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.”