R. Carlos Nakai
R. Carlos Nakai

R. Carlos Nakai

About R. Carlos Nakai

Regarded as the world's foremost Native American flutist, R. Carlos Nakai was among the first to meld the ancestral sounds of his Navajo-Ute heritage with contemporary music and electronic instrumentation. He has sold millions of records since the 1980s, and is widely regarded as a pioneer in the new age and contemporary instrumental genres. Nakai is not an archivist of traditional songs but a synthesist of old and new sounds. He composes soaring melodies for wood flute (his own design) and eagle-bone whistle, and uses synthesizers, chanting, and sounds from nature to orchestrate his recordings. Although he occasionally plays arrangements of traditional melodies, the majority of his music evokes the spirit of tribal history and culture, as well as the desert landscape, with ambient, jazz, trance, and new age elements. Nakai's first two solo outings, 1983's Changes and 1985's Cycles, paved the way for 1989's platinum breakthrough Canyon Trilogy. In addition to dozens of solo recordings, including 1998's best-selling Mythic Dreamer, 2002's Fourth World, and 2008's Talisman, he has recorded many high-profile collaborative outings with pianist/composer Peter Kater, guitarist and luthier William Eaton, saxophonist and composer Paul Horn, Tibetan flutist Nawang Khechog, and Hawaiian slack-key guitarist Keola Beamer, to list a few. 2008's Talisman marked Nakai's last solo flute outing for many years, but he remained active, issuing the acclaimed Dancing into Silence with Eaton and Will Clipman in 2010, and Ritual with Kater and McCandless in 2014. Nakai returned to solo flute recording for the first time in 12 years on 2020's Nocturne.
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 show. While listening to show tapes, he heard a flute recording by William Hornpipe, a Lakota musician from the Pine Ridge Reservation. The impression stayed with him. While in high school, he sought to play flute in the school band, but was assigned the cornet instead; while he claimed to be less interested in the horn, he nonetheless excelled at playing it. Nakai played brass instruments in the marching band while attending Northern Arizona University, he was drafted between semesters into the United States Navy in 1968, and spent two years studying communications and electronics in Hawaii and the South Pacific, but he continued to receive music training during his national service. He passed the highly competitive auditions for the Armed Forces School of Music, and was 28th on the waiting list for admission. His career with the Armed Forces Band had to be abandoned after an auto accident damaged his mouth, making it impossible to continue playing brass instruments. Nakai returned to the Navajo reservation in 1971.
By his own admission, he had a brief struggle with drugs and alcohol due to trauma after losing several close friends during the war. In 1972, he was given the gift of a traditional cedar flute. Nakai taught himself to play the delicate, handmade instrument. After becoming proficient, he purchased his first flute from California flute maker Oliver Wendell Jones. Nakai ran into a wall when he tried researching traditional repertoire for the Native American flute, due to an absence of recordings or scores. He expanded his reach on the instrument by transposing vocal music, adapting many traditional songs for the flute. He returned to Northern Arizona University and earned a bachelor's degree in 1979, as well as a master's in American Indian studies from the University of Arizona.
After college, Nakai became a high school teacher for a time. While teaching, he began recording his own music, and selling cassettes at fairs, artist markets, and even museums. He combined his musical training and expertise on the cedar flute with a variety of musical genres and groups, including jazz ensembles, piano and guitar collaborations, and contemporary electronic music with synthesizers. Nakai was signed to Canyon Records in 1982 and issued his debut album, Changes, in 1983. He has been with Canyon ever since, though he occasionally records his collaborative efforts for other labels.


