R. Carlos Nakai is best known for his native American flute songs. However, to become the world’s premier Native American flutist, R. Carlos Nakai had to rely more on research and innovation and less on his Navajo-Ute heritage.
While the Diné had a strong flute-playing tradition, it was lost when they migrated from the Northwest Plains of Canada to the Southwest over five centuries ago. While Nakai may not have been “born to the flute,” it was curiosity about his heritage that led him to it.
During the late 1960s while researching American Indian music and traditional instruments, the wooden flute piqued Nakai’s interest, but it wasn’t until 1972 that he took it up seriously. Prior to that Nakai had devoted his musical energies to classical training on the cornet and trumpet.
In his usual determination to have a thorough knowledge of the instrument, Nakai crafted his own. He later learned from a flute-making teacher that rather than the oak Nakai was using, cedar is the only wood that works well. He also discovered that when it comes to flute making, there are no standard dimensions.
The finger holes and air column are based on hand and finger measurements and are never the same. As a result, each flute has a different sound and pitch, which makes the tonality of the instruments random.
Nakai views each flute less as a musical instrument than “as a sound sculpture – a piece of art that also creates sound.”
Part of Nakai’s philosophy is to ensure that the native flute does not become a “museum piece” of a bygone culture. Through his original compositions and other musical collaborations, Nakai intends to show the instrument’s versatility and capabilities.
Over the past three decades, Nakai has melded his classical training with his expertise on the cedar flute to form a complex, sophisticated sound that not only reveals the flute’s uniqueness, but covers the spectrum of musical genres: from devotional meditations to jazz ensembles to full symphonic works. Additionally, Nakai creates new sounds for the flute using electronic technology such as synthesizers and digital delay.
A native Arizonan, Nakai’s southwestern surroundings as well as his culture, heavily influence his work. He points out “A lot of what I’ve been taught culturally, comes from an awareness of the environment. How I feel is based on my impressions of being in certain spaces at certain times. Thinking back on personal tribal stories and the history of my culture figures into how I organize my music.”
While solo flute albums are the core of his work, Nakai is ambitious regarding joining forces with other musicians. He views collaborations as “philosophical communication between…musicians” and opportunities to explore beyond traditional musical and cultural boundaries.
His projects include Island of Bows, recorded with a Japanese group using acoustic and traditional Japanese instruments; Red Wind, with luthier and guitarist William Eaton and percussionist Will Clipman; Winds of Devotion with Tibetan flutist Nawang Khechog; Inside Monument Valley with silver flutist Paul Horn, and Ancient Future with his Native Jazz group, the R. Carlos Nakai Quartet. He has also recorded two symphonic CD’s featuring classical pieces written especially for him by Arizona composer James DeMars. His latest project is Native Voices, a collaboration with Hawaiian Slack Key guitarist Keola Beamer.
Nakai has written and performed scores for film and television including selections for the National Park Service, Fox Television, the Discovery Channel, IMAX, the National Geographic Society and many commercial productions.
In addition to his artistic successes, Nakai has amassed unprecedented commercial honors, including 6 Grammy nominations and the 1st two Gold Records to be awarded to a traditional Native American musician. A prolific musician and composer, he has 37 albums in commercial distribution, including 28 releases on the Canyon Records label. Just counting his Canyon titles, Nakai recently surpassed 3,500,000 units sold worldwide.
When Nakai is not recording, composing or researching, his year is spent touring throughout the U.S., Canada, Europe and Japan performing and lecturing on Native American culture and philosophy. Nakai wouldn’t have it any other way. “We were put on the earth to experience life in its totality. And if you’re not doing that, you’re essentially wasting your time.”
R. Carlos Nakai – Amazing Grace
Nakai, Eaton & Clipman “Horses in the Rain”
R. Carlos Nakai – “Into The Maze (Improvisation)”