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R. Carlos Nakai is considered the premier performer of the Native American flute. The son of a Ute-Spanish-Celtic father and a Zuni-Athabascan mother, Nakai has traveled the world, enlisted in the U.S. Navy, taught on the Navajo reservation, authored a book, and developed the first recognized tablature for the Native American flute.
Born in Flagstaff, Arizona, Nakai grew up with extended family along the Colorado River. He settled in the small town of Posten, where his formal music training began. Nakai was one of the first students to benefit from his forward-thinking principal's resolve to initiate a music program at the school. Dissuaded from his first choices of the flute and piccolo, he began learning trumpet in the public schools.
His education included playing in the high school band, and this led to a desire to play in the U.S. Navy Band. When he was drafted in 1966, he decided to enlist in the Navy in the hopes of joining the band, but did a tour in Vietnam instead. Nakai returned home to study music at Northern Arizona University and at Phoenix College. His trumpet playing abruptly ended after a car accident that damaged his embouchure. It was at that time he was gifted a traditional cedar flute by a close friend and challenged to master it.
The flute in Native American culture dates back to prehistoric times, but the origins of the contemporary Native American flute design are not fully known. There are ancient examples of an earlier flute design (620-670 AD) found in the Prayer Rock district of northeastern Arizona. The Arizona State Museum archives show that in 1931, archeologist Earl H. Morris excavated fifteen caves and found four end-blown flutes among the many artifacts in the Atahonez Canyon, located on the Arizona Navajo reservation. Oral histories and traditions of indigenous North American cultures, as well as ethnographic records made by European explorers and archeologists, suggest that flutes were also played in southeastern North America in ancient times. However, no instruments have survived, probably due to the effects of the moist climate on the organic materials of the instruments.
Nakai attended graduate school at the University of Arizona, where he researched nineteenth-century evidence of Native American songs. He earned a Master's degree in American Indian Studies, with a focus on the anthropology of culture, spirituality, and religion. In the course of his research, he traveled across North America to powwows and other Native gatherings, inquiring about the accuracy of the accounts of Native American culture found in the notes and writings of ethnographer Frances Densmore and others. In order to compose for the flute, Nakai developed his own system of tablature, which is more suited to the range and scale of the instrument than western classical notation.
Nakai's travels also revealed that the Native American flute, when played, emulated the distinct vocal traditions of each individual tribe. Nakai calls the traditional handmade flutes "sound sculptures" rather than musical instruments. Rather than being made to the correct measurements in order to produce certain notes, they are crafted using the width of the maker's arm and hand as units of measurement. As a result these unique measurements, no two flutes will sound alike.
Nakai's creative path is guided by his appreciation of both similarities and differences among cultures. His interest in the musical, cultural, political and historical aspects of a society inform his compositions.
When he was teaching on the Navajo reservation, Nakai emphasized to his students the importance of embracing a multicultural heritage. "You may have one or two cultural backgrounds, but for me, I hold five. Which do you think is more powerful? If you only claim one or two components of your heritage, then you are robbing yourself of the opportunity to be a world person."
Nakai has toured the world and collaborated with musicians of multiple genres and cultures. He has worked with such artists as the Tibetan flautist and chanter Nawang Khechog, the traditional Japanese group Wind Travelin' Band, and Hawaiian slack key guitarist and singer Keola Beamer. His cross-cultural interests motivated the establishment of his ethnic ensembles, the R. Carlos Nakai Quartet and the Nakai, Eaton and Clipman Trio, which explore the intersection of the ethnic and contemporary popular idioms.
He has been recognized widely for his work. His honors include seven Grammy nominations, several Indie Awards from the National Association of Independent Record Distributors (NAIRD), an Arizona Governor's Arts Award, induction into the Arizona Music & Entertainment Hall of Fame, two gold records, a Native American Music Award, credits in two major movie productions, and a First Americans in the Arts Award. He has released over thirty albums, which together have sold four million copies. He has also published a book, The Art of the Native American Flute.
When asked about his most significant accomplishments, R. Carlos Nakai still remembers his students and their many successes as his greatest source of pride.
By Jennifer Tsukayama
The American Folklife Center was created by Congress in 1976 and placed at the Library of Congress to "preserve and present American Folklife" through programs of research, documentation, archival preservation, reference service, live performance, exhibition, public programs, and training. The Center includes the American Folklife Center Archive of folk culture, which was established in 1928 and is now one of the largest collections of ethnographic material from the United States and around the world. Please visit our web site.
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