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R. Carlos Nakai Biography

R. Carlos Nakai

R. Carlos Nakai

Of Navajo-Ute heritage, R. Carlos Nakai is the world's premier performer of the Native American flute.  He began his musical studies on the trumpet, but a car accident ruined his embouchure.  His musical interests took a turn when he was given a traditional cedar flute as a gift and challenged to master it.  As an artist, he is an adventurer and risk taker, always giving his musical imagination free rein.  Nakai is also an iconoclastic traditionalist who views his cultural heritage not only as a source and inspiration, but also a dynamic continuum of natural change, growth, and adaptation subject to the artist's expressive needs. 

      Nakai's first album, Changes, was released by Canyon Records in 1983, and since then he has released over thirty-five albums with Canyon plus additional albums and guest appearances on other labels.  In addition to his educational workshops and residencies, Nakai has appeared as a soloist throughout the United States, Europe, and Japan, and has worked with Grammy® winner flutist Paul Horn, guitarist/luthier William Eaton, composer James DeMars among many others. The famed American choreographer Martha Graham used Nakai's second album, Cycles, in her last work Night Chant.  Nakai contributed music to the major motion pictures New World (New Line) and Geronimo (Columbia).
      Nakai, while cognizant of the traditional use of the flute as a solo instrument, began finding new settings for it, especially in the genres of jazz and classical.  He founded the ethnic jazz ensemble,  the R. Carlos Nakai Quartet, to explore the intersection of ethnic and jazz idioms.
      Nakai brought the flute into the concert hall, performing with over fifteen symphony and chamber orchestras. He was a featured soloist on the Philip Glass composition, Piano Concerto No. 2: After Lewis & Clark, premiered by the Omaha Symphony.  Nakai also works with producer and arranger Billy Williams, a two-time Grammy® winner, in composing for and performing the traditional flute in orchestral works of a lighter vein. 

            In a cross-cultural foray, Nakai performed extensively with the Wind Travelin' Band, a traditional Japanese ensemble from Kyoto which resulted in an album, Island of Bows.  Additional recordings with ethnic artists include In A Distant Place with Tibetan flutist and chanter Nawang Khechog, and Our Beloved Land with famed Hawaiian slack key guitarist and singer Keola Beamer.  Recently, Nakai released Voyagers with Philadelphia Orchestra cellist Udi Bar-David which blends Native American melodies with Jewish and Arabic songs. 
            Nakai has received two gold records (500,000 units sold) for Canyon Trilogy and Earth Spirit which are the first (and only) Native American recordings to earn this recognition.  He has sold over four million albums in the course of his career.  Grammy® nominations include Ancestral Voices (1994 Best Traditional Folk Album), Inner Voices and Inside Monument Valley (both for 2000 Best New Age Album), In A Distant Place (2001 Best New Age Album), Fourth World (2002 Best New Age Album), Sanctuary (2003 Best Native American Album), and People of Peace (2004 Best New Age Album).
            A Navy veteran, Nakai earned a Master's Degree in American Indian Studies from the University of Arizona.  He was awarded the Arizona Governor's Arts Award in 1992, and an honorary doctorate from Northern Arizona University in 1994.  In 2005 Nakai was inducted into the Arizona Music & Entertainment Hall of Fame.  Nakai has also authored a book with composer James DeMars, The Art of the Native American Flute, which is a guide to performing the traditional cedar flute


Nakai Videos


Interview with Echoes host John Diliberto


PBS Hawaii Presents : Keola Beamer & Friends: Bridging Worlds Through Music

Noteworthy News

Nakai joins Springsteen, Vedder and others to honor Pete Seeger

Native American flutist R. Carlos Nakai performed May 3, 2009 at Madison Square Garden for Pete Seeger's 90th birthday benefit concert. The concert will include performances by Bruce Springsteen, Eddie Vedder, Dave Mathews, Steve Earle, Joan Baez, John Mellencamp, Emmylou Harris, Arlo Guthrie, Ben Harper and about forty other musicians. Proceeds from the concert went to the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater organization, a group that Seeger founded in the 1960's that is dedicated to preserving and cleaning up the Hudson River. 

