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  • Shea Stanfield

Timeless as the Cosmic Winds

Indigenous sound traditions are as ancient as the human heartbeat and timeless as the eternal breath of the cosmic winds. It's been said the Diné flute-playing tradition was lost through the migration of the people from the Northwest Plains of Canada to the Southwest over five centuries ago. Yet, in the world of today's Native American flute tradition, there is no name better known than R. Carlos Nakai. Hailing from a Navajo-Ute heritage, R. Carlos revived the Diné flute-playing tradition through a lifetime of curiosity, research, persistence, partnerships, and innovation to bring forth the flute and his musical heritage.

R. Carlos Nakai was born in 1946 in Flagstaff, Arizona, into a family of blended indigenous descent. His parents claimed farming roots and hosted a Navajo-language radio show. As a child, R. Carlos would listen to audition tapes for the show and remembers hearing a flute recording by William Horn Cloud, a Lakota musician from the Pine Ridge Reservation. R. Carlos's first impression of the haunting, willowing sound stayed with him. Years later, when he enrolled in high school on the Colorado River Indian Reservation in Arizona, his goal was to play the flute in the school band; instead, he was assigned the cornet.

Although less than thrilled with the instrument, he did go on to excel in playing it. In 1966, R. Carlos enrolled in Northern Arizona University (NAU), where he mastered all the brass instruments in the marching band. As a sign of the time during his second year at NAU, R. Carlos was drafted into the United States Navy and spent two years studying communications and electronics in the Pacific theater. His musical training continued during his military service; he passed the highly competitive audition process for the Armed Forces School of Music, although he ended up 28th on the waiting list for admission. Unfortunately, R. Carlos would have to forgo this dream after an auto accident that damaged his mouth, rendering it impossible to continue playing brass instruments.


In 1971 R. Carlos returned to the Navajo reservation, the period of adjustment from military to civilian life proved difficult and uncertain. In 1972, a traditional cedar flute was given to him as a gift, and memories of the softly echoing tones returned to him from childhood. In his characteristic determination, R. Carlos taught himself to play. However, when it came time to expand his repertoire, he found a chasm vacant of recordings or scores for the traditional Native American flute. Not to be deterred, R. Carlos turned to studying vocal music, adapting Indigenous traditional songs to provide a voice for his flute.

At this point, R. Carlos returned to his education, re-enrolling in NAU and earned a Bachelor in Education and Graphic Design in 1979. He went on to become a high school graphic arts teacher. Yet he didn't give up on his music. R. Carlos began recording his own cassettes to sell on the reservation at art fairs and museums. It wasn't long before he was invited to play during an exhibition at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Arizona. In attendance was a representative from Arizona’s independent record label, Canyon Records who purchased one of his cassettes. R. Carlos's performance was so captivating the museum administrators offed him a job. By 1982 R. Carlos had recorded his first album, which he sold independently; soon after in 1983 he signed a contract with Canyon Records releasing his first professional album Changes. The rest, as we say, is history.

"In my compositions and collaborations I build upon the tribal context while still retaining the essence of the environment in which we are experiencing."

R. Carlos Nakai says of himself, “I call myself a sound painter doing soundscapes in the air above people’s heads.” He earned a Master of American Indian Studies from the University of Arizona, deepening his knowledge of his heritage, the history and legacy of many other Indigenous cultures and their music. He earned an honorary doctorate from NAU and the Arizona Board of Regents in 1994.

During his over four decades of music, exploration, and collaborations, R. Carlos has combined his musical training and expertise with the traditional cedar flute with a wide array of musical genres and groups, including full orchestras, jazz ensembles, cultural folk music, trios, quartets, piano, guitar and contemporary electronic music with synthesizers. When asked about his compositions and partnerships, he states, "I build upon the tribal context while still retaining the essence of the environment in which we are experiencing."


In the tribal context, R. Carlos Nakai, guitarist William Eaton, and percussionist Will Clipman reunited to release their new work Spiral Rendezvous with Canyon Records. Spiral Rendezvous is the follow-up to the Grammy-nominated Dancing into Silence and In a Distant Place. The Wilde Boys trio has released five albums to date. R. Carlos Nakai continues to share timeless sounds through the Native American flute reminding us of our ancient human connection to the eternal cosmic winds.

Website: www.rcarlosnakai.com


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