The Best of 2 Worlds: A Tribute to Native American Flautist and World Musician R. Carlos Nakai

R. Carlos Nakai with James DeMars - Spirit Horses
R. Carlos Nakai with James DeMars – Spirit Horses


Spirit Horses (Canyon Records, 1991) & Native Tapestry (Canyon Records, 1993) by R. Carlos Nakai with James DeMars

Two World Concerto (Canyon Records, 1997) by R. Carlos Nakai with James DeMars & Black Lodge Singers

Fourth World (Canyon Records, 2002) by R. Carlos Nakai & Billy Williams

Over the past 23 years, R. Carlos Nakai ‘s name has become synonymous with Native American music. The Native American flautist has sold over 3.5 million records on Canyon Records alone, garnered 2 Gold Records and earned several GRAMMY nominations, among other awards and honorary recognition. Most recently, Nakai received a double nomination for the 2006 Native American Music Awards which include Flutist of the Year for his work on Our Beloved Land with Hawaiian slack key guitarist Keola Beamer and Best World Music Recording for People of Peace by the R. Carlos Nakai Quartet.

Nakai began his musical career as a trumpeter, but suffered the loss of his embouchure caused by a car accident. This led Nakai to join a small group of Native American flautists of that time which included, Kevin Locke, Doc Tate Nevaquaya and Tommy Ware. And in fact, back in the early 1980’s when Nakai began recording traditional Native American flute music, the Native American flute, according to the liner notes from the CD,

In Beauty, We Return
, “should be no more than a historical oddity, a means of expression for a culture long vanished.” After all, the simple instrument was “only a tube of wood with six, sometimes five finger holes. It doesn’t have all the notes of a standard scale and only seven or eight ‘good’ notes. It does not play ‘in tune’ according to European well-tempered tuning.” This did not stop Nakai from taking the Native American flute into symphonic halls or collaborating with classical music composers.

This article features 4 of Nakai‘s recordings which marry European classical music to Native American flute. The first 3 recordings feature collaborations with classical composer James DeMars, who in my opinion, deserves his own feature article. And the 4th recording, entitled, Fourth World features Nakai‘s original compositions arranged for an orchestra by Billy Williams who also produced the CD.

Often Nakai‘s music is thought of in a new age vein, which is fine in itself. However, inquisitive music listeners who choose to dig below the surface on these 4 recordings, can unearth shades of Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel and American composer, Aaron Copland as well as, exotic Arabic scales and Asian influences. When listening to these recordings, especially the work composed by James DeMars, I wonder if a new genre could be created along the lines of ethnic classical music? In the end, that would most likely take away from the experience of deciphering DeMars’ musical code or enjoying the magic created from this musical partnership of classical composer and seminal Native American flautist.

Let’s start with the 1991 recording, Spirit Horses, (Concerto for Native American Flute and Chamber Orchestra) which features DeMars’ compositions. This commissioned recording celebrated the 35th anniversary of Canyon Record’s first release by the late
Navajo singer, Ed Lee Natay. This concerto had to meet 2 requirements. First, the concerto had to incorporate Native American flute and second, it had to incorporate the traditional songs from Ed Lee Natay’s 1951 Canyon Records album. Spirit Horses also marked the beginning of a fruitful relationship between DeMars and Nakai.

The recording began with Premonitions of Christopher Columbus which features Native American flute, African percussion, alto saxophone, cello and piano. The composition features 6 musicians including, Nakai, DeMars on piano, Mark Sunkett on African and other percussion, Michael Hester on alto saxophone, Alex Zheng on cello and Kevin Fuhrman on suspended cymbals and gongs. This exotic tapestry did not lament the aftereffects of Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the Americas, but instead, “is an expression of the idioms and sonorities of the various ethnic traditions and peoples that would forever change the face of the emerging American experience.” (liner notes)

The second piece, Tapestry V, featured similar instrumentation, but synthesizer replaced the piano which was heard on the first composition. “Tapestry V is one in a series of free rhapsodic forms that employ rapid melodic filigree and mixed meters. This work shows Nakai’s mastery of flute technique, especially in the execution of flutter tonguing, which is difficult to control on a cedar flute.” (liner notes). The Native American flute passages feature ornamentation in which the flute emulates speech and bird song.

