Preserving Culture With Music
Northern Arizona University alumnus and nine-time Grammy-nominated
recording artist R. Carlos Nakai has reached heights that few musicians ever
see. During a career that has spanned nearly three decades, Nakai has toured
the world, recorded more than 40 albums and earned two gold records, one of
which, Canyon Trilogy, is nearing
Music industry observers credit him as a major force in
popularizing Native American music among a wider audience. In 2005, Nakai was
inducted into the Arizona Music & Entertainment Hall of Fame, and in 2009 he
was a featured Arizona artist at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix.
Nakai, however, is more than a successful musician. He considers himself an
educator first, and advocates collaborating through music to preserve and share
"The way to lose a culture is when you suddenly put
it on a pedestal," says Nakai. "You lose it because you think you are
not good enough and cannot reach it. I've had critiques—mainly from younger
people—that I shouldn't be sharing this sacred music from their cultural
tradition with people outside the culture. But I've had elders coming up to
shake my hand and say, 'We're really glad you're doing this because now we
From brass to wood
According to Nakai, his journey began in earnest when he
arrived at Northern Arizona University in 1966 as a freshman brass player in
the marching band. Though he had some memorable moments—most notably by playing
in the Rose Bowl parade—Nakai's musical career took a turn when he enlisted in the
Navy during his sophomore year. In 1975, while working at the Window Rock
School District in Fort Defiance, a friend gave him a traditional cedar flute
and challenged him to master the instrument. As is evidenced by the widespread
success that he has achieved, Nakai was more than up to the challenge.
Eventually, he returned to Flagstaff to earn his degree
in 1979. Following graduation, he took a job with the Heard Museum, a renowned
Phoenix-based repository of Native American arts and culture.
"My education at NAU was really helpful in my work
at the Heard Museum," he says. "At the museum, I put together
programs that were significant to the natives of the Four Corners. During that
project, I was able to use what I had learned at the university and advice from
native people in Flagstaff—it all came together."
During his time at the Heard Museum, Nakai developed a
philosophy that influenced the way he approached music and, ultimately, propelled
him to a successful music career.
"I found that in America we are all an ancestral
mélange of many different cultures all at once," he says. "As I
looked more deeply into it, I found that the American Indian community is also
an integral part of it, too. All of this understanding of personality, historic
ancestry, and connection to the rest of the world is within us, and I thought there
should be a way to teach this to others."
For Nakai, education became deeply embedded in his
approach to music. Though his music is deeply rooted in his ancestral heritage,
he is a strong advocate of sharing his traditions and contributing to the
multicultural American experience. Nakai regularly performs and records with
artists from other musical genres, including jazz, and with traditional artists
from Asia, Europe and the Pacific.
"There are more similarities than we realize among
world communities in music." he says. "I can share through performing
and comparing the application and uses of our traditional music—how it is
formed and what its intentions are. In this manner, I can reach more people
rather than just explaining it."
Nakai has also embraced another role—that of
philanthropist. When Nakai learned that Northern Arizona University's music
school was starting a degree program in multicultural music, he and his wife
Pam approached the school about creating the R. Carlos Nakai Scholarship. Established
in 2006, the scholarship is designed for undergraduates who are interested in
multicultural activities, world music philosophies, and professional
involvement in the world of fine arts.
"When I was a young person wanting a dream, NAU gave
me a leg up," he says. "I appreciate everything the university has
encouraged me to achieve in music and education disciplines. If it weren't for
the support of the faculty, I wouldn't be doing what I am doing today."