“Just Great Blues” from Native American Guitarist Mato Nanji of Indigenous

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Indigenous is one of a select group of Native American bands to break into mainstream music—and not thanks to the esoteric sounds of the flute or the tribal beats of hide-covered drums, as its members’ heritage might suggest, but thanks to the blues. Led by guitarist Mato Nanji, the group’s sound boasts hard-driving rock riffs, slide guitars, pedal steel and electric percussion.

Reflecting back on my own reservation upbringing, I remember that there seemed to be only two types of Indians—those who left reservation, and those who did not. And when I first began to learn the story of Indigenous, I wondered how it was that an Indian band could leave reservation and do the things Indigenous does.

“Well, I didn’t really leave,” says Nanji, from his South Dakota home. “I’m still here. A lot of people feel this is the reservation right here.”

“For me, this is all Indian land. Indian country. I feel like when you condemn yourself into one little area, that’s not really who we are. That’s just something other people have made up and I don’t feel that way. I feel that this is my country and that’s just the way it is and that’s how it will always be. This is all our land and you can go wherever you want. It’s always gonna be our home and you have to respect that and believe it.”

The band got its start on the Yankton Indian reservation in South Dakota, