Beginnings: R. Carlos Nakai

Blue ridge mountainsThe first substantive interview I ever did was with R. Carlos Nakai in 1998. I’d worked at a newspaper as a copy editor and reporter and done countless, deadline-driven get-the-job-done interviews with sports team coaches and players. Earlier, I’d met many political leaders while studying government at Georgetown and even gotten to spend a bit of time with some of them.

But here I was in a hotel room with R. Carlos (that’s exactly what he wanted to be called), and I was nervous. As I remember it, anyway, my voice and hands were shaking. Nakai, a flutist and the best known Native American musician then and now, was one of my favorite musicians in the world. His album Canyon Trilogy was, to my mind, perfect. Nakai also was breaking ground in intercategory musical collaborations. These many years later, he continues to do so.

And I haven’t listened to Canyon Trilogy in far too long.

Anyway, I was 30 years old and had just started at New Age Retailer magazine. Nakai was coming to Bellingham, Washington, to perform, and that’s both where I lived and where the magazine was located. I was an assistant editor for NAR, and I asked my boss, Molly Trimble, for permission to set up an interview. Although it didn’t fit the model of what editors at that magazine mostly did at the time, she granted it. And that choice by Miss Molly has shaped much of my professional—and even some of my personal—life since then.

I set up my clunky recording devices—I got better equipment a little down the road—and R. Carlos and I went right to it. He was utterly professional, highly intelligent, and I might say highly intellectualized in the way he answered questions and shared information.

This isn’t a compliment to me, but I was surprised: Maybe I was expecting a native shaman of some sort, someone literally in concert with the wind. But Nakai was fascinating and precise. He had really specific and useful information to share musically and professionally. He had no interest in coming across as a shaman.

It wasn’t the last time my expectations going into an interview would be turned on their head. And that has had plenty of parallels in my interactions with human beings outside of interview contexts, too. I’m still learning so much about people, some lessons harder than others, and still being surprised in all sorts of ways by myself and by, well, just about everyone. I hope I bring kindness and mindfulness and gratitude to every relationship I have. I know not everyone thinks I even try to do so, and I’m still so surprised by that. And sometimes I clearly fall short. The most important gap in perception, I suppose, lies in the reading—and feeling—of my intentions.

I’m not saying I’m right about those intentions. I’m sure saying I think I am.

It’s 15 years later. I’m 45 now. I feel and offer love in its many forms much more openly and freely than I did at 30. That’s what I’m here for. It doesn’t always go well, and my expectations sometimes still turn on their head.

I’ve really got to lose those expectations.

I’ve moved across the country from Bellingham to Asheville, North Carolina. I don’t get nervous doing interviews anymore, no matter who I’m interviewing. Well, except for Marianne Williamson, who I’ve interviewed three times, because she’s simply too fast and smart for me. And I adore her. New Age Retailer is now Insight magazine, rounding up its third decade of serving independent retailers, and I’ve been on the board of trustees (and sometimes the board of directors) of its parent company for more than a decade now. In fact, we had a trustees meeting just last week. Things change, and things remain.

I’ve read numerous interviews with R. Carlos since that one I did in 1998, including an interview someone else did that ran some years later for the same magazine. But I still haven’t read one that’s better.

That’s not true at all for some of my interviews, believe me. But it does speak to something: that I seem to have started off with at least a little talent for this work, which at different times and in different ways seems to be part of the stuff of my life, work, and livelihood I come back to again and again as the years and decades pass.

You can read small excerpts of my interview with R. Carlos posted well earlier on this blog at these links [please note: the links I made three years ago with these posts might or might not still be functioning; please also note: sorry about that]:
R. Carlos on not speaking for all natives
R. Carlos on moving people with his music
R. Carlos on music in the moment

[I wrote earlier on my Facebook page today that I would try to parallel post this little writing on my own WordPress blog, and that’s now done. I’ve also converted the primary domain for this page to rayhemachandra.com. I’m also trying to convert my old domain name (and beloved but now dust-heaped website that housed so many interviews or interview excerpts) hemachandra.com to route to this same page. And trying to update old imagery and formatting I can’t seem to get at (Beth, help!) in the underlying WordPress architecture. And from there, together, we’ll see where it leads in whatever is to come. ~ Ray]

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