Native American Jazz Fusion Meets Hawaiian Spoken Word at RCNQ Concert


Last Friday’s RCNQ (R. Carlos Nakai Quartet) concert explored several different musical genres, added a Hawaiian spoken word element, and allowed audience members to dance on stage along to the solid grooves.

Native American flutist R. Carlos Nakai is the world’s premier performer of the Native American flute, and no stranger to the Kahilu stage. In 2017, he performed with classical pianist/composer Peter Kater, but this time around Nakai brought with him three talented musicians who combined a jazz, funk, R&B vibe along with traditional sounds played from Native American instruments. Rounding out the great songs of the evening, Pua Case was featured on three numbers. She’s an indigenous organizer and activist who is fighting the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope atop Mauna Kea.

Pua Case

The last-minute and unannounced addition of Case to the bill was a special treat. Throughout the two-hour show, she performed three pieces with the quartet – an original titled “Kūkahi,” “Hohola ke kapa,” written by Hāwane Rios, and the third was a translation of the Athapascan Prayer. (The Athabascan Indians live in interior Alaska and have the largest land base of any other Alaska Native group.)

Nakai said that the new music being played was just part of an evolutionary step. “New Age music is dead, and nobody listens to long tones and blisses out anymore,” declared Nakai. “We have to move on as the culture changes with the future.” During RCNQ’s four-island tour, the multiracial band has made a point to include one Native Hawaiian to be part of each show. Nakai said the inclusion made sense and explained the genetic link between Native Americans and Pacific Islanders.

R. Carlos Nakai

Nakai is part of a long list of other artists to express a Native American perspective through popular music – such as Jimi Hendrix, Robbie Robertson, and saxophonist Jim Pepper, a pioneer of jazz fusion. Pepper’s 1969 single “Witchi Tai-To” was featured in RNCQ’s set.

AmoChip Dabney

If you drew a line down the center of the stage, the left half featured the jazz/funk section, and the right was the Native American music segment. AmoChip Dabney played multiple instruments like the keyboards, sax, and acoustic guitar while singing lead on several songs. “Chip” has performed with African, world-beat, reggae, and jazz bands and worked with Sun Ra and his Omiverse Arkestra, Zydeco’s Queen Ida and the avant-garde ensemble, and the Rova Saxophone Quartet. He has performed on over 50 albums, and in 2006 he was a Grammy finalist in the “Best New Age Album” category for Beyond Words, a project he collaborated with Gentle Thunder and Will Clipman on.

Johnny Walker

Johnny Walker played a beautiful five-string electric bass, custom made by Kenneth Lofquis. It was easy to spot his Marcus Miller and Earth, Wind and Fire funk influences.

Will Clipman played a variety of percussion instruments along with bells and thunder tubes.
Clipman is a seven-time Grammy Nominee, a three-time Native American Music Award Winner, a Canadian Aboriginal Music Award Winner, and has been inducted into the Tucson Musicians Museum for his contributions to the musical community in his hometown. The percussionist has recorded over 60 albums, including over 30 for Canyon Records, where he is regarded as the house percussionist. When he isn’t playing with RCNQ, Clipman performs as a soloist in his own Global Village Music Story Theater.

Nakai performed from the far right of the stage and had an arsenal of nine different flutes and whistles to select from. He invited the audience to come dance with the band on the apron of the stage. Esther Jacobs, the band’s lead dancer, demonstrated several ways to groove to the fusion music.

RCNQ played several selections from their latest album What Lies Beyond and returned to the stage for an encore called “The Party Ain’t Started Till…” sung by AmoChip Dabney. After the show, the quartet held a meet & greet in the Kahilu’s lobby, and signed copies of their new CD.

Set I
Layered Improv/ Kūkahi | What Lies Beyond/ Hohola ke kapa | On Sunlit Wing | Gnu Q | Unidentified Entity |

Set II
Apache Wind/ Athapascan Prayer | Imazighenation | Dorano Spring | Ranch Improviso | Mitakuye Oyasin/ Witchi Tai-To |

The Party Ain’t Started Till…

Running time with intermission: two hours.

For the latest music news from R. Carlos Nakai, be sure to stop by:

Steve Roby is a music journalist, an L.A. Times bestselling author, and Big Island filmmaker. He’s been featured in the NY Times, Rolling Stone, and Billboard Magazine. Roby is also the Managing Editor of Big Island Music Magazine.

Photos/video: Steve Roby


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