The Nancho Consultations

Carlos Nakai

Nancho Lite
Sri Carlos

Carlos Nakai is an almost mythical mix of musical visionary and warrior against corporate usurpation of Native American culture. Best known internationally for his haunting, innovative Native flute recordings, he has woven melodies from tradition, Nature and personal genius into hymns of great sensual power. His cautionary message to the world is equally resonant, and focuses on fundamental truth that we are all in our own way Native People and equally responsible for the gifts of creation.

- Verbatim Excerpts -

Nancho: After many virtuoso years with classic trumpet you abruptly jump to the tribal flute. What prompted the great leap?

CN: Well, when I was living on the Colorado River Indian Reservation in Posten, I was going to a very small local school there for all the farmer kids. And one year they decided they would give us some musical experience, so one man came from Blythe, California with all these musical instruments and did what they call an embouchure check which is where they check your teeth and they way your lip formation is, and the mouth structure and they determine from that one is able to perform on different kinds of European-based instruments. I was handed the coronet and I said, 'no, I don't want that.' And I was handed the coronet again and I said, 'no, I don't want that.'They tried the euphonium and the baritone and the trombone andI said, 'no, no, no. I need the one in the small box.' And so after much argument I finally relented and spent most of my time with a private tutor working in the European brass area - trumpet, coronet and some work with other brass instruments, and I've been doing that ever since until I had a traffic accident and I lost my embouchure. And rather than throw up twenty years of music training, I decided maybe I should go back into my culture and utilize the skills and the philosophies and the technique and the theory of this European training and find a way to identify with the music of a particular portion of my culture - what that music is really about and explain it to others in a language everyone can understand.

So, that's what I do today. I've written a lot of new pieces for native flute, I've done an extensive write-up about the philosophy of the flute in many different cultural contexts and I'm working right now on a thesis that I'm going to apply as a Native American flute theory and practice manual.

You spoke earlier about the flute's very powerful spiritual role in many cultures around the world. What is its role in Native American culture?

CN: The role of the flute in native culture is primarily as a social kind of entity. The flute itself is not a spiritual instrument as it is in many cultures, but it was used mostly for personal expression. Many of the Plains tribes belong to matrilineal societies in which the man is primarily a hunter and provider of raw materials for a woman to keep her family and her home in adequate shape so she can nurture her children and others that may be around. So, in that sense, the male side had very few means of personal expression besides belonging to societies of other men or participating in ceremonies that tried to bring your feminine side out so that you lived a life that was in balance with itself. They say that the flute came to the male culture as a way to express to others how one felt about being here. And so it's still used in that manner even today - to sing without words, to communicate to other people without words and language how one feels about being here now.

So, it's basically a subjective instrument...

CN: More or less. Of course, in the modern age, because of economics and things, people have declared that this is a spiritual instrument, and that it carries this aura. It's like they're sort of overly romanticizing the instrument, but in the traditional context it doesn't have that application at all.

You've also been a critic of the romanticization trend, and the incredible fashionableness of ethnic culture these days...the indigenous cultures being paraded around as some sort of new "Eden"...

CN: Yeah, that's always been a fascination for me why people do that. But the problem, I think, is that many are looking for a way to identify and to place themselves in the world. And I think it's sometimes easier to go out and acquire a role relationship. In other words, put on another jacket, and try to understand a culture from that perspective. And if it doesn't suit you anymore take the jacket off and throw it away or take it down to the second-hand shop and somebody else might like to wear it for a time.

In my particular awareness, however, I find that I do not wear a jacket, but I have within myself a sense of history, of time in a culture, of learning for myself what it is to be a person of culture, of ethnicity. And that's not something that's taught, or can be read about in a book. What has to happen there, is to live with the people, to live with my family and with people of the Navajo and of the Yuit cultures and to learn a little bit about the experiences of history that they've gone through - of why they're still here today and to learn the good and bad about both sides, and the skills and mechanisms that they've originated over time to survive.

In my travels, I've found that other ethnic peoples also have the very same ideals, the very same philosophies, the very same skills and mechanisms for survival that my people have. So, when I travel in America and address groups of native American peoples, I'm always finding that they would like to be me - they would like to, as they say, sit in a sweat lodge, a sacred sweat lodge. But you can do the very same thing sitting in a hot bath. They would like to burn the sacred smokes of this or that, but you can do the very same thing smoking Garam or burning some incense in your living room.

It's just that the sense of spirituality is not something that requires outside, external, material objects. It's not an object-oriented culture that I belong to, but it's one where you understand your own relationship to the world that surrounds you through an awareness of history, of being in a place through time. And so, when I speak with native Americans,who are people of former European descent rather than native people, they should go and learn how they became native Americans, how they came to be in our homelands, what their experiences were that removed them from their ancestral places in Europe or in Asia or in other places in the world. And that would be the same story that I carry. Everyone has similar experiences of good and bad things that happen and you tell that story when you meet.

