red carpet in 2016.
André 3000. Not pictured: His flute. Jerod Harris/Getty Images

On Friday afternoon, something unusual happened at Los Angeles International Airport: A passenger had a pleasant travel experience. Specifically, Antonia Cereijido, a producer for NPR’s Latino USA podcast, slowly realized that a man who looked a lot like musician André 3000 wandering around the airport terminal playing a wooden flute was, in fact, musician André 3000 wandering around the airport terminal playing a wooden flute. She documented the experience in a tweet that promptly went viral:

We reached out to Cereijido to get the full story. After hearing that she had been beset by online “flute truthers” who did not believe that the instrument André 3000 was playing was a flute at all, we also spoke to Guillermo Martinez, the man who handcrafted the flute in question, about his work and the instrument’s history. (It’s a flute!) These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Antonia Cereijido, Flute Noticer

Matthew Dessem: So, what you were doing at LAX?

Antonia Cereijido: Actually, the crazy thing is I was supposed to take a flight at 11:15 the night before, but there were 50 minutes of traffic at the airport, so I missed my flight. I was very upset. I had to buy flights for the next day, and I was annoyed. I arrived super early, like, “I’m not going to miss my second flight.”

Yeah, the traffic there has been horrible lately.

It’s crazy. It’s criminal! Like, what the fuck? I think it was just voted the worst airport in the country.

But that was before the flute concert, so …

Well, it was the best thing to have happened, that I was off that flight.

So do you believe the traffic the night before was leading you to your encounter?

No, I don’t believe in fate, but this was the closest experience to leading me to believe that it might exist.

When did you first become aware that someone was walking around playing a flute?

I was sitting at the gate, and I heard somebody with a flute. It wasn’t very loud—it was like a fluttering flute. And I look to my left and I see this man, and for a second, I thought, “Oh my God, that looks like André 3000.” And then I thought, “No, that man looks too young to be André 3000.” As you see in the tweet, I kept trying to take pictures of him and send them to my friends to confirm, and they were all like, “This is a blurry pic, you can’t tell anything. That’s probably not him. You’re being a freak.” And they were cracking up at the fact that I was taking it from so far away and through my luggage handles. Oh, the other thing is I sent the picture to my friend saying, “He’s playing a flute,” and my friend replied, “That’s definitely not a flute.” They thought it was a clarinet. I was like, “It sounds like a flute. It doesn’t sound like a clarinet.”

He was wandering from like gate to gate?

Sort of, yes. He was walking down the hallway and back.

So was it sort of a “Pan bringing spring to the terminal” thing, or a Pied Piper “Follow me away from your gate” thing, or just a man and his flute?

It wasn’t very loud. It didn’t feel like he was necessarily playing for anyone as much as he was practicing. It wasn’t like a performance. He would play a little melody, and then stop, and then play another little melody. It sounded to me like the beginning of the song “Nature Boy.” I saw two people talk to him, which made me feel—it was sort of far away—I thought, “Maybe he is. Why would these people approach him?” They were sitting next to a family, so I went up to the family afterward, and asked, “Hey, do you know if that was André 3000?” and they replied, “We don’t know. We didn’t catch that.” And when I checked my luggage at the gate, I asked the flight attendant, “Do you know if that’s André 3000?” And she said, “I think it is, but I don’t know for sure.” And then I sat back down and I didn’t see him. I stopped seeing him. He had been walking around for 30 minutes and all of a sudden I couldn’t see him. And then that family waved me down, and they said, “Hey, that was him. He’s taking pictures with people!” But he was only talking to one other person when I approached him, and I was kind of shaking because I love André 3000 so much.

What do you remember about your conversation?

Well, I think I said, “I’m a big fan of yours,” and then because my friend had said, “That’s not a flute,” I asked, “What instrument is that?” and he said, “Oh, it’s a flute. It’s an indigenous double flute.” Then I asked to take a photo. I was sort of starstruck. I took the photo and I went away as quickly as possible before I said anything and I sat down. Then we all boarded the plane and I uploaded the post on Instagram and on Twitter. I saw that it was popular, because it was probably only up for 10 minutes and it had 600 likes.

That’s a good sign.

