R. Carlos Nakai, legendary performer of the Native American flute, will be in Durango with the R. Carlos Nakai Quartet on Aug. 21 at the Durango Arts Center.
The following is from a recent phone interview with Nakai, who has released and/or performed on about 50 albums and has been nominated for multiple Grammys.
Q: What’s it like being nominated for a Grammy?
A: Every year I get a nomination for one thing or another, but belonging to an independent recording company, I’m not with Sony, it never goes anywhere, but then most people say the nominations are actually worth more than getting a little plastic horn.
Q: Do you feel that way? It seems like a pretty big thing.
A: Uh huh. That also indicates to me that people are actually listening to the music.
Q: I was listening to some of your stuff last night and this morning on YouTube, and I was looking through the comments ... and I noticed words like ‘spiritual,” and (you seem to have) just a really positive force on people who are listening to you. Where do you think that comes from – from the playing or the music you write – are you a pretty soothing guy?
A: (Laughs) Well, I don’t know. It depends on if you talk to my very best friend or anyone else. A lot of it is, when I started way back in elementary school on brass, I had always wanted flutes. And the salesman from Blythe, California, said, ‘No, no, no. men don’t play flutes.’ And I said, ‘But aren’t there men flute players in Germany?’ And he said, ‘That is Germany. This is America. So take this thing, and take it home and you’ll like it.’ So I was handed a trumpet, and I’ve been working with that ever since, but when I found the flutes, it was like ‘OK, my search has been ended, I think.’ I enjoy the sound and I enjoy the capability of the instrument, both the concert flute in C and the indigenous flutes I come across.
Q: You started on a cedar flute?
A: I guess it would be a cedar flute, a Washington red cedar flute. And I found that it was quite difficult, or quite different from trying to blow through a trumpet, which made it quite easy, but then I found that with the particular fingering pattern of flutes, I could find what are called the relative pitch, in other words, the pitch differences between sounds, and I could make melodies, so it was much easier than three valves.
So I started working with that, and most of the people I was putting together my first recording with said, ‘Don’t play a lot of the fast stuff, I think people will like those long tones and lower melodies that you play,’ and sure enough, they did.
Whether or not it’s spiritual, I think is primarily up to the listener because I found that in my research, people who listen to flute music are harkening back to the times in the Neanderthal period when they played flutes all the time, as well as drinking mead and beer and barbecuing stuff – the first barbecuing culture, you know, were also playing flutes, and I thought, ‘Oh, that’s interesting.’ (laughing) So I’ll bring that up in concerts once in a while, and people go, ‘That’s not true, is it?’ and I say, ‘Yes, it is.’
Q: What kind of music do you listen to?
A: When I’m on the road, then I’m usually on Sirius, like Watercolors or any of the other stations. I’m trying to get my French back, so I’ll listen to one of the Canadian French stations, you know, until the soccer matches come on. I prefer the older classics ... all of the small chamber pieces that were done in that period of time, the early 20th century, the big sounds. Once in a while I’ll listen to something like Tchaikovsky, Wagner, any of those others, but it’s usually the quiet stuff. Living in the aspens, it just puts me back into that calm space that I need to be in when I’m off the road.
Q: Out of all of your albums, do you have a favorite?
A: My favorite will always be “Changes,” the very first one I made. It was a chance that I took early on with Raymond Boley, who was once the president of Canyon Records and Robert Doyle, and they said, ‘We’d like to distribute a recording for you, what do you think?’ And I said, ‘Well, I don’t really know, but let’s give it a try.’ And they said, ‘What kind of contract do you want?’ And I said, ‘OK, here it is: You treat me well, I treat you well and we both win. You mess with me and we both lose because then I will stop.’ And so far, it’s been going really well. (Laughs)
Q: What do you have planned now?
A: Right now, I think we’re going to be in Durango with the very latest release my quartet and I came up with, and that is the very latest recording, and I’m still working on putting together a solo recording to take my solo performance thing one more step beyond. So it’s sort of like a master, let’s say in the National Flute Association, which I’m a member of ... it’s always the masters who go, ‘I’ve got to leave something behind that will give the young people an impetus to take their performance one more step beyond where they are. So I figure I owe that to the Native flute world.
Q: You’ve been at this so long. What do you hope your legacy will be?
A: I don’t really know because as I go along through time, and like many musicians – one of my good friends Paul Horn, he was still doing music right up until the 80s and then he left. And so it’s just keep creating stuff and see what they say about you later.
This interview has been lightly edited for space and firstname.lastname@example.org