R. Carlos Nakai - Biography

By J Poet

Carlos Nakai has made traditional Native American cedar flute a part of the musical landscape without diluting his spiritual or musical beliefs. He’s probably the most visible Native American musician in the country, a Grammy winner and the first Native artist to have a gold record, given to him for his solo flute album Canyon Trilogy (1989). His 1987 album, Earth Spirit has also gone gold. A restless creative spirit, Nakai plays jazz, classical, blues, new age and world music in a variety of settings, including jazz/funk sessions with his R. Carlos Nakai Quartet, efforts with symphony orchestras and collaborations with musicians as varied as Paul Horn, Keola Beamer and William Eaton. His playing ranges from the meditative to the incendiary and he’s brought an instrument once on the verge of extinction back into the light and inspired several generations of new flute players. 

“I’m little interested in integrating my culture into the greater American focus,” Nakai has said. “I always operate from a traditional Native perspective. I’m bringing people into the Native tradition, not taking Native traditional to them. Everything I do is building upon or exemplifying the persistence of survival that Native cultures demonstrate to one another. Twenty years ago, many Native traditions were under attack by colonialism, government suppression and the economic pressures of survival. When I started playing in the early ‘70s, the only players I knew of were ‘Doc Tate’ Nevaquaya, Tom Mauchahty Ware and Woodrow Haney. They were the only ones keeping the tradition alive and nobody paid much attention, even Natives.”

Nakai, who is of Navaho and Ute heritage, was born on April 16, 1946 in Flagstaff, AZ and grew up in various places in the Southwest, Southern California and the Pacific Northwest, living with members of his extended family. He lived a traditional Native life as a boy, attending ceremonies and immersing himself in his own tribal culture. He’d always been attracted to the flute, but when he began studying the Western system of music a government teacher told him that men don’t play flutes. Nakai picked up the trumpet instead, with an eye toward Julliard or the Berklee School of Music. He enlisted in the Navy and applied to their music school, but an accident ruined his lip and ended both his military career and his trumpet playing.

Back home in ’71, he played in a Navaho tribal band, and began remembering a flute song he heard by William Horn Cloud years before. He met a Comanche flute maker who traded flutes for material objects. He acquired a flute and began his current journey. He met Kevin Locke in 1982, a kindred soul who was an expert on the flute traditions of the Northern Plains. Locke encouraged Nakai to explore traditional expression on the flute. “At that time, there were a number of non-Native flute makers, working with the instrument,” Nakai complained. “They were civilizing it, reconfiguring the instrument into a primitive recorder in the key of C Major.”

In 1983 he recorded a cassette of 14 solo songs called Changes that included three traditional songs and 11 of his own compositions. He printed up 250 copies to sell at performances and give to friends. Ray Boley, founder of Canyon Records, a label that specializes in Native music, heard one of Nakai’s cassettes and offered him a deal. When Changes came out on Canyon it struck a chord with new age and world music fans. The album continues to sell to this day.   

Nakai, a frequent Grammy nominee (eight times and counting) and musical omnivore, has recorded more than 35 albums for Canyon and played on many releases with other artists. He has cut jazz, traditional and new age albums, played world music with Latin, Japanese and African collaborators, fronted symphony and chamber orchestras and contributed to the soundtracks of movies such as Geronimo and New World and TV shows like How The West Was Lost.

Nakai’s first recognition by mainstream listeners came with Natives, a collaboration with pianist Peter Kater that topped Billboard’s New Age chart in 1990. In 1996 his first recording with the R. Carlos Nakai Quartet, Kokopelli's Café, found him blending his jazzy improvisations with African and Latin rhythms. “African, Latin and Native styles were all impacted by colonialism,” Nakai says. “Don Cherry, who is Comanche and Jim Pepper from the Kaw Nation encouraged me to keep taking from the outer culture to revitalize our own.”

His solo albums include Earth Spirit (1987), Canyon Trilogy (1989), and Sanctuary (2003), on which Nakai also plays a cedar bass flute. Nakai’s wide ranging collaborations include Inside Canyon de Chelly (1997) and Inside Monument Valley (1999), albums of improvisations with jazz flautist Paul Horn recorded live in the field; Our Beloved Land (2005) a blend of Hawaiian and Native music with slack key guitarist Keola Beamer and 2007’s Voyagers, an exploration of Native, Jewish, Turkish and Arab tonalities with cellist Udi Bar-David. Martha Graham used music from Nakai’s Cycles (1985) in Night Chant, her last work as a choreographer and Nakai was a soloist with the Omaha Symphony for the premier performance of Philip Glass’s Piano Concerto No. 2: After Lewis and Clark.

No matter what he plays, however, Nakai always stays focused on the simple power of his instrument and the deep roots of his Native traditions.

“The Native flute is made from materials that are part of this land,” Nakai says. “Its sound seems to reconnect people to the land. Even if your ancestors were European, you are now part of this land, which you may not like to hear coming from a Native, but you have to learn who you now are, so we can interact to honor the land.”


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