I had one tweet before get kind of popular. It was, like, a thousand likes, so I was excited. Then I turned my phone off. And then, when we landed six hours later, it had 68,000 likes. And actually, my first feeling was dread. I felt kind of bad, like, what if I’m outing—what if this is what he does, he goes to places and plays the flute and kind of stays low-key? Because it wasn’t like he was asking for a lot of attention—he was doing his own thing. And I could tell that he saw I was staring at him when he was going back-and-forth, but it wasn’t like he was mad at the attention. He was just sort of neutral.

I would imagine by that point that’s just the water you swim in. So you land, and you see the tweet’s gone viral …

I started to worry that it was an invasion of privacy. I posted his picture online and I didn’t think it was going to get that kind of reach. So I waited for him outside of the baggage claim. And he saw me and immediately recognized me and smiled. And I told him, “Oh my God, I had no idea this was going to get so big. If you want me to delete it, I will.” And he said, “No, no, I think it’s funny.” He gave me a hug, which was really nice. And then he said, “I think it’s so funny people keep arguing about whether it’s a flute.” That was his main thing.

And since then you’ve spoken to the guy who made the flute, you tweeted?

Yes! He reached out to me on Instagram. And it’s really funny, because I work for Latino USA, so a story about an indigenous flute is the kind of thing that I would do for the show. I felt like I was doing reporting. But he was really nice, and he wanted to just talk about this moment and share it with me, which was cool. I was really happy he reached out to me, because now I have this new enemy group online, who are flute truthers. There are so many people who are commenting, “She can identify André 3000 and even figure out how to get the accent above his ‘e,’ but she can’t identify a flute.” One, every woman can identify flutes, and two, that it’s some sign of me being an idiot is really funny to me. Because I fact-checked it. I asked what instrument it was.

You can lead horses to water or whatever.

Yeah. Also, it’s just like, I don’t care. I don’t. As a journalist you get really worried about stuff online like getting something wrong or offending someone, but these comments just make me laugh. The thing that’s been so crazy is that a lot of people have commented that I look like Ellen DeGeneres, which I’ve never heard in my life, so that’s been very funny.

I guess that’s a part of going viral that no one warns you about: Everyone tells you that you look like Ellen DeGeneres. So is there anything else you’ve learned from this? About flutes or André 3000 or yourself?

Well, my family is originally from Argentina, and when we first moved from New York to San Diego, it was so different from my experience up until then that my family became really close. And there were two things we listened to all the time: the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Outkast. And we became obsessed with the Speakerboxxx/The Love Below album. My mom had a dream that André 3000 taught us the “Hey Ya!” dance. I always remembered that, because it was such a funny thing for my mom to say. And so I have this very fond feeling about him, and he lived up to that. My mom dreamed that he would be nice and teach us something, and that happened to me in real life, which is so crazy.

Your mom should go into the fortune-telling business.

Yeah! A lot of things are turning into weird fate things, like, my mom prophesied this.

And then the traffic at LAX made it happen.

Right, the universe wanted this to happen. It was really awesome and I’m proud that people felt that they could go on this funny journey with me, because I think the tweet evoked just how much I was freaking out.

Guillermo Martinez, Flute Maker

Matthew Dessem: I understand you already spoke to Ms. Cereijido about encountering André 3000 at the airport while he was playing one of your flutes?

Guillermo Martinez: Yeah. I found it intriguing that people didn’t quite know what was happening or what he was playing.

How did you find out about the tweet?

André sent it to me. He kind of prepared me, I guess. “Be ready.”

As you’ve probably seen, there are people on Twitter saying, “That’s not a flute.” Can you talk a little about the instrument you built?

Yeah, it’s an instrument I’ve been making for 40 years. It’s based on an ancient Mayan flute. Originally they were clay, and I made them in clay, but I was primarily a woodworker so I started making them in wood.

Does it have a Mayan name? I’ve seen it referred to as a “double flute.”

I call it the Maya, because I want people to understand the history of this, the origin. There are other people making them now, but they have no understanding of their history.

Can you talk about that a little bit?

Yeah. I did a traditional apprenticeship under a master maker named Xavier Quijas Yxayotl. We worked together producing shows at Knott’s Berry Farm. And there are a few documentaries that were done about us, because people were blown away that these kinds of instruments were being played, and also being made. They thought we were playing originals, or something like that, and, no: We make them.

