Forte: Native American Flute Music
BY GRACE CHAI '23
If only we took the time to listen: hear the wren’s call in the sprawling desert, feel the echo of wind reverberating through our bones, and heed the voices of Native activists in America. As a flutist, I’m compelled by music that evokes emotion, and as an activist, I’m drawn to music that tells a story, trills that convey resilience. When I heard Carlos Nakai play the Native American flute, I knew I had found an artist and storyteller—someone who honors their roots through music.
Before delving into Nakai’s music, it’s important to acknowledge musical instruments’ significance in Indigenous culture. The Native American flute has a long history, with much of it suppressed by American colonialism. It served many purposes in its early history and varied across tribes, many of those uses ranging from entertainment to courting to prayer ceremonies. However, during the late 1800s, the U.S. government attempted to mask Native culture by banning the flute’s making and playing. Native flute playing nearly died out as Native children in residential schools were taught that Western ideals were superior, learning that one must “kill the Indian [to] save the man,” according to Richard Henry Pratt, the founder of the Carlisle boarding school. Later, in the 1960s, activists and elders such as Doc Nevaquaya and Carl Running Deer helped revive Native culture, including the flute. Through their efforts, the flute regained its prevalence in Native society.
Now, Native artists like Nakai recognize their heritage by highlighting Native music’s beauty and history. Nakai, who is of Navajo-Ute heritage, was originally trained in classical trumpet before a car accident reportedly ruined his embouchure, or lip positioning. Following the accident, he was given a traditional cedar flute, and his career skyrocketed in the 1980s. His impressive career spans several decades and includes more than fifty albums, with his Canyon Trilogy (2014) reaching over one million units sold, the first ever for a Native artist performing traditional solo flute music. Yet, beyond the eleven-time Grammy nominee’s illustrious career, the soul that Nakai channels into his music is what really captured my attention when researching him. These pieces made me truly appreciate Native American flute music, and I hope you enjoy listening to them.
“Song For the Morning Star”
The lilting opening notes that resonate in this piece are ethereal, invoking an image of a bird soaring over the canyon on a clear day, its dark wings contrasting a cloudless blue sky. Nakai’s use of vibrato, or pulsation of pitch, makes the melody stand out; moreover, his tone, or production of sound, is warm and dark, which complements the ascending notes as he trills upward, sprinkling in grace notes that augment the piece’s almost wistful, dream-like aura. Indeed, it conjures images of a morning star—faint, yet beautiful against the still-dark sky.
One of the things that I feel is truly underrated in flute music is the ability to play low notes well, which Nakai does with mastery and ease. His low notes are lush and warm, and his modulations, or bending of pitches, add extra flair to the piece. The most striking part about Nakai’s music, however, is that you do not have to be a music critic to understand it. As he put it himself, “I communicate without words very well. And that experience that [the listener] ha[s] with that flute music is something that is individual in nature.” Too often in the instrumental music world, the average listener is discouraged by complex compositions or ideas, but Nakai produces music that anyone can connect to. While his music doesn’t have lyrics, the lack of words makes the listener focus on the music itself, how the notes interact with each other, like waves crashing on the seashore. Nakai’s style reminds me of music’s true purpose: raw sounds that connect us to one another in a meaningful way.
When I heard this piece for the first time, I knew that I had to include it in this lineup. This collaboration between Peter Kater, a German-American pianist, and Nakai is simply stunning. While the cello and piano sing a very contemporary melody, the flute provides an ethereal layer to the texture of the music, soaring on top of the strings’ richer undertones. Further, Kater’s piano runs are light and flow like a waterfall cascading down the side of a mountain: combined with the cello’s lush harmony and the flute’s silvery timbre, or tone, this piece is sure to make you envision something magical. What you envision, as Nakai comments, is up to you: “I try not to limit myself and place limits on how you can hear my music, I leave it more up to [the listeners]. The majority of the people, I believe, are the ones who have found the music very touching, and they found something important in it, a message, whatever it might be, in that music.”
The life that Nakai has brought to his flute music is notable for contributing to the greater revival indigenous music, but also because millions of vastly different people have resonated with it. By transporting the listener to the Southwest—complete with sprawling canyons, azure skies, and watercolor-esque sunsets—Nakai has proven that music, and art in general, is not simply a form of expression; it is a direct pathway to the heart.
Playlist: Carlos Nakai