DeMars was inspired by one of French writer Charles Baudelaire’s poems in which the poet’s vision moves, “…above the pools, valleys, mountains, clouds and seas,” (and expressing joy), “…for those whose thoughts, like larks taking flight in morning skies, soar upon life…” The French influence, whether that includes the work of French poets or French composers is never far from DeMars’ palette.

Colors Fall features a duet with Native American flute and the European standard flute played by Eric Hoover. The two flutes surface and eddy around another, sometimes playing themes in unison. The fluttering flights of the Native American flute and the silvery tones of the standard flute represents a dance of two distinct cultures. The players sought common terrain and also celebrated their differences, seeking higher instead of middle ground. This non-compromising and powerful composition can sends shivers up listeners’ spines.

The title track brings in a chamber orchestra featuring strings, bass, a variety of percussion, Native American flute, and synthesizer. This concerto features 3 soloing instruments, violin, cello and Native American flute. The string glissandos mirror Chinese classical strings and a punchy cello gives off the sense of flight into other dimensions, as if riding on the back of a spirit horse. When Nakai’s flute glides in on a high wailing note, it resembles a Native American victory call. Often times, Nakai plays long notes that hover over anxious strings. Tension on this and following recordings was created through dissonance and some other-tonal passages which DeMars seems to favor. This contrasts well with flight-filled moments in which Nakai’s flute soars and takes its listeners with it.

The final track, Shaman’s Call composed by Nakai and originally featured on his best selling Earth Spirit recording, features solo Native American flute. After the musical workout this recording provides, this final track, allows us to relax and catch our breath.


R. Carlos Nakai with James DeMars - Native Tapestry
R. Carlos Nakai with James DeMars – Native Tapestry


Oh, but we are far from completing our musical journey. Next up, is the 1993 recording, Native Tapestry, which contains two sections. The first 3 tracks, Crow Wing, Lake That Speaks and Spirit Call feature the same group of musicians that appeared on the recording Spirit Horses. Again, Native American flute appears alongside saxophone, cello and ethnic percussion. An early version of Lake That Speaks echoes French Impressionism. These tracks would later appear on Two World Concerto which will be mentioned later in this article.

Tracks 4, 5 and 6 represent Two World Symphony, not to be confused with Two World Concerto. The final 3 tracks feature symphonic musicians, African percussion and Native American flute. Given the fact that the Native American flute is not a well-tempered instrument, the complexity of this symphony is mind-boggling and inspirational. Two World Symphony was supported by Arizona Committee on the French Revolution and the Phoenix chapter of Alliance Francaise, a French cultural organization.

I am not familiar with a connection between the American Southwest and theFrench Revolution, yet this recording features Native American themes, desertrains and migrations narrated in French which begins each of the three movements.

In its entirety, this recording features a variety of classical influences including Impressionism, Arabic scales, dissonance and intriguing instrumental combinations, such as Native American flute, cello, vibraphone and piano on Lake That Speaks. All of these elements are further embellished on the 1997 Native American Music Award-winning recording, Two World Concerto.


R. Carlos Nakai with James DeMars & Black Lodge Singers - Two World Concerto
R. Carlos Nakai with James DeMars & Black Lodge Singers – Two World Concerto


And now that brings us to the jewel in the crown, Two World Concerto, which features Nakai, the Canyon Symphony Orchestra in its full glory and the Native American pow-wow singers, Black Lodge. Listeners familiar with Native Tapestry and Spirit Horses will experience many dèjà vu moments while exploring this recording since Ed Lee Natay’s songs that we heard on previous recordings are woven throughout the concerto. And the pieces Spirit Call and Lake That Speaks debuted on the recording Native

This recording which features a full symphony provides ample opportunity for Nakai to highlight is musical prowess and a vast palette of colors, tones and timbres for DeMars to explore. This recording goes much further than just expanding themes highlighted on the previous recordings and DeMars stretches his wings, bringing in Native American pow-wow drums & vocals and a fiery brass section. “DeMars moves away from the usual pentatonic scales of the flute to more chromatic ideas…”

The horns make bold declarations, Native American flute and later pow-wow drumming and pow-wow vocals transport us to other worlds; musical passages echo classical music of the Romantic, Impressionist and later eras from both Europe and North America. Certainly this disc proves that James DeMars is an exciting composer of our time. And we know that a musical adventures awaits us, from the first blast of the orchestra on the opening track, Spirit Call.

