Raymond Carlos Nakai was born into a family of Navajo and Ute descent in Flagstaff, Arizona, in 1946. His parents hosted a Navajo-language radio program. While listening to the tapes of the program, he listened to a flute recording by William Hornpipe, a Lakota musician from the Pine Ridge Reserve and was impressed. All his life he was in contact with music. In your culture, the presence of music in your activities and rites is very common. Singers, storytellers, and in many different ways, music is present in the traditions of his people and he spent most of his life immersed in all these experiences and perspectives. Nakai never had formal training in Western music, at school, he tried to play the flute in the band, but he was assigned to play the trumpet, he says that at the time he had little interest in learning the trumpet, but he played very well. He later joined Northern Arizona University and started playing wind instruments in the martial band. In the middle of the course, he was drafted into the United States Navy in 1968 and spent two years studying communications and electronics in Hawaii and the South Pacific, but continued to receive musical training with trumpet during his National service. During some periods he tried to enter music schools, passed highly competitive tests for the Armed Forces School of Music and was on the waiting list, but his career in the Armed Forces Band had to be abandoned after a car accident it damaged his mouth, which made it impossible for him to continue playing the trumpet - Nakai had other opportunities to enter important music schools, but when the opportunities arose, the artist was no longer interested in having that type of training.
After the accident, Nakai returned to the Navajo reserve in 1971 and went through a brief period of depression and addiction to drugs and alcohol, resulting from trauma due to his mouth injury and the fact that he lost several close friends during the war from Vietnam. In 1972, he received a traditional cedar flute as a gift. Intrigued by that instrument, he started to study it, its technique, its manufacture and repertoires of traditional songs for the Native American flute, but he found many difficulties. The flute, which came from the culture of the native peoples, did not present records, scores, or even recordings, since the Indigenous peoples passed their knowledge through oral tradition, even the manufacture of the flute did not present a pattern, in each people it was executed in a way.
Nakai used all the technique and knowledge acquired by playing the trumpet since school, an experience that totaled 25 years, and immersed himself in the understanding of flute technology: The different types of whistles, the different flutes played around the world, and all kinds of wind instruments and instruments that used tubes, he even studied the pipe organ. While researching the history of the flute and the Native American flute, he learned to play and discovered that there was no standard for the native instrument. The technique varied from one instrument to the next and from one people to the next. He learned that several manufacturers of pipes for flutes and pipe organ came to North America in 1700 - from England, Scotland, Austria and other European countries - and introduced these instruments to the natives, who then began to make their own.
"The flute is like a sound sculpture - a work of art that also creates sound". Carlos Nakai
Each native puts his own touch when creating the flute. He interviewed the natives who said: "Ah, yes, my grandfather had one of these". In the face of so much diversity, he realized that he needed to remake the instrument to find his own pattern. From there he started to study the sound technology of the flute, how to produce the sound and then make it work. By trial and error, he was able to identify 14 possible sounds or notes and he called this his chromatic scale.
At one point he was producing his own flutes, with a flute teacher he learned that instead of the oak, which Nakai was using, cedar is the only wood that works well with flutes. However, given the huge amount of information that needed to be recorded to maintain the quality of the instruments, Nakai realized that he needed help. Until he met a Comanche flute, created by Oliver W. Jones, and they started to work together. For years they developed experimental instruments and little by little they had extensive records of all this deep experimentation work. And with that Nakai started to use flutes in the tunings G minor, another in A and another in E.
Nakai created such an intimate intimacy with the Native Flute that he understood that his power went beyond music itself. He said the instruments he worked with seemed to vibrate in an area around his chest and in some places on his head. And with that he started to look for these characteristics in the instruments he played. He watched where they made his body vibrate and when he played for someone his goal was for people to feel these vibrations produced by his music. So, instead of working only with the sound of the instrument, he worked with how that sound affected the listener.
“I work a lot with the Boehm instrument today, but I don't find that instrument satisfactory, because it is just a flute. The metal itself vibrates, but does not send the vibration like one of those native flutes, or even another wooden flute. It is a technical instrument that is made for orchestral work only, so I use it only for playing music. But the flutes I have, some of them made of wood, I use them to move people. ” Carlos Nakai
“I was raised to believe that my native people had been wronged and that I should not like people or trust others. I always had the feeling that this was not how I wanted to be, but when I served in the Navy, I was introduced to Buddhism. Then I realized an identification in my true way of being with the inclusiveness of Buddhist philosophy, and it taught me to realize that I am limitless in my consciousness. I can be everything I want, from one moment to the next I can change. ” Carlos Nakai
Carlos Nakai spent years devoting himself to understanding native flutes, and in the meantime resumed his studies at Northern Arizona University. In 1979 he completed his bachelor's degree and later completed a master's degree on American Indians. His accumulation of cultural experiences, coming from his native origin, his experiences when he lived abroad for the Navy, with Buddhism, with music and at the University, allowed Nakai to develop a very plural sense of conscience.
Being of Indigenous origin, the artist lived as if in two worlds or dimensions at the same time. He claimed to have "two cultures". His ancestry brought the Native American sense of awareness of being, being his first culture. And the second is American culture. For him, it was an advantage to have two cultures, but for many contemporary traditional music artists and relatives among these peoples, this cultural plurality was ignored and many preferred to perpetuate their traditions.