How is that tradition passed down? Have these flutes been in continuous use, or are you looking at old models and reverse-engineering how to build them?

The history of this is interesting. When the Spanish came in the 1500s, when they realized people used these instruments as part of their spirituality, they passed a law prohibiting traditional instruments, music, and dance, and also language. Everybody was forced to speak Spanish and take on a European religion as part of the colonization. So these were kept secret. And were practiced in secret until Mexico achieved independence, but by then, it was just preserved in very isolated areas.

And nowadays, with young people being involved in sacred ceremonies, in ayahuasca, they also have interests in sacred music and sacred instruments. And I think that’s where André heard my friend playing one of my flutes, at a sound bath in Venice Beach.

So he came to you to ask him to make you one?

I didn’t know who he was. He just emailed me like anybody else. He was very specific in what he wanted. I made it, he showed up, and I didn’t know who he was. I’m a musician as well, but I’m more in world music and Native American music, so …

I noticed you had Lou Reed on your “How to Make a Flute” video.

Oh, yeah, that was my daughter. She went to an art school. The Lou Reed thing, she was in high school. Her teacher knew about me and said, “You know, your dad is pretty interesting, you should make a video on him.”

It’s an interesting video. It’s interesting work!

It’s a double flute, so does it produce a drone sound and another one that’s changed by your fingers, or are both flutes changing pitch? What exactly was it that you built for him?

I did one of each. There’s the Maya, which is a drone flute, a constant drone on one side and the flute on the other side and it sort of harmonizes with itself. And then there’s the Teotihuacan flute, a more complicated instrument, two actual flutes in different keys. And then it goes even farther—there’s a triple and a quadruple one. The key that André 3000’s flutes are in is my favorite. Because people have a certain frequency that they resonate at.

What key is your favorite?

E. E for me is my favorite. It always has been. Hearing E’s good. But he’s got an unusual tuning.

What’s unusual about it? When you say it’s in E, you mean that’s the drone note that the double flute produces, and then you have notes that harmonize with that on the other side?

Yeah. And also it’s in 432, which is not common. Most Western music is tuned to A=440 Hz. And this is tuned to A=432 Hz, which is used primarily by sound healers, because the body energetically responds better at 432 Hz than it would at 440 Hz. He specifically asked for 432.

Oh, that’s interesting, so it’s not the same E.

It’s a flat E.

And he wanted them in black, which you don’t usually do?

He emailed me, “Can you make them black?” And I kind of pride myself in my finish and the choice of woods and so forth, and if you stain them black, you lose all that, the finish and the grain and the coloring and the wood.

So did he want a piano-black finish or a matte black, or what?

Well, I have a stain here, they call it Japan tint. And it will stain the wood but you can still see the grain. But this request kind of threw me—it’s the first one I’ve ever had. So I talked to my teacher, Xavier, and I asked him, “Hey, Xavier, this customer, he wants me to stain these flutes black.” And he says, “Well, is he going to pay you what you want?” And I say “Yeah.” “Well then, just stain them black.” And I said, “OK.”

There’s some wisdom in that.

Yeah, there’s some wisdom, when you’re making something for somebody, make it the way they want, not the way you want. But this is something that is representative of a people and a culture, and something to be respected, you know, it’s not like a novelty thing.

How do you feel about the instrument being adopted by somebody who’s presumably planning to create Western music with it?

His plans all along were just to kind of play as a spiritual practice, you know? And this is not uncommon, people playing a Native American flute in an airport lobby. There are a lot of people that take their flutes when they travel and use it to ground themselves.

As sort of a centering thing when they’re surrounded by that much chaos?

Yeah. He was probably practicing or maybe creating a calming space for himself or for people in that area. And it just happens to be that he’s well-known. I mean I think if it were anybody else, people would have taken it as just a good moment in time, but since it was him, it got a lot of attention. And that’s fine, you know, but it wasn’t what I think he was seeking to do. I’m sure his intent was just to bring peace to himself and maybe to gather his thoughts. Who knows what he’s going through or what he’s expecting during his trip. But that’s what I tell people: When you play these instruments, it’s like a journey. You start it, you don’t know where it’s going to take you.