Born Raymond Carlos Nakai on April 16, 1946, in Flagstaff, AZ; married to Pam Hyde-Nakai; received Master's Degree in American Indian Studies from University of Arizona. Education: received Master's Degree in American Indian Studies from University of Arizona. Addresses: Record company--Canyon Records, 4143 N. 16th St., Suite 6, Phoenix, AZ 85016.

Hailed as the world's foremost Native American flute performer, R. Carlos Nakai was one of the firsts to meld his ancestral sounds with contemporary music and electronic instrumentation. By 1998, he had released more than 30 albums and sold more than 2.5 million units all over the world. Nakai not only recorded his own albums, but also collaborated with a number of artists, including guitarist William Eaton, classical pianist Peter Kater, and his own groups Jackalope and the R. Carlos Nakai Quartet.

Born Raymond Carlos Nakai in Flagstaff, Arizona, he was inspired to pursue success by renowned Native American artist R.C. Gorman. When Nakai was around seven years old, Gorman left Flagstaff, saying that he was going away to make something of himself. Gorman eventually became one of the most successful artists in the Southwest. "I was so impressed by what he said," Nakai told Paul Brinkley-Rogers in the Arizona Republic . "I remember I made a transcript of it.... R.C. would come back to us sometimes, but then he stopped coming back. I guess he got famous." Gorman's accomplishment encouraged Nakai to pursue his own dreams and artistic talent.

R. Carlos Nakai began his interest in music early in life. He learned to play trumpet as a child, and later played in the Flagstaff High School band. At the same time, he also developed an interest in his Navajo-Ute heritage and culture. His family spent many weekends visiting relatives on the Navajo Reservation or with Mojave or Chemeheuvi Indian friends on the Colorado River. During these weekends, Nakai learned more about the Native American culture.

After he graduated from high school, Nakai was drafted for the Vietnam War in 1966. He went to Albuquerque, New Mexico, to enlist in the U.S. Marines, but when the Marines discovered that he weighed just 97 pounds, they turned him down. So he joined the U.S. Navy instead. The following year, he did a tour in Vietnam. His goal was to join the U.S. Navy Band as a trumpet player, but he was never accepted. Nakai's return home from the war was even more discouraging. He was showered with eggs and tomatoes as he walked down the street of his hometown. Around this same time, Nakai's father, also named Raymond, became the Navajo Tribal Chairman. Because of his father's position, Nakai decided to drop his name and use just his first initial.

After he left the Navy in 1971, R. Carlos Nakai decided to go to college. He studied music at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, and then at Phoenix College in Phoenix, Arizona. Although the majority of his studies centered on the trumpet and coronet in classical and jazz music, he also began researching Native American music and traditional instruments. He discovered that his ancestors, the ancient Dine of Northwestern Canada, had a tradition of playing the wood flute. The tradition was dropped somewhere in their migration from the Canadian Plateau and the American Southwest in the 15th century. Later, Nakai went on to receive a masters Degree in American Indian Studies from the University of Arizona.

In 1972, Nakai attended an Indian art fair in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he met a man who collected and traded flutes. He purchased a traditional wood flute from the man and started learning how to play it. After playing the flute for some time, he decided to craft his own wood flutes. He made three out of oak and two out of pinewood, but he couldn't get them to sound the way he wanted.

Eventually, he met a flute craftsman who taught him that cedar was the only wood that sounded right. He also learned how to carve the flute to fit the hand and finger measurements of the flutist, which makes each instrument sound slightly different from any other. After creating several cedar wood flutes, Nakai said in his record company biography that he viewed them less as a musical instrument and more "as a sound sculpture--a piece of art that also creates sound." By 1980, Nakai had practiced enough to go into the studio for his first recording. He made his own cassette tapes and sold them himself all around the Southwest. Within two years he was noticed by Arizona independent label, Canyon Records, who, in 1982 released his debut album, Changes .

