Fleischer, after the first time he heard Nakai at that gift shop at the Grand Canyon, referred to Nakai’s music as “deep spiritual medicine.”
“It’s not accidental that it is haunting,” Fleischer said. “It’s headed for a specific place in the heart, mind and soul.”
The music takes a person away to a special place, Fleischer said. And it happens to everybody.
“We all have that,” Nakai said. “We like to call it Blood Memory.”
The Blood Memory awakens when a person hears the sounds of traditional music and is drawn to it, Nakai said. All the cultures of the world have such music and instruments that go with it. And it has been an “interesting experience” for Nakai trying to discover classical performance possibilities for traditionally tuned instruments like the Native American flute to awaken that Blood Memory. The intent is not to destroy traditional music, but to build on it.
“So far, it’s been pretty good,” Nakai said. “It’s still difficult for composers to write for traditional instruments, a challenge.”
Nakai accompanied the orchestra on a concerto by Arizona-based composer James DeMars, “Two World Concerto for Native American Flute”.
“It really is another world,” Fleischer said. An orchestra has a full chromatic range “all the black and white keys.”
“Many folk instruments don’t have that full chromatic range,” Fleischer said, adding that therefore limits are placed on what can be performed.
Nakai said a flute has 12 pitches, and he needed three different flutes to complete the DeMars concerto. He found out three days before the concert that one of his flutes was no longer useable, and he was down to two.
“Wooden instruments tend to deteriorate,” Nakai said. The more they are used, the more they deteriorate. In order to preserve the wooden flutes he uses in concert, he rehearses with a plastic flute.
At one time, Nakai made his own flutes, but he is much too busy to make them anymore.
“I tried making them in airports,” he said laughing. “But that didn’t work out very well.”
Now, his flutes are made by two people he has found who live in different parts of the country, who can craft flutes to what he needs for performances. His flute makers focus on the instrument’s sound rather than aesthetics, using soft hardwoods like juniper, spruce and cedar.
Nakai, who is of Navajo-Ute heritage, was born in Flagstaff. And since that time, his musical accomplishments have included 30 recordings, five Grammy nominations and two Grammy awards. He regularly tours throughout the U.S. and around the world, giving performances and lecturing on Native American culture and philosophy.
Nakai’s musical career and love of the flute began with brass instruments. He had been turned down by the prestigious Julliard for reasons he considers as other than up front and honest, and opted to attend the U.S. Navy School of Music.
He suffered injuries in an auto accident after leaving the Navy, he said. He had split his lip, lost teeth. He thought his musical future was over. So, he returned home.
“Then I found this instrument no one knew about except three old men,” Nakai said. The instrument, a flute, was hanging on a wall, full of cobwebs. He decided to try it out.
But instead of falling back on tradition, Nakai used his knowledge of the European classical tradition to explore the Native American flute. By understanding the science of music, he built a foundation of bringing ethnicity into the contemporary performance arena.
“I’m still learning,” Nakai said, a point decades down the road from where he started.
Nakai will now be heading to Alaska for another performance.
“Never in my life did I think this was possible,” Nakai said. “Now I’m doing it. I’ve found at this point in time, I really didn’t need Julliard.”