Both R. Carlos Nakai and Keola Beamer are well known for perpetuating musical traditions within their respective cultures. Mr. Nakai is renowned as a Navajo flutist and composer, while Mr. Beamer literally wrote the book on Hawaiian slack key guitar. Now they've brought the two sounds together for a new album titled "Our Beloved Land."
Keola Beamer says he and R. Carlos Nakai - or RC, as he's known - had admired each other's music for several years, and a collaboration between them was inevitable. "RC had been to Hawaii a number of times and seen me work and listened to the music," Mr. Beamer says. "One day he got in touch and asked if I was interested in seeing what we could do."
On their album, "Our Beloved Land," - an open chord style of playing developed by Hawaiians. But he says sound alone is not what inspired him to collaborate with Mr. Beamer. "The collaborations I have done are all based on my impressions from interviewing musicians about how they feel about being within their culture and what they really know," Mr. Nakai explains. "The individual has to know a significant amount of the cultural experience over time in their community's history and be able to play some of that on the instruments they work with. It gives another emotional quality that you can't get from somebody who is just trained in music school."
Keola Beamer certainly fits that requirement. His family traces their roots to the 15th century in Hawaii and he says, "Music was always part of the ether or background of being in the family." He learned slack key guitar "by osmosis" from his grandfather before studying with other mentors.
Mr. Beamer, in turn, taught others how to play slack key, and published the first method book, "Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar," in the 1970s. Before it's publication, the 44 different tunings that Hawaiians developed had only been passed on from musician to student.
"When the guitar was introduced to Hawaii in 1830," Keola Beamer says, "the Spanish didn't spend much time teaching us how to play the instrument. But they left a few guitars for us, and then moved away. So the Hawaiian people who the guitars invented ways of tuning it, and the Hawaiian slack key guitar, what I play, was born."
By the time he was teaching , Keola Beamer says, he was afraid the tradition might not survive if it wasn't put into a written form. "I used to think it wouldn't be around for my kids," he says. "Hawaiians had lost so much in their culture that they weren't open about the slack key guitar. Some of those art forms had actually gone underground. The idea of being Hawaiian was discouraged."
That is something American Indians have experienced as well. In fact, the reason R. Carlos Nakai says he took up the flute was "to insure that the instrument wouldn't end up in museums [representing] a defunct cultural community."
Despite their similar histories as Native peoples, Mr. Nakai says he believes Hawaiians now openly share their culture with outsiders, while many American Indians are still reluctant to do so. "They (the Hawaiians) embrace rather than shun and turn away people," he says. "In my culture, we need to learn that. Rather than keeping people away from us, we should adopt the aloha spirit ourselves."
Spreading that "aloha spirit" is what R. Carlos Nakai and Keola Beamer are doing now, through their music. Their album, "Our Beloved Land," has just been released by Canyon Records.