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Interview with R. Carlos Nakai

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TUCSON, Ariz. - Musician, composer, author, and teacher, R. Carlos Nakai, Navajo-Ute, is one of the most respected people in indigenous music (Nakai hates the term "Native American" because he does not want to be "honored" as a "Native of the United States"). Nakai is nominated for this year's "Best Native American Music Album" GRAMMY award for his solo release, "Sanctuary" (Canyon Records). This is his third nomination.

Although he was classically trained on the trumpet, Nakai is best known as a contemporary pioneer of the Native flute. He has used the instrument in his numerous best selling recordings as a traditional music instrument, in a jazz setting with his band Jackalope, and in new age-styled albums, both as a solo performer and with collaborators including keyboardist Peter Kater, classical composer James DeMars, new age legend Paul Horn, and experimental musician William Eaton. Nakai also co-authored the definitive text on the instrument, "The Art of the Native American Flute" (1996, Mel Bay Publications) and his work is also featured on many film and television soundtracks.

"Sanctuary" is a solo flute album that was inspired by walks around Nakai's summer home, which is in the summer camp area of his Ute ancestors. Though a solo album, there is a heavy echo throughout the CD that fills out the sound of the instrument.

"I've tried to maintain a middle stance, where it's not too traditional sounding," Nakai told Indian Country Today. "Even in the indigenous community people get very bored with going to ceremonies; they're too long. It's sort of like sitting in church. I had to include different bits and pieces of different music traditions I have been involved with."

When Nakai talks about music, he often relates it back to culture, or in the case of both contemporary and pow wow music, the erosion of culture. His major worry is that pan-tribal concepts are replacing the tradition cultures of individual tribes. "My elders have always told me that I'm one of the last of my cultural community," Nakai said. "People in this generation, the war babies from around the end of World War II, are the last to carry any identity that relates to language, cultural priorities, and histories, and carry an interest that is more related to themselves as a people, rather than fitting into the mold of America. I represent myself as a member of a number of indigenous communities that are all struggling to survive through the m?lange of cultural inconsistencies from outside of our communities.

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"In the modern, younger, indigenous people there hasn't been much of an interest in cultural priorities, but more into a general pan-Indian perspective. A good example is the pow wow tradition; we are seeing a lot more generalization of what the Native perspective is. The younger generation's attempting to find a way to identify and have a sense of responsibility to the community while having an understanding of what they call 'pride,' which is an ego-based mentality which most elders never subscribed to.

"We have become externalized and we are living according to outside priorities," Nakai continued. "We are not teaching our language and we are not encouraging young people to go to ceremonies and different intra-tribal things within their own tribal community. Instead, there's the blame for how the white man destroyed our culture, and it's like 'Wait a minute, do you take your children to ceremony, do you encourage them to learn more about why they exist as an indigenous person?' 'Well, no, if they want to learn it they can go read some books.' The problem is that specific information is not contained in those writings, it comes from the personal survival skills of people who have either collected and sing the songs, or people who are selected to be what they call medicine people today, but they are actually historians of a community who carry those epic experiences of what we have had to endure through time. People just aren't looking at that anymore."

Nakai said he doesn't pay attention to the GRAMMY awards because when one has a following, there is no need for outside recognition. "When I hear from elders and young people within the community that what I am doing is really good and they would like to do that, I have my own qualification, and it's coming from my own community rather than from outside. But I was kind of disenchanted when I heard that 'Sanctuary' was selected for the 'Native American' category; I wanted to keep it in 'new age,' in the general category. If it's accepted outside of the cultural community that carries much more weight than being recognized only in the community itself, but I never paid much attention to that stuff anyway. I've got all these awards in my office, but nobody ever sees them."

Nakai was one of the leading figures of new age music in the early 1980s, during its golden period. Even though he still sees himself as a part of the genre, he feels that the movement has lost its steam. "It's primarily populated by rote musicians; people who have no musical training, but they believe they can play synthesizers or some other kind of invention that will allow them to reach toward a project that sounds like it was composed. When I got involved with Canyon Records, they said that it was easiest category to get into and the one that would fit, because an American Indian category did not exist at that time. Unfortunately, when we did that, we never knew that I would get stuck there permanently. But any traditional music I do, I've turned out five traditional recordings and they've all ended up in new age. It's a good indicator of how they view American Indian culture."

For more information on Nakai and his music, visit