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World Music Legends

R. Carlos Nakai

By Jeff Tamarkin
Published October 9, 2005

Native American

Across the American Southwest, on perhaps hundreds of rock walls and boulders, is depicted Kokopelli, the humpbacked flute player of Hopi myth. Some of the drawings of this “trickster of music” date back thousands of years, his mysterious, deified form long sacred to the region’s Native Americans. It’s said that Kokopelli’s flute song would melt both the hearts of young maidens, bringing fertility, and the winter snow, bringing the harvest and good fortune to the people who roamed the land.

            The spirit of the Kokopelli symbol still fascinates today, as does the sound of the Native American flute, said by some to be the only instrument indigenous to the United States. Despite its storied history, it is not an instrument relegated to the past but rather one constantly growing in popularity, exemplified by the enduring success during the past couple of decades of such masters as Robert Tree Cody, Robert Mirabal, Mary Youngblood, Kevin Locke, Charles Littleleaf and, most prominently, R. Carlos Nakai.

            Like many of his peers, Nakai holds a deep respect for the venerable Native flute tradition but doesn’t so much aim to preserve it as pay homage to it. His music is at once reverent of the past and defiant of it, speaking to future possibilities as much as to old glories and sorrows. On its own, his instrument conjures up mental images of a pre-European Americas, of a vast, unspoiled land inhabited by a spiritual people. Merged, as it often is, with contemporary electronics and rhythms, Nakai’s flute becomes something else all together, a signpost not only of what’s come to be called New Age but of a new age of Native music. Recognizing that music, like the world, is forever changing, he has said, “I build on the tradition of my culture and utilize the experiences that surround me to revitalize ancient stories of experience.”

            Called “the most widely celebrated ambassador” of Native American flute by Rough Guide World Music, Nakai is a Navajo-Ute from Arizona, born in Flagstaff in 1946. Originally a trumpeter, he injured his facial nerves in a car accident, making it difficult for him to continue on that instrument, and in 1980 he became seriously involved in flute. It was primarily while studying at the Creative Music Studio in Woodstock, New York, that Nakai began giving thought to the potential of the Native flute. There he made music with jazz legends Don Cherry, Jim Pepper and Collin Walcott, world percussionists Trilok Gurtu and Babatunde Olatunji, and others.

Two years after first picking up the flute, Nakai released his first album of solo flute music, Changes, on the Canyon label, for which he still records today. Split between original compositions and Nakai’s own arrangements of traditional songs,

Recommended Recordings


Earth Spirit (Canyon)

Canyon Trilogy (Canyon)

The Best Of Nakai: In Beauty, We Return (Canyon)