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From The Panpipe To The Bansuri, This Flutist Has Her Pride Covered

Flutist Kay Ragsdale remembers the exact moment she knew she’d be part of the “Lion King” phenomenon. A musician friend had invited her to see the new musical during its tryout run in Minneapolis. It was Saturday, Aug. 30, 1997. That night, the world was talking about the death of Princess Diana in France (where it was already past midnight). And though Ragsdale was not immune to the shock of Diana’s death, her world was changed even more by the show she was witnessing.

“It was an obstructed view seat, which was a folding chair behind a support pole, that I paid full price for,” Ragsdale explains. “And it was worth every penny! I just thought this is the best entertainment I have ever seen, and this is hands-down the best flute part ever.” 

Her friend was able to get her an even better seat the next day. “I was able to sit in the pit, and I remember being in the back, and watching [my friend], and he would just turn the page, and pick up an instrument, and turn the other page, and pick up another instrument.”

That night began a 17-year journey that has found Ragsdale on the road for over a decade, touring with Disney’s “The Lion King.”

Ragsdale’s interest in World Music began in college. Already an accomplished flutist, she got a little itchy playing the same etudes and scales designed for the western flute. An opportunity to see the National Orchestra of Shanghai opened a new door, as she met the two principal flute players in the group.

“They took me over to what looked like the largest fishing tackle box I’d ever seen!” she enthuses. “And there was tray upon tray of flutes. [I knew then] there’s a whole other world out there, and I want to learn everything that there is.”

“I went on a mission to find out what flutes looked like from different countries. And I would collect them. I would collect LPs, so I would look for a cover photo of something, and if I could find an instrument that looked like that, then I would play along with the record. Pretty soon I developed a reputation for identifying instruments. Antique shops would call and say ‘can you come in and tell us what this instrument is?’ And I would … and then I’d buy it!” she laughs.

Antique shops would call me and say, "Can you come in and tell us what this instrument is?" And I would ... and then I'd buy it! --Kay Ragsdale

In “The Lion King,” Ragsdale plays an array of instruments from countries that are not just part of the African continent. There’s the bansuri, the ancient bamboo shaft from India, which represents Mufasa. A South American toyo is used for special effects as the evil Scar appears onstage. Smaller flutes, like panpipes, represent the young Simba. Ragsdale also points out that many of the instruments used in the show represent life and resurrection in different cultures around the world, which is one of the themes of “The Lion King” itself. [To hear some of her musical secrets, listen to the audio below.]

Ragsdale has nothing but praise for her colleagues in the pit and onstage. As part of her audition, she had to take lessons in both African dance and drumming; something she admits she wasn’t particularly good at, but can now recognize as something the “Lion King” performers excel at.

Even though she has performed with the company for more than a decade, Ragsdale says she wants to stay with “The Lion King” as long as they’ll let her. The show itself is that inspiring to her. As for a favorite moment from the musical? 

“You cannot beat the opening. I think it is hands down the best opening in any musical, ever.” But she adds, “[As for the characters], I personally really like the lionesses. They’re beautiful but dangerous. They’re a lot like a rose. You’ve got that beauty, but you also have the thorn. Not every gazelle makes it to the bows at the end of the show.”

The “Circle of Life,” indeed!
"The Lion King" continues its run at the Majestic Theater in San Antonio through January 4, 2015. Tickets are available at the Majestic Box office, or online and by phone through Ticketmaster.

  Flutist Kay Ragsdale, who performs in the touring orchestra for Disney's "The Lion King," demonstrates two of the instruments she uses during an early scene in the show. A video posted by Nathan Cone (@ncone1) on Dec 12, 2014 at 9:17pm PST