The love song of Kamaal “Flute Man” Ibn-Duriyah Tilford

A reason to stop and listen to a homeless-looking flute-playing black man some breezy afternoon

The diesel-powered No. 19 bus pulls from the curb and rattles past the corner of West Muhammad Ali Boulevard and Fourth Street, followed by a beeline of harried westward drivers. The crosswalk signals switch; tourists and workers walk back from lunches, hard soles clopping like horseshoes against the street. It is sunny for a February afternoon, but it’s 20 degrees and snow flurries seem to chill the collective spirit.

In the midst of this sad rush,  passes through a small metal cylinder pressed delicately against two chapped lips. It comes from a 63-year-old flutist who may be the only street musician in downtown Louisville, a man who for four years has planted himself in front of The Seelbach, seven days a week, always in between the UPS drop-off box and the Starbucks entrance. The hood of his dirty black jacket covers most of his face, leaving only his gray beard in direct view.

Flute Man
“I wish it was 112 degrees again,” he says, putting his flute into its case so he can warm his hands. “I’ve got icicles coming out of this thing.”

Flute Man has other, less-mythic names, but the people who traffic his playground typically don’t know them. For each person who drops a spare quarter into his plastic gas station cup, another 30 lengthen their strides and avert their eyes. It is embarrassing to see.

He is allowed to continue busking outside the hotel’s Starbucks because, urban detachment and indifference of some passersby notwithstanding, Flute Man is a passive entertainer. Mark Butcher, food services manager of The Seelbach — a man who could shut down Flute Man’s shop if he wanted — says he has received only one complaint, “from someone who tried to steal from his cup.” Katie Dunn, employed there a year and a half, agrees.

“The only time he’s had altercations is when he felt threatened or insulted,” she says. “She (the woman who tried to steal money from his cup) must have pissed him off. Supposedly, he tried to smack her with his flute.”
Asked about this, Flute Man nods, though he won’t verify the claim: “One day, I had to knock a cat out in the street,” he says, leaving it there.

Butcher says Flute Man usually keeps an eye out for troublemakers, and that he keeps them away from the hotel and his “place of business.” Besides, he admires the music and the man’s determination, though he knows little about him.

“I see what he’s doing as an expression of his talent or of his art,” Butcher says. “If you choose to donate, you can. There is no pressure.”

Butcher lived previously in Miami Beach, where street performers are common. “He’s out in the rain, the sun, the sleet, the wind, the cold. If you don’t call that a job, then I don’t know what is.”

Flute Man, or “Flute Master,” as he says some people call him, is a stage name, something he uses three hours a day, typically between noon and 3 p.m. Some days, he says, he makes barely enough to buy a chili dog. On Christmas Eve last year, he earned $160.
“For business purposes, I go by another name,” he says.

Kamaal meets with friends at the McDonald’s at Second and Broadway around 7:30 every morning. He calls these meetings “séances,” and over baked apple pies and breakfast burritos he discusses politics, philosophy, mathematics and life on the street, albeit in a disorderly fashion. There are no single, focused thoughts with Kamaal.

“There was a time when I couldn’t pay 27 cents for a cup of coffee,” he says before switching gears. “Do you know Stan Waite?”

Turns out Stan Waite was a general who led Cherokee troops into battle for the Confederacy, but Kamaal never explains why he brought it up. In the next minute, he also tells me I should learn about the “Knights of the Golden Circle,” a secret organization that he saw in the movie “National Treasure.”

Kamaal says he’s not mentally ill; he achieves some coherence when his friends leave for the library on York Street, another habitual destination from which he “tears up the Internet.”

“Last night, I stayed outside. I didn’t have to. I wanted to be left alone,” Kamaal explains. “This is a ‘Howard Hughes Syndrome.’ It’s kinda contagious.”

Kamaal says the Salvation Army shelter on South Brook Street, a few blocks from where he plays his music, is a place where you “have to sleep with one eye open.” As of 2006, according to a Coalition for the Homeless count, there were 10,933 individuals who “lacked a fixed, regular and adequate residence.” Needless to say, shelters are often packed.

When it is too cold to sleep outside, Kamaal says he has eight places where he can go. One is with a woman of whom he says, “A lot of people want to hurt her. She’s involved with some bad stuff. I call her ‘the porno queen’ because of what she’s into, but I want to turn her into the ‘Queen of England’. It’s extremely difficult to solve people’s problems if you’re not around them.”

Another woman he’s been staying with talks with him about stock car racing and AC/DC into the wee hours of the night.

These are the other homeless or poor who Kamaal lives with. He talks at length about helping “the people in public housing, the people hustling cans,” because he feels no one else will or can. More than 15,000 households are on the waiting list for Section 8 or public housing in Louisville, according to the Metro Housing Authority.

“There are real people out here. They can reap the benefit of what I do. I know enough to show people shortcuts,” he says, referring to education and legal courses that he wants to take. “You’ve got to be willing to try.”

At the McDonald’s, he starts in about a new tax course, but when a police officer sits on the same bench as him, he tenses and lowers his voice. Still smiling, but warily, he scratches a phone number on a napkin.
“Call this number. It’s how I take care of business on the street. It’s the Inspector General. Just listen to it. They’ve got my phone wired and tapped.”

The number, he says, helps if the police “give you problems.” As it turns out, it is the toll-free number to the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Justice. There’s a menu option for alleging “waste, fraud or misconduct” against employees.