Nakai’s flute soars into the tense space bringing a moment of tranquility that is later replaced by dissonant strings presenting an Arabic theme, the strings crescendo, the woodwinds trill and horns declare their brassy presence. With so much activity, we could never call this recording relaxing. It conveys a room filled with instruments all talking at the same time in various languages. In one pastoral section, an oboe chats with bassoon and clarinet. Strings sustain dissonant chords in which Nakai’s flute continues to ride the currents. The third section of the first piece recalls Maurice Ravel’s Spanish Dances with its Spanish and Moorish qualities.

Much of what began on the first piece continues throughout Lake That Speaks and Crow Smoke. With the exception that Lake That Speaks leans heavily towards Impressionism and recalls DeMars’ childhood home in Minnesota, the forests and the waters. I felt like I was listening to Debussy’s Afternoon of the Faun, until Nakai’s flute sailed in and danced along with the other woodwinds. These two worlds, the one of Native America and old world Europe can create magic when they cooperate with one another and emphasize each other’s strengths.

For example, a haunting photograph of the cello section of the Canyon Symphony Orchestra and the Black Lodge Singers, dressed in traditional clothing sitting around a pow-wow drum and a woman possibly of Hispanic origin, conducting the musicians says more about this recording than any journalist ever could. The first half of the recording focuses on the Native American flute’s relationship to the orchestra and the second half, switches gears while incorporating the heartbeat of Native American drums, the enchantment of a pow-wow and vocals that recall our collective primal past.

Yet, DeMars spent a great amount of time researching pow-wow traditions, conversing with traditional singers and drummers as well as, puzzling over a marriage between the symphonic and the pow-wow traditions. “The concept and tonality and pitch in Native American singing was described to him in terms of ‘high, medium and low,’ (as opposed to e minor).’ The essence of Native American drumming is the single beat shaped in long cycles dictated by vocal melodies (as opposed to measures of 4/4).”

Once DeMars solved that riddle, he incorporated the Native drum heartbeat into the score. Often you can hear it emphasized by the instrumental basses. DeMars emphasizes the brass section, the passion of the Native American vocals and shifting rhythms. For instance here is a description found in the liner notes to give you a better idea of the section entitled Native Drumming.

Destiny Song was composed in the pow-wow song form specifically for Black Lodge Singers and uses a mixture of vocables with text, ‘Rise high, native people, like the sun, this is the day to rise.’ The first statement is accompanied by orchestral gestures in the strings and woodwinds that recall the fluttering and shaking of the fancy dancer’s feathers.”

In short, this recording gives the brain a workout. By the time, the encore arrives in which the Black Lodge Singers perform a pow-wow song sans the orchestra followed by a Native American flute solo, Zuni Corn Grinding Song, we have been taken on quite a wild ride. Nakai’s sedate flute following an incredibly tense experience, could be compared to drinking mint tea after a heavy 5-course dinner.


R. Carlos Nakai & Billy Williams - Fourth World
R. Carlos Nakai & Billy Williams – Fourth World


The final recording in this tribute, the NAMMY, (Native American Music Awards),
Award-winning Fourth World features Nakai’s compositions arranged and produced by Billy Williams. The Native American flute weaves its way through light orchestral arrangements of symphonic strings, oboe, French horns, trumpet andCanyon Record  recording artists, Will Clipman’s ethnic percussion. Out of all the recordings mentioned here, Fourth World can actually be called relaxing. It builds a bridge between the new age and classical music genres, while pleasing both listeners.

I am not sure of the origins of all the tracks, but Whippoorwill and Shaman’s Call have appeared on previous recordings. Each song carries its own unique signature while flowing into one another. The fluttery flute and regal trumpet that appears on Eye of the Eagle certainly caught my attention. Fourth World, Rainbow World, Whippoorwill and Shaman’s Call, which I mentioned earlier, are perennial favorites of mine. Certainly, I would never call this recording lightweight because the variety of musical themes played out on the various instruments add to an intriguing listening experience. Yet, I find myself listening to these tracks when I feel burnt out and in need of peace.

R. Carlos Nakai is not the first Native American musician to work with orchestras or symphonies, but his recordings have blazed a trail and left behind a lasting impression. He represents the all-around musician who emphasizes virtuosity on what appears to be a primitive instrument. You see this happening all around the globe, a musician picks up a one-string fiddle and blows your mind, or another musician picks up a thumb piano reminding us of what a humble instrument can achieve in the right hands. The cedar flute in the hands of R. Carlos Nakai evokes miracles. And certainly some of us are deeply enchanted by this magical flute, despite its limitations.