R. Carlos Nakai
R. Carlos Nakai is one of the major players on the Native American music scene. The Navajo/Ute multi-instrumentalist specializes in traditional Native American flute, and his musical vision includes mixing roots styles with New Age, classical, jazz and various types of ethnic music.
Born April 16, 1946, in Flagstaff, Arizona, Nakai moved around the American West while growing up in a family that included farmers and migrant workers. He was originally drawn to the flute as a child, but a grade-school teacher encouraged him to take up trumpet. Nakai flourished as a young classical musician, and he practiced hard with the idea that he'd attend a conservatory like Berklee or Julliard. Instead he landed in the Navy, and during his stint, in 1970, Nakai got in a car accident that damaged his lip. While he continued to play trumpet, over time Nakai realized he would not regain the embouchure control he once had. He eventually met a Comanche flute maker, and in 1982 he took up the instrument. There were few Native American flute players at the time, and a few non-Native players were using the instrument much as they would any other Western instrument. Nakai went back and studied the Native American flute traditions and soon started playing gigs.
By 1983 he produced his first recording, Changes Volume 1, initially as a small-run cassette that he used as way to get shows. The solo-flute tape featured a mix of original compositions by Nakai and arrangements of traditional songs from the Zuni, Blood and Lakota tribes. One copy found its way to Canyon Records head Ray Boley, who signed Nakai to a deal.
The spiritual power and purity of tone in Nakai's playing caught the ears and imaginations of Natives and non-Natives alike, and his music has sold well. Album highlights include 1987's Earth Spirit (another solo effort), 1988's Carry the Gift (with guitarist William Eaton) and 2002's Fourth World, which features Nakai soaring like an eagle over orchestral backing. Kokopelli's Café, a 1996 effort with a four-piece band, fuses a sonically rich blend of Native American, jazz and other ethnic styles; some loved the chances Nakai took on the CD, while others thought he'd lost the way from the sublime beauty that marked his solo-flute material. But Nakai is someone who has embraced his background and ethnic roots without letting them overshadow his restless individuality as an artist. Tad Hendrickson