The release was the beginning of his widespread notoriety and intensified recording schedule. He mixed his musical training and his expertise on the cedar flute into a combination of a variety of musical genres, including jazz ensembles, piano and guitar collaborations, symphony concerts, and contemporary electronic music with synthesizers and digital effects. "In the music of the cultural tradition that I was raised in, and even the traditions that were taught to me by others, you must begin to express yourself from your perspective of your philosophy," Nakai explained to Richard Simonelli in Winds of Change .

After releasing his own music for several years, he decided to collaborate with classical pianist Peter Kater in 1989. They released Natives in 1989, Migrations in 1992, Honorable Sky in 1994, and Song for Humanity in 1998. Migrations won the National Association of Independent Record Distributors (NAIRD) Indie Award for Best New Age Album. That same year, Nakai became the second Native American to receive the Governor of Arizona's Arts Award. Nakai released more than 30 albums over nearly two decades. He formed a band called Jackalope, with William Clipman, J. David Muniz, and Larry Yanez that combined modern instruments with a variety of traditional, ethnic instruments. He collaborated with guitarist William Eaton on the 1991 release Carry the Gift and Ancestral Voices in 1993. The latter was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Music.

The following year, Nakai teamed up with a Japanese group called the Wind Travelin' Band of Kyoto to record Island of Bows . The band played acoustic and traditional Japanese instruments with Nakai's own cedar flute. "The variety of collaborative activities is endless," Nakai told Simonelli. "It's just being able to find a satisfactory way to communicate together. Interpersonal communication is what musicians should have anyway if they intend to work together." Nakai also received an honorary doctorate degree from Northern Arizona University and the Arizona Board of Regents in 1994. They honored him for his "exceptional achievements and contributions to humankind."

R. Carlos Nakai released one of his most successful albums in 1995 called Feather, Stone & Light . The album includes collaborations with William Eaton and percussionist William Clipman. Billboard named it one of its critic's choice selections, and it spent 13 weeks on Billboard 's Top New Age Albums chart. Jon Andrews wrote in Down Beat that, "Feather, Stone & Light continues the progression of Nakai's music, from haunting solo works to collaborations that extend Nakai's worldview, finding affinities in different genres."

In the mid-1990s, Nakai formed the R. Carlos Nakai Quartet with percussionist William Clipman, saxophone and keyboard player "Amo" Chip Dabney, and bassist J. David Muniz, who was later replaced by bassist and singer Mary Redhouse. The quartet released Kokopelli's Cafe in 1996, which blended Native American sounds with Latin rhythms and ethnic jazz. Andrew Means wrote in Rhythm Music , "Kokopelli's Cafe is a benchmark in placing cedar flute firmly within the context of mainstream contemporary jazz." The R. Carlos Nakai Quartet also released Big Medicine on September 15, 1998. Nakai explained his musical philosophy of fusing ethnic and traditional music with modern sounds to Paul de Barros in the Seattle Times . "I build on the tradition of my culture," said Nakai, "but not `This is what happened to these people way back when." This is what's happening to us today."

Beyond his music, Nakai continued his research into Native American history and culture. He published a book called The Art of Native American Flute and gave lectures throughout the United States. Through his music and his lectures, he attempted to send a message that he credits for his worldwide success. "I think the reason why people respond well to my music and the events that I perform at is because I tell them how unique and wonderful and good they are," Nakai told Simonelli. "No one says that to anyone any more."

by Sonya Shelton

R. Carlos Nakai's Career

As a child, studied trumpet and coronet, 1967-72; bought and created his first cedar wood flutes, 1972; made his first studio recording, 1980; signed contract with Canyon Records, 1981; released debut Changes, 1982; began collaboration with pianist Peter Kater, 1989; formed R. Carlos Nakai Quartet, 1996.

Famous Works

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Visitor Comments Add a comment…

almost 9 years ago

Nakai did not study the coronet (a sort of crown) he studied the cornet - a small version of the trumpet

almost 9 years ago

I'd some how like to meet Mr. Nakai. Are there any suggestions? I find relief from pain and spiritual connection with my NA Flute. Thanks - Lee leetrudeau@cox.net