In 1985, after more study and compositional training, Nakai released Cycles in 1985 and garnered his first national press attention. After Journeys, his third solo outing in 1986, he co-founded the instrumental band Jackalope with Larry Yañez on synthesizer and Steve Cheseborough on guitar. Their self-titled debut was issued by Canyon in 1986. After the gold-certified solo outing Earth Spirit in 1987 and the following year's Sundance Season (his debut for revered new age label Celestial Harmonies), Nakai issued the charting Carry the Gift in 1988, his initial collaboration with guitarist and luthier William Eaton. That same year, Celestial Harmonies issued the acclaimed Desert Dance to surprisingly large sales. Nakai's commercial breakthrough occurred with 1989's Canyon Trilogy. Released at the industry peak for new age music, it was certified multi-platinum.
The year 1990 marked the real beginnings for Nakai's collaborations. He released Winter Dreams with Eaton, and Natives with new age stalwart and longtime friend Peter Kater on Silver Wave. He followed with Spirit Horses in 1991 with classical composer James DeMars. Nakai briefly returned to solo recording with Emergence: Songs of the Rainbow World in 1992 -- the first of four outings to appear that year. After the release of Ancestral Voices with Eaton and Weavings with Jackalope, he issued Migration with Kater. Ancestral Voices went on to earn Nakai his first of many Grammy nominations, while Migration won the National Association of Independent Record Distributors (NAIRD) Indie Award for Best New Age Album. Nakai also became only the second Native American to receive the Governor of Arizona's Arts Award in 1992. The work with Kater continued in earnest: The pair released the best-selling How the West Was Lost in 1993, which peaked at number nine, and Honorable Sky, which also included David Darling, Paul McCandless, and Mark Miller. The same year, Jackalope (with Eaton now as their guitarist) released Boat People (A Musical Codex) and the humorously titled Dances with Rabbits.
In 1994, Nakai really began to stretch creatively. He recorded Island of Bows with Japanese group Wind Travelin' Band of Kyoto. The ensemble played acoustic, traditional Japanese instruments alongside Nakai's own cedar flute in composed and improvisational settings. It stands as one of his most treasured recordings. 1995's Feather, Stone & Light, with Eaton and percussionist William Clipman, spent 13 weeks on the new age albums chart, while How the West Was Lost 2, peaked at 17. These outings expertly expanded the progression of Nakai's music and worldview, as well as the definition of new age into contemporary instrumental territory.
Ever restless, he formed the R. Carlos Nakai Quartet with Clipman, saxophonist and keyboardist Chib Dabney, and bassist J. David Muniz (later replaced by bassist and singer Mary Redhouse). This provocative group released Kokopelli's Cafe in 1996; it was lauded for its meld of Native American sounds, Latin rhythms, and contemporary ethnic jazz. Nakai and Kater also issued the live Improvisations in Concert that year, and Nakai co-authored The Art of the Native American Flute with DeMars, Ken Light, and David P. McAllester.
The flutist kicked off 1997 with Two World Concerto with DeMars and issued his first collaboration with Paul Horn on Inside Canyon de Chelly. 1998's Mythic Dreamer saw a brief return to solo recording while the R. Carlos Nakai Quartet released their charting Big Medicine. The year also saw two more collabs: Red Wind with Clipman and Eaton received universally positive reviews, while Winds of Devotion, a recording with Tibetan Buddhist flute master, composer, and multi-instrumentalist Nawang Khechog, spent 18 weeks on the charts and prompted a concert tour. Nakai ended the decade and century with Inside Monument Valley, a second ecstatically received date with Horn. The flutist was featured in the 1999 film Songkeepers, which depicted five Native American flute players talking about their instruments and songs, as well as their tribal roles.
While the R. Carlos Nakai Quartet issued their third acclaimed recording with 2000's Ancient Future, it was In a Distant Place with Khechog, Clipman, and Eaton that made the Top Ten on the world music charts. 2001's Enter >> Tribal was drenched in electronics and beats, and 2004's Fourth World won over critics for its engagement with world music, technology, and electronic trance music, leading to two more completely solo outings in a similar vein: Sanctuary in 2003 and In Beauty, We Return a year later. In 2005, the R. Carlos Nakai Quartet released People of Peace, which made the lower rungs of contemporary jazz charts. That same year, Nakai realized a dream: He released Our Beloved Land in collaboration with legendary Hawaiian slack-key guitarist Keola Beamer.
In addition to his recording and touring, Nakai developed a system of tablature notation, commonly known as "Nakai tablature," that could be used to represent Native American music in a notation similar to that of Western classical music across different flute types. It has become an industry standard. Director Terrence Malick used five of Nakai's compositions in his 2005 historical romantic drama The New World as an accompaniment to James Horner's score.
Nakai issued the celebrated Voyagers in 2007, a collaboration with famed Philadelphia Orchestra cellist Udi Bar-David, which registered on digital charts. The following year, he released Talisman, his last solo outing for more than a decade. A year later, Nakai was a principal soloist in the world-premiere recording of DeMars' lyric opera Guadalupe, Our Lady of the Roses. He performed alongside vocalists Isola Jones, Robert Breault, Carole FitzPatrick, and Robert Barefield. In addition to an orchestra, Nakai was also accompanied by Huichol percussionist and flutist Xavier Quijas Yxayotl and African drummer Mark Sunkett. The performance was reviewed across the globe.
He followed the outing in 2010 with Dancing into Silence, with collaborators Eaton and Clipman. In addition to touring the world over the next several years, Nakai taught, lectured, and conducted workshops. In 2014, he released the globally expansive Ritual on the Mysterium Music in collaboration with Kater, McCandless, Brazilian multi-instrumentalist, composer, and arranger Jaques Morelenbaum, and vocalist Trisha Bowden. The group worked together after the recording playing select dates and composing. In the aftermath, Nakai resumed a busy touring and teaching schedule. He played solo concerts, collaborative dates with longtime friends such as Clipman, Eaton, and Kater, and select concerts with performance symphony orchestras. In 2020, he released Nocturne for Canyon; it was his first solo flute outing in 12 years. ~ Thom Jurek

  • HOMETOWN
    Flagstaff, AZ
  • BORN
    April 16, 1946

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