Raymond Carlos Nakai was born into a family of Navajo and Ute Indian descent in Flagstaff, Arizona, in 1946. His parents hosted a Navajo-language radio show. While listening to tapes of the program, he heard a flute recording by William Hornpipe, a Lakota musician from the Pine Ridge Reservation, and was impressed. All his life he was in contact with music. In his culture, the presence of music in his activities and rites is very common. Singers, storytellers, and in the most diverse forms, 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 music in the Western mold, in school he tried to play the flute in the band but was assigned to play the trumpet, he claims at the time he didn't have much interest in learning the trumpet but he played very well. He later attended Northern Arizona University and played brass instruments in the marching band. Midway through the course he was drafted into the US Navy in 1968 and spent two years studying communications and electronics in Hawaii and the South Pacific, but continued to receive trumpet music training 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 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 opportunities arose, the artist was no longer interested in having that type of training.
After the accident, Nakai returned to the Navajo Reservation in 1971 and experienced a brief period of depression and addiction to drugs and alcohol, a result of trauma from his mouth injury and the fact that he lost several close friends during the war. from Vietnam. In 1972, he received a traditional flute made of cedar as a gift. Intrigued by that instrument, he began to study it, its technique, its manufacture and repertoires of traditional music for the American Indian flute, but he encountered 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 on their knowledge through oral tradition, even the manufacture of the flute did not present a standard, in each people it was executed in a way.
Nakai used all the technique and knowledge acquired playing the trumpet since school, an experience that added up to 25 years, and delved deep into 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 pipes, he even studied the pipe organ. While researching the history of the Native American flute and flute, he was learning to play and discovered that there was no standard for the native instrument. The technique varied from one instrument to another and from one people to another. He learned that a number of pipe makers for flutes and pipe organs came to North America in the 1700s – 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 spin on it when creating the flute. He interviewed natives who said, "Oh yeah, my grandfather had one of those." Faced with so much diversity, he realized that he needed to remake the instrument to find his own pattern. From there he went on to study the technology of flute sound, how to produce the sound and then make it work. Through 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 making his own flutes, from a flute teacher he learned that instead of oak, which Nakai was using, cedar is the only wood that works well for flutes. However, faced with the enormous 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 working together. For years they developed experimental instruments and little by little they had extensive records of all this profound work of experimentation. And with that Nakai started using flutes in G minor tuning, another in A and another in E.
Nakai created such a deep intimacy with the Native Flute that he understood that its power went beyond the music itself. He stated that 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 began to look for these characteristics in the instruments he played. He observed 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 this instrument satisfactory, because it's just a flute. The metal itself vibrates, but it does not send out the vibration like one of these native flutes, or even another wooden flute. It's a technical instrument that's only made for orchestral work, so I only use it to play music. But the flutes I have, some 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 shouldn't like people or trust others. I always had the feeling that this wasn't how I wanted to be, but when I served in the Navy, I was introduced to Buddhism. Then I noticed an identification in my true way of being with the inclusiveness of Buddhist philosophy, and it taught me to realize that I am unlimited in my consciousness. I can be whatever I want, from one moment to the next I can change.” Carlos Nakai
Carlos Nakai spent years dedicating himself to understanding native flutes, and in the meantime he 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 accumulated cultural experiences, coming from his native origin, his experiences when he lived abroad in the Navy, with Buddhism, with music and at the University, allowed Nakai to develop a very plural sense of consciousness.
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 self awareness to 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 was that they could blend the two cultures and make them work together, and even develop into a more expressive form. 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 language family came from peoples who migrated hundreds of years ago from Canada, where they inhabited the Lake Athapaskan region. With the migration to the south, much of their original culture was lost, including 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 existing today among these peoples is an accumulation of several other cultures that they came into contact with during the 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 don't accept that. Many see this point of view as a devaluation of traditional cultures.
Pied Piper claims that in many "enlightened" circles in America, you find this inflexible attitude, hidden, but it's still there. Despite this, he saw a strong responsibility coming from his work with children. And one of his goals was to be able to bring his experiences and knowledge to them, bringing empowerment, awareness and allowing them to give them tools for their future survival.
In a survey that Nakai did 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 started 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 into the real world and help people use it to expose what they know about themselves as bearers of many traditions. After all, Americans are a blend of many different heritages, so this could be a tool of personal expression.” Carlos Nakai
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 was able to showcase the instrument's versatility and capabilities.
Over the past few decades, Nakai has combined his classical training with his experience on the cedar flute 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. Additionally, Nakai's music prominently features improvisations on the Native American cedar flute. He also plays eagle bone whistle, chants and nature sounds. 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, he uses electronic technology such as synthesizers and digital delay.
The music that Nakai has been creating for decades can be framed in the style of New Age music and has been readily accepted by a wide spectrum of people in America and elsewhere in the world and this is essentially due to the fact that the American people themselves, a people that presents an enormous cultural mixture 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 are finding a way to feel rooted in New Age culture. Many Americans seem to consider themselves visitors to their own country. They look for indigenous peoples wanting to become natives, but they don't realize that they are also natives.
In the context of the music industry as it is today, “New Age” is the label for 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'd like to call it 'Continuum Music' because it's always growing, building and changing, it's never the same.” Carlos Nakai
His first songs were recorded on cassette tape and sold in Navajo villages, but Nakai was discovered by Canyon Records and his first album, Changes, was released in 1983 and since then he has released over thirty-five albums. He also gives educational workshops and residencies, performs as a soloist, and scores films and plays.
“I encouraged people to search for themselves to find their own music… to use the instrument to understand themselves.” Carlos Nakai
In 1987, Nakai met Ken Light at an event. Ken was one of only three flute makers in the world to create 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 lasted for 20 years. At the center of the workshops was the flute, but it became much more than just learning to play an instrument, it was a deeper dive into music as a means of self-expression and the importance of how to develop our relationship with our world at large, the Earth and the cosmos. The course offered students a variety of ways to develop their 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 body stretching were topics of great importance. It had nothing to do with reading music, but learning to "sing one's innate song". Students were encouraged to make sounds – any sounds – to feel comfortable hearing their particular expression through the flute.
In today's world, there's this whole story 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 mean. People with musical training had problems with these workshops, as they said that the mentors were revealing secrets that took years to acquire. But for them, music is not limited to a select group of people:
“Children sing all the time. Birds sing all the time. Each being makes its own music. It's a personal expression.”
Nakai began to identify so much with the work being done that he realized that this was what he wanted to do, it was who he was. So he began to include his heritage in the experiences, his knowledge and musical training. Things began to flow for the artist, who was 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 that 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 through the world is through music. Yours might be some other form of art, writing, dancing, or teaching. But, we have to hold back 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