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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 platinum.  

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 cultural tradition.

"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 won't disappear.'"

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."

Connecting through music

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."