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R. Carlos Nakai Takes Native American Flute Into 21st Century


R. Carlos Nakai is known the world over for his . It wasn't something he was born to - flute music had died out as a tradition in the Navajo and Ute cultures - but something he discovered after years of studying classical trumpet. "I found the flutes purely by accident and I started working with them, and found that they played pitches that were closely related to sounds that were produced by other instruments in the more disciplined musical world," he says.

He has been working with them ever since "to ensure that this instrument wouldn't end up in museums and private collections as articles of a material culture that now belong to a defunct cultural community."

Before he began creating his own music for the Native American flute, Mr. Nakai researched the instrument thoroughly. He learned that cedar is the only wood used for constructing flutes, but there are no standard dimensions. Each flute is custom-made to the musician's hand and finger measurements and has its own pitch.

Today, after recording more than 30 albums, he can take much of the credit for the fact that the Native American flute is no longer considered to be an artifact of a defunct culture.

One reason that's so is that Mr. Nakai has worked hard to make the traditional flute an instrument of contemporary culture. He has been taking it in startling new directions, recording everything from classical concertos to .

And the elders have been supportive of his music. "Many of the elders that I have spoken with have always told me, 'Don't just do what everyone else does. Go find something else to do and show people that we still have a culture.' That is probably the most helpful information that anyone has ever given me," Mr. Nakai says.

In creating new music for the Native American flute, R. Carlos Nakai frequently collaborates with other musicians. His most recent joint venture, was recorded with Hawaiian slack key guitarist Keola 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," the flutist says. "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."

R. Carlos Nakai's collaborations have not only kept the Native American flute prominent in indigenous and avante-garde music scenes, they have also brought the instrument's soothing, evocative and sometimes haunting sound to new audiences around the world.