The Atrocious Saint release & Christopher Hedge on NPR

Listen to the NPR interview with Christopher Hedge as he discusses his CD, "Andrew Jackson:The Atrocious Saint", a collection of original music for the PBS feature documentary "Andrew Jackson: Good, Evil and the Presidency". To capture the epic events of Jackson's life and presidency (the War of 1812 and the "Trail of Tear's) Hedge collaborated with Canyon Records recording artist R. Carlos Nakai, the premiere Native American flutist. Hedge also collaborated with noted musician David Grisman to capture the American experience from all perspectives. Listen in to hear the full story of how this amazing production came to life.

Grammy '09 Showcase


R. Carlos Nakai on Not Speaking for All Natives

R. Carlos Nakai speaks his mind

Kara Briggs interview with R. Carlos Nakai for NMAI Classical Native programming

Who should be in the Hall?


#3 - R. Carlos Nakai brought the Native American flute to its widest audience but he’s an artist who defies expectations. He could’ve done the solo flute thing of his debut, Changes, still favored by spas, but he’s taken his instrument into world fusion, orchestral, electronica and chamber music settings, all to brilliant effect. He’s appeared on Echoes more than any other artist. Essential Album: Feather Stone & Light

~John Diliberto
Echoes /
20 Icons of Echoes

"A birth we embark on a good journey, seeking a destination of happiness.  The journeys on our life-road facilitate development of our emotional, mental, physical and spiritual states-of-being, into a way of true power and wisdom.  The Heart-center power, expressed as happiness and love, will guide us upward on a path away from frustration, bitter toil and travail.  These journeys are directed inward, not outwardly in material mementos of ego and possession.  The lesson is relearning that which has been suppressed and forgotten, in ourselves, since our earliest childhood."

~R. Carlos Nakai
as quoted in "A Friend's Whisper"
The Best of Native American Flute Music by R. Carlos Nakai
Distributed by Music Compass

"As the Native American flute does not have any chromatic scales and it cannot play the equal temperament, it is difficult to play.  The mysterious tone color and free inspiration make inner emotion and scenery of the sound of the sound of nature.  The sense of space and depth created by collaboration of the flute and the orchestra is the crowning glory of nature.  The sense of space and depth created by collaboration of the flute and the orchestra is the crowning glory of the album, and it means extending the flute sound of beautiful solitude to the harmony and flow of the world and earch.  It presents deep resonance ot our hearts and souls, and we may have the same ancestors back in tens of thousands of years.  America, in the wild, may have been the land which was full of mystery and beauty.  This music of divine spirits is a gift from the guardians of the land to their descendants is a gift from the guardians of the land to their descendants in the minority now and to all friends on earth.  The music, newly arranged to sing the cosy haven of Mother Earth and the peace, will cross our inner worlds quietly in our time of greed and insanity."

~Minseok Kang
as quoted in "A Friend's Whisper"
The Best of Native American Flute Music by R. Carlos Nakai
Distributed by Music Compass


2004 GRAMMY® AWARD Finalist
Sanctuary - Best Native American Album

2003 GRAMMY® AWARD Finalist
Fourth World - Best New Age Album

Fourth World - Best New Age Album

2002 GOLD Record - Earth Spirit, RIAA Certified

2001 GRAMMY® AWARD Finalist
In A Distant Place - Best New Age Album

Lifetime Achievement Award, honored for 20 year contribution to Native American music

Ancient Future - Flutist of the Year

2000 GRAMMY® AWARD Finalist
Inner Voices - Best New Age Album

2000 GRAMMY® AWARD Finalist
Inside Monument Valley - Best New Age Album

Inner Voices - Best Instrumental Recording

Red Wind, Best Instrumental Recording

1998 GOLD Record - Canyon Trilogy, RIAA Certified

~Best Male Artist - Two World Concerto
~Best Flutist - Two World Concerto
~Best New Age album - Two World Concerto
~Best Instrumental - Two World Concerto

1994 GRAMMY® AWARD Finalist
Ancestral Voices - Best Traditional Folk Album

1994 Recipient of a First Americans in the Arts Award, honored for Outstanding Musical Achievement (Body of Work)

1994 Honorary Doctorate, Northern Arizona University

1992 Governor's Art Award (Arizona)

1992 Indie Awards
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