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R. Carlos Nakai Mesmerizes with Traditional Flute at Sedona Symphony Concert

by Madonna

On the evening of April 27, the Sedona Symphony’s end-of-season pops concert at the Sedona Performing Arts Center was a sold-out event, featuring a return appearance by renowned American Indian flutist R. Carlos Nakai. A leading figure in contemporary traditional flute music, Nakai has released 41 albums since 1983 and has received 11 Grammy nominations.

Nakai’s performance was enriched with anthropological insights, discussing the origins of the American Indian flute. He explained that while the end-blown flute is one of the oldest musical instruments, the lack of written and archaeological evidence makes it difficult to document its pre-Columbian use in North America. Nakai suggested that exposure to central European organ-building techniques significantly influenced the modern flute, likening early players in Massachusetts to the rock stars of their era.

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“Music is more powerful than any politicians,” Nakai remarked, emphasizing music’s universal ability to transcend cultural barriers. “Music is the language of the world.”

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He elaborated that music essentially manipulates a sine wave, and the end-blown flute represents the simplest and earliest method of this manipulation. Nakai plays various flutes pitched in keys such as A minor, G minor, B flat, and E natural, as well as the eagle-bone whistle.

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Opening with “Far From Water,” a tranquil piece by James DeMars, Nakai showcased his control over the instrument. He then performed four of his own compositions, orchestrated by collaborator Billy Williams. In “Shaman’s Call,” Nakai’s flute imitated a whoop before transitioning into a romantic symphonic passage and then reentering with the eagle-bone whistle. “Comes the Dawn” featured a deeper-voiced flute in a beautiful interplay with the French horn.

Guest percussionist Will Clipman, a frequent collaborator, joined Nakai for the emotional “Fourth World.” The final piece, “Little Dog,” featured swirling violins and a vigorous drumbeat, resembling hooves fading into the distance. The Symphony’s strings, light and airy, perfectly complemented Nakai’s distinctive playing style, which combined vibrato and rubato at the ends of phrases.

The program included Jay Ungar’s “Ashokan Farewell,” beginning with a solo by the concertmaster and gradually building up with the orchestra, exemplifying smooth orchestral efficiency. The piece conveyed a quiet but confident wistfulness, rooted in deep memory.

Following this, Nakai demonstrated his techniques and instruments, including a brief Hawaiian chant. Clipman accompanied him on an udu, an Igbo percussion instrument, and together they improvised a sequence that evoked the earliest forms of music, demonstrating creation in action.

The concert concluded with Nakai’s composition “Inner Voices,” featuring a deeper flute and subtle tones from the Symphony. Special recognition was given to bassists Lance Roederer and Mik Jordahl for their control over the long, low parts.

The program also featured two short pieces by California composer Alan Lee Silva, “Western Dawn” and “Rock Canyon Club,” characterized by folk motifs reminiscent of TV Westerns. While enjoyable, these pieces lacked dramatic force due to their string-only orchestration.

As the concert drew to a close, Nakai humorously remarked, “there’s an Irish pub I need to get to,” ending the evening on a light note.

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