Native Voices brings together two legendary performers from America’s indigenous peoples—Native American flutist R. Carlos Nakai and Hawaiian Slack Key guitarist Keola Beamer. Long regarded as trend-setting musicians and articulate spokesmen for their cultures, Nakai and Beamer will be appearing together for the 1st time to promote their collaborative CD,
“Native Voices” on Canyon Records. Their concert performances will include music played on Native American and Hawaiian flutes, Slack Key guitar, and chanting from both cultures.
To become the world’s premier Native American flutist, R. Carlos Nakai had to rely more on research and innovation and less on his Navajo-Ute heritage. While the Diné had a strong flute-playing tradition, it was lost when they migrated from the Northwest Plains of Canada to the Southwest over five centuries ago. While Nakai may not have been “born to the flute,” it was curiosity about his heritage that led him to it.
During the late 1960s while researching American Indian music and traditional instruments, the wooden flute piqued Nakai’s interest, but it wasn’t until 1972 that he took it up seriously. Prior to that Nakai had devoted his musical energies to classical training on the cornet and trumpet.
In his usual determination to have a thorough knowledge of the instrument, Nakai crafted his own from oak wood. He later learned from a flute-making teacher that cedar is the only wood that works well. He also discovered that there are no standard dimensions. The finger holes and air column are based on hand and finger measurements and are never the same. As a result, each flute has a different sound and pitch, which makes the tonality of the instruments random. Nakai views each flute less as a musical instrument than “as a sound sculpture - a piece of art that also creates sound.”
Part of Nakai’s philosophy is to ensure that the native flute does not become a “museum piece” of a bygone culture. Through his original compositions and other musical collaborations, Nakai intends to show the instrument’s versatility and capabilities.
Over the past three decades, Nakai has melded his classical training with his expertise on the cedar flute to form a complex, sophisticated sound that not only reveals the flute’s uniqueness, but covers the spectrum of musical genres: from devotional meditations to jazz ensembles to full symphonic works. Additionally, Nakai creates new sounds for the flute using electronic technology such as synthesizers and digital delay.
A native Arizonan, Nakai’s southwestern surroundings as well as his culture, heavily influence his work. He points out “A lot of what I’ve been taught culturally, comes from an awareness of the environment... How I feel is based on my impressions of being in certain spaces at certain times. Thinking back...on personal tribal stories and the history of my culture figures into how I organize my music.”
While solo flute albums are the core of his work, Nakai is ambitious regarding joining forces with other musicians. He views collaborations as “philosophical communication between...musicians” and opportunities to explore beyond traditional musical and cultural boundaries. His projects include Island of Bows, recorded with a Japanese group using acoustic and traditional Japanese instruments; Red Wind, with luthier and guitarist William Eaton and percussionist Will Clipman; Winds of Devotion with Tibetan flutist Nawang Khechog; Inside Monument Valley with silver flutist Paul Horn, and Ancient Future with his Native Jazz group, the R. Carlos Nakai Quartet. He has also recorded two symphonic CD’s featuring classical pieces written especially for him by Arizona composer James DeMars. His latest project is Native Voices, a collaboration with Hawaiian Slack Key guitarist Keola Beamer.
In addition to his artistic successes, Nakai has amassed unprecedented commercial honors, including 6 Grammy nominations and the 1st two Gold Records to be awarded to a traditional Native American musician. A prolific musician and composer, he has 37 albums in commercial distribution, including 28 releases on the Canyon Records label. Just counting his Canyon titles, Nakai recently surpassed 3,500,000 units sold worldwide.
When Nakai is not recording, composing or researching, his year is spent touring throughout the U.S., Canada, Europe and Japan performing and lecturing on Native American culture and philosophy. Nakai wouldn’t have it any other way. “...We were put on the earth to experience life in its totality. And if you’re not doing that, you’re essentially wasting your time.
Keola Beamer is a recognized master of Hawaiian artistic expression. The fascinating history of his family can be traced back to the 15th century. In traditional Hawaiian society, alii (royalty) recognized that sounded words possess mana (spiritual power). They encouraged musical expression as a way to preserve information and communicate with one another and the gods.
Throughout the generations, the Beamers have been involved in the performing arts. In the 20th century, they produced a number of influential performers, composers, and teachers. Keola’s great- grandmother, Helen Kapuailohia Desha Beamer (1882-1952), was one of Hawaiÿi’s most prolific and accomplished composers. She was also a skilled dancer whose grace left a lasting imprint on the hula (Hawaiian dance). Her granddaughter, Winona (Nona) Kapuailohia Desha Beamer, is Keola’s mother. A noted chanter, composer, and teacher, Nona is revered for her scholarship and accomplishments in the education of native Hawaiian children.
Keolamaikalani Breckenridge Desha Beamer carries the legacy into the 21st century. “My family is serious about music,” Keola says. “We come from a history of oral tradition in which music and story telling is a central component. Our Hawaiian genealogies, land boundaries, and navigational information were all in the chant form. We are now beginning to realize the wealth of that knowledge and how so much of it has been lost. We are finally regaining some of these meanings and incorporating them in our own lives.”
Keola has played guitar, piano, and ohe hano ihu (Hawaiian nose flute) since he was very young. He studied hula and sang in glee clubs while attending Kamehameha School, a school for children of Hawaiian ancestry. Keola attended Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont. He was an active teacher of kï hö alu (slack key guitar) in the 1970s and compiled the first comprehensive teaching manual on the subject, Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar (Oak Publications, New York) . His contributions to slack key during the 70s began to spark public interest in kï hö alu, launching a statewide revival of the tradition. His teaching continues today with extensive seminars on the island of Hawaii in which guitarists and dancers from all over the world gather in an extended ohana format called “The Aloha Music Camps.”
Keola is especially noted for his ability to recontextualize ancient Hawaiian mele (songs) into contemporary settings in which he has created a style uniquely his own. His history has been a series of groundbreaking events, beginning in 1972 with the solo slack key album Hawaiian Slack Key In The Real Old Style. That LP is considered by many to be the catalyst for the revival of kï hö alu. His 1978 release, Honolulu City Lights, is the largest selling recording in the history of Hawaiian music.
In 1994, Wooden Boat, Keola’s first release on George Winston’s Dancing Cat label, became the first Hawaiian music CD ever to reach the top 15 on the Billboard World Music Charts. All four of his subsequent releases for Dancing Cat, Tales From The Dream Guitar, White Mountain Journal, From the Gentle Wind, and Soliloquy (The Voice Within) have also reached the Top 15. Keola’s recent recording, Island Born, released on his own Ohe Records label, received rave reviews and nationwide airplay.
Keola Beamer’s live concert performances embody the magical otherworldliness of this melodic language of dreams. His unique and polished style of musicianship skillfully accentuates the stories that his songs tell about the culture and the experience of being Hawaiian in a contemporary world. The repertoire he presents is a three-dimensional experience, combining the elements of mele (song), hula (dance), and oli (chant) with native percussion instruments and Hawaiian folklore.
In March of 2001, Maui-based filmmaker, Ken Burgmaier, filmed Keola in concert at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center. This blossomed into a full-length feature documentary entitled Keola Beamer: Kï Hö alu — Loosen the Key, which has won major awards at film festivals in New York, Houston and Los Angeles.
Keola continues to expand on the slack key tradition as well as author books, including a best-selling collection of original Hawaiian stories entitled “The Shimmering - ka olili”. Keola Beamer lives on the Island of Maui with his wife, Moanalani.
R. Carlos Nakai and Keola Beamer have open availability.
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