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R. Carlos Nakai on Pow Wow Music


You'll find lots of pageantry and colorful regalia at a pow wow -- but from one participant’s perspective, it’s sound that puts the ‘wow’ in pow wow. 

Of course, that opinion is a bit biased because it comes from an internationally-known musician: R. Carlos Nakai, the world’s premier performer of the Native American flute. Of Navajo-Ute heritage, Nakai has been a music maker for three decades, and has 35 albums and 2 gold records to his credit. Simply put, Nakai -- as performer, composer, and listener -- knows music and its power.

“When the pow wow movement got started in the 1930s, it was the beginning of the reservation period," Nakai says. "Men would go to large cities seeking work and because they missed the ability to go home, they began these gatherings where different tribal communities would get together to sing music from their community.

“Pow wows are social events, and I’ve been invited to many where, after we set up camp -- be it Cheyenne, Kiowa, or Comanche -- we’d sit and talk and they’d ask me to play traditional music. It could be anything from singing to story telling to playing the flute.”

Nakai, who has sold over 4 million albums in the course of his career, is acknowledged as an adventurer and risk taker who gives his musical imagination free rein. He’s been labeled an iconoclastic traditionalist who views his cultural heritage as inspiration whether playing at a pow wow, during a recording studio session, or in a concert auditorium before large audiences.

“The primary instrument at pow wow gatherings would probably be the voice because all American Indian cultures, including those in Canada, Central and South America, all record their history in story and song…so the voice is critical in that. You hear that all the time at a pow wow where men or women at the drum will announce ‘this is a song that belonged to our family that tells what happened back in the 1700 or 1800s’. The voice is the most important sound because it adds the emotive quality, the informative quality, the sensibility of what a song may represent to its listeners.”

The second most important item would be the many different kinds of drums, the rhythm-keepers. “Many tribes, like the pueblo-dwelling tribes, used baskets turned upside down or folded pieces of leather banged with sticks -- anything that produced a rhythmic pattern,” he explained.


Rattles come next in their many different forms. “I call them ‘found items’ because you can make a rattle out of almost anything hollow, from a simple gourd to the highly-ornate peyote rattles from South America.”
Then there are the wind instruments, many of them simplistic in form, carved from bone, cane, wood, or whatever was available in the old community. “They don’t have to be fancy -- it’s what you do with what you’re given,” Nakai says, alluding to the creativity of construction: “There are many kinds of whistles today made from the standard traditional animal and bird bone whistles to immigrant leftovers like hollowed-out furniture legs or shotgun barrels made into flutes.” 

The celebrated musician says he still makes some bird bone whistles for his own use, but frequently prefers using a plastic mold rather than going out and hunting down eagles and swans because “they’re hard to find nowadays.”

Despite its adherence to tradition, pow wow music does evolve. “Everything keeps up with the times and the influence of the cultures that surround us,” says Nakai. “We still hold a lot of regard for drum groups who can sing the old songs or pow wow participants who request the master of ceremonies to ask one drum for a particular song, but change happens despite the fact that indigenous music will always be based on tradition.

“A lot of Native American music is based on understanding influences on a musician and how they are able to incorporate or inculcate or add a variation to tradition, bringing those two sometimes opposed concepts together and making a new expression.”

It was in that search for a new expression that Nakai, while cognizant of the traditional use of the flute as a solo instrument, began finding new settings for it. Nakai's cross-cultural explorations have led him to jam with everything from jazz ensembles to orchestras. Recently, he has tried blending Native American melodies with traditional Jewish and Arabic songs.

While affirming that indigenous music will always be based on tradition, he notes: “Music is important because it enlarges our world understanding, where we are today, the sacred stories and chants intermingled with symphonic pieces and perhaps danced in ballet form rather than with feathers and beads. It’s not a loss of culture, but an extension of it with an influence that allows a greater expression to reach a greater audience.”