For Nakai, the advantage is that they could mix the two cultures and make them work together, and even develop in a more expressive way. He believes that exactly this capacity for adaptation and cultural transformation was what gave rise to what his people are today. Originally, the Apache and Navajo peoples of the southern Athapaskan linguistic family came from people who migrated from Canada hundreds of years ago, where they lived in the Lake Athapaskan region. With the migration to the south much of its original culture was lost, even what is known is that these people originally had the flute very present in their culture and this characteristic was lost. For Nakai, the culture that exists today among these peoples is an accumulation of several other cultures that they came into contact with during their migration. And so the successful survival of these traditions is the ability to adapt to a new culture, to assimilate new ideas and make them part of your own, but many people do not accept that. Many see this view as a devaluation of traditional cultures.
The flutist claims that in many “enlightened” circles in America, you find this attitude unyielding, hidden, but it is still there. Despite this, he saw a strong responsibility from his work towards children. And one of its goals was to be able to bring their experiences and knowledge to them, bringing empowerment, awareness and allowing them to give them tools for their future survival.
In a survey that Nakai was doing, with some traditional flutists, one of them said: “All we do is play our vocal music on these instruments. We tell our stories. ” And that's when things started to fall into place. Nakai went on to create his own songs inspired by the culture of his people and put a little bit of all his influences.
“I wanted to bring this instrument back to the real world and help people to use it to expose what they know about themselves as having many traditions. After all, Americans are a mix of many different inheritances, so that could be a tool for personal expression. ” Carlos Nakai
Part of Nakai's philosophy is to ensure that the native flute does not become a “museum piece” of a past culture. Through his original compositions and other musical collaborations, Nakai was able to show the versatility and capabilities of the instrument.
Over the past few decades, Nakai has combined his classical training with his cedar flute experience to form a complex and sophisticated sound that not only reveals the uniqueness of the flute, but covers a wide range of musical genres such as: devotional meditations, jazz ensembles and works symphonic. In addition, Nakai's music prominently features improvisations on the Native American cedar flute. He also plays an eagle bone whistle, chants and sounds of nature. Although he occasionally plays arrangements of traditional melodies, most of his music attempts to recreate original compositions that capture the essence of his heritage in highly personalized and contemporary ways. And for that, it uses electronic technology, like synthesizers and digital delay.
The music that Nakai has been creating for decades can be framed in the style of music of the New Age (New Age) and has been readily accepted by a wide spectrum of people in America and other places in the world and this is essentially due to the fact that the American people themselves, people who have an enormous cultural mix of different regions of the planet, find themselves culturally lost. Many do not know exactly what their roots are. They were born in America, but do not consider themselves native. These same people have found in the culture of the new Era a way to feel rooted. Many Americans seem to consider themselves to be visitors on their own. They seek indigenous peoples wanting to become natives, but do not realize that they are also natives.
In the context of the music industry as it is today, "New Age" is the label of the music made by Nakai and for him this genre goes beyond something new, it is the union of the new with the old.
"I would like to call it" Continuum Music ", because it is always growing, building and changing, it is never the same." Carlos Nakai
His first songs were recorded on cassette and sold in the Navajo villages, but Nakai was discovered by Canyon label and his first album, Changes, was released in 1983 and since then he has released more than thirty-five albums. He also gives educational workshops and residencies, introduces himself as a soloist, and makes trails for films and plays.
"I encouraged people to search for themselves to find their own music ... to use the instrument to understand each other." Carlos Nakai
In 1987, Nakai met Ken Light at an event. Ken was one of three flute manufacturers in the world who created modern instruments tuned to 440hz. They became friends, thought together about how to bring these teachings to a wider audience, and decided to organize flute workshops together.
They started the first workshop and the experience took place for 20 years. At the center of the workshops was the flute, but it became much more than learning to play an instrument, it was a deeper dive into music as a means of self expression and the importance of how we develop our relationship with our world in general, the Earth and the cosmos. The course offered students several ways to develop personal philosophy.
Most people had no formal musical training, but were given tools to start working with their instruments. Among the activities taught, breathing and stretching the body were topics of great importance. It had nothing to do with reading music, but learning to “sing each one's innate song”. Students were encouraged to make sounds - any sounds - to feel comfortable listening to their particular expression through the flute.
In today's world there is this whole history of needing to be well trained to make good music. But Nakai and Ken wanted to encourage students to find their own music. Understand what they meant. People with musical backgrounds had problems with these workshops, as they said that mentors were revealing secrets that it took years to acquire. But for them, music is not limited to a select group of people:
“Children sing all the time. The birds sing all the time. Each being makes their own music. It is a personal expression. ”
Nakai became so identified with the work that was being done that he realized that this was what he wanted to do, it was who he was. Then he started to include his inheritances in his experiences, his knowledge and musical training. Things started to flow for the artist who started to be invited to give lectures on the culture, history, lifestyles and colonialism of American Indians.
“When I see people who are eager to express themselves, grow and change, I want to show up to facilitate this and honor them. In my eyes, we are all shades of the same color. We all play a role and we all come from worlds of suffering. My specific path around the world is through music. Yours may be some other form of art, writing, dancing or teaching. But, we have to hold on to our songs. We must learn to be ourselves. ” Carlos Nakai
- Library of Congress
- East valley
- It's Not Just Music: An Interview with R. Carlos Naka
- Feathered Pipe Ranch