It's a strange mix, though, this ravenous consumerism coupled with an increased thirst for native cultures, even or particularly in Japan these days. On the one hand, you have this incredible interest in indigenous peoples, and on the other, you have this wave of concrete and plastic coming down...

CN: Well, I have this way of looking at it and's actually no different than being in a natural forest, or let's say a bamboo forest here. Man is not a creator, although industrialists say that they have created all of this marvelous stuff, you know, the plastics, the hydrocarbons out there, the asphalt, the different kinds of materials that they say are"man-made". But it's not really true, because all human beings do is recombine the basic elements, the 104 elements that are out there. It's like building blocks. It's like a child playing with blocks and recombining what's already here. But they're not creating anything, see. So, it's sort of a philosophical, psychological joke that they're playing on themselves by saying that they have control, because when you break it all back down, it becomes its natural self again. And so even when I'm in the midst of a highly urbanized setting like this I can still see that it's all very basic. My mindset is not one of, "look at what's happened here. Where are the natural forests? Where are the hillsides? Where are all of these?" They're still here. It's just that now we've learned to cover them up a little bit and when all of this deteriorates in the very near future, then the hillside will come back because these things will break back down into their natural state, see. And even with the high order plastics, the polymers which we've been able to come up with, they're going to break down over time anyway and become just carbon and oxygen molecules and hydrogen again. So what did we do? Nothing. We just recombine, like little children playing with blocks.

The grace of the long-term perspective. One last thing about sense of place: I've noticed that your recordings are occasionally placed in the so-called "new age" corners of record stores and I understand you have some very strong feelings about this sort of thing...

CN: Well, I think because of the romanticism people are having a very difficult time in understanding where my music belongs. I see it as merely contemporary traditional music. It is my expression in the aural tradition that we've been passing on through time of my own experiences here in the world as it is today. So, all I'm doing is adding to that extensive aural history that we have. I'm not changing the ancient sacred history that is the core of all my existence and the existence of other Navajos or Yuits or Zunis. That can't be changed. But the surrounding stories and experiences and histories of our travels through time is what I'm adding to. And unfortunately there are many other natives who have stopped doing that, you know, and they've begun to, let's say, languish in some kind of romantic understanding, and not realizing that their responsibility is to also add to this story. So, I end up in the New Age category when all I'm actually doing is what we've been doing for centuries already and I'm just incorporating and assimilating and redefining myself as a Native person in a 20th century world, that's all.

Well, how has all this recent media attention and romanticism and all these movies, how is this affecting the youngest generation of native peoples?

CN: Well, I think politically it's reminding them that they're no longer what they are, because they're not like "Dances with Money" ["Dances with Wolves"] and all of this. They're not warriors, they're not a warrior people. It keeps us from becoming ourselves in a modern world, rather than saying, "this is how they were then, this is how we are now." The other thing is that I think there is an attempt to reduce the awareness of culture and ethnicity to one of, let's say, a dimestore novel, and to replace it with a general mode of understanding that does not value self-awareness, or awareness of the ongoing involvement of self. In other words, the ability to see that your self is now only a participant in the vast machine of industrial progress. Let's cover it all up, let's hide it all away - and look, we can make money with it, too.

But this is more difficult as long as they're ethnic people who can stand aside and say, 'Wait, it doesn't say that in our old stories, that this is what we're to do. We are supposed to nurture and guard this world, and make sure that this all survives." You've got to make that understanding almost subliminal. Romantic awareness just doesn't work anymore, and that's what I attempt to work against. To remind people that you do have a culture, you do have a responsibility to the Earth, you do have an awareness of how my people think, but your awareness is from your own cultural history and it's time to begin resurrecting that and changing how we are now, because when we enter the 21st century, it's going to become something that we need, otherwise we're going to destroy the rest of the planet.

Who do you hold up as models to native youth? What kind of person?

CN: Someone who knows the history of their own people or peoples, if they belong to one or more ethnic cultures. One who is adept at being a storyteller about themselves and their family. Someone who speaks the language or the languages of their own people plus languages of other peoples in the world. Someone who understands that you can't live in a world entirely motivated towards cross-cultural conflict. One whose approach is more "let's sit down and talk and play together, and let's begin to understand how we are similar human beings rather than separate war-like entities pitted one against another". There are individuals out there. People have to find their own models and I would say that if they looked in the mirror, they would find that they are their own best teachers.

- End -

Nancho Rep: W. David Kubiak

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