As he leaves McDonald’s for his next flute performance, I ask him what his real name is. He hands me an envelope from the Louisville Metro Revenue Commission with a letter requesting additional tax forms for an “Occupational License Fees Return” claim. Atop the letter are five words — his legal name since 1980.

Abdur Rahman Mwalimu Amaliyah Ibn-Duriyah
Though “Kamaal” was supposedly the name Flute Man had reserved for business purposes, it appears Ibn-Duriyah serves for both his legal and economic ventures.

Ibn-Duriyah not only files taxes for self-employment because he’s trying “to lead by example,” but he has a history of filing questionable lawsuits as well. His most recent attempted lawsuit alleged that the defendants, who won’t be mentioned to protect their privacy, were involved in “sexual harassment, senior citizen harassment, theft and destruction of the U.S. mail, extortion, collusion, domestic terrorism, kidnapping, illegal entry, harassing phone calls, (and) intimidation.”

Judge Charles R. Simpson III dismissed the claims as “frivolous or malicious,” noting that Ibn-Duriyah “fails to set forth which Defendant purportedly committed which acts … or even what acts. In fact, he offers no facts at all, merely conclusions.”

Ibn-Duriyah has been pursuing $70,000 in compensatory damages in the suit, and is currently in the process of appealing the decision. Two prior suits — from 2002 and 2003 — were also dismissed. Ibn-Duriyah represents himself, though the suits haven’t actually made it to trial before being thrown out. Because of his income level, he’s been allowed to waive the legal fees.

Although Ibn-Duriyah denies mental illness, he tells me he sometimes seeks help from the Veterans Affairs hospital, as he did with carpal tunnel syndrome in 2002 and a tracheotomy in 1999, part of an operation to clear polyps from his larynx.

Much of what Ibn-Duriyah speaks of is difficult to verify, and he sometimes dips into falsehoods or paranoid delusions of wire-tapping. Still, it should be noted that he is affable, smiling and soft-spoken in person.
Bruce Erskine, a professor of flute who has taught at the University of Memphis for 32 years, remembers Ibn-Duriyah from the late 1980s. He recalls a talented and somewhat quiet man.

“He was a good player,” Erskine said. “Polite. A lot of students you teach for an hour a day for a couple of years, and you learn a lot about them, sometimes too much, but with Kamaal, I never learned much. After a couple of years, he just sort of disappeared.”

Ibn-Duriyah still speaks fondly of his time in Memphis — dropping in that he once played with James Brown there — and plans to return someday to record at Yellow Dog Records, an outfit dedicated to jazz musicians.
Before all this, though, Ibn-Duriyah had a different name — his given name.

Garrett Clifton Tilford
Tilford was born here in 1944 to Garrett Tilford of Stamping Ground, Ky., and Thelma Cayne Tilford-Weathers, a schoolteacher at the all-black Central High School.

He attended Shawnee High School, played clarinet in the marching band and loved mathematics (this illuminates some of his McDonald’s claims that he could teach calculus to children via the shape of a seesaw on the playground). After graduating in 1962, Tilford spent four years attending and dropping out of nearby universities, working odd jobs and getting involved with drugs.

“I wanted to be a music instructor, but I was a complete screw-up,” Tilford says now. “I’ve been in many, many schools, having problems, getting into trouble. I stopped going to classes; I was clowning.”
Amid such difficulties, his mother convinced him to join the military.

From 1966 to 1969, Tilford played in the 158th U.S. Army Band at Fort Knox. It was there that he learned “The Air Force Song,” a tune that one of his regular corner visitors, a retired Air Force veteran, requests.

He spent most of the ’70s playing music in Kentucky, but to play in clubs, he says, he had to be in a band, which presented a problem: He didn’t want to share his money. In 1978, Tilford’s father died, and he moved to Memphis, hoping a change of pace would do him well. He became a Moslem, which prompted the name change in 1980 to Ibn-Duriyah, though he said he has since given up that religious pursuit in favor of “hustling,” as he calls it.

Ibn-Duriyah enjoyed his time in Memphis, and it appeared he had settled into a good track. He started flute lessons with Erskine at the behest of his mother; the two had remained close. But she died in 1988, throwing his personal life into turmoil again, a decade after his father’s death first invited the change of scenery. He dropped out of school the following year.

For the next six years, Ibn-Duriyah played on the streets and outside studios, but when he was “kicked out of the city” for reasons he wouldn’t share, he came to Louisville in 1994, and has since been involved with everything from “selling incense sticks in the Hood” to “collecting cans out of the Dumpster.” He spent time in and out of public housing, waiting in line for food in “Bologna Alley” and staying in shelters.

Aside from his well-educated mother, who supported and compelled him for much of his life, the flute has been one of his only stabilities. It was 2004 that he officially became “Flute Man,” according to his McDonald’s friends. This lifestyle, he has decided, is his calling.

“Some people are rich in their pockets but poor in their hearts. I was raised by these snobs and aristocrats. If it rained, I think they would’ve drowned — noses in the air and all that,” he says during a break between his sets. “What I do is tend to my flock, my customers. I am a non-licensed musical therapist."

“No one has to ever pay $150 to hear me play,” he continues. “I could be playing at Carnegie Hall for $8,000 a night, but my job right now is absolute, instantaneous gratification.”

That said, Flute Man waves at a woman in a wheelchair across Fourth Street, lifts his instrument back to his lips and weaves initial random scales into a flawless rendition of “My Favorite Things” from “The Sound of Music.”

There is a burst of sunlight from the clouded sky. As the light drapes across Flute Man’s face, he picks his head up and pushes his hood off. His long winter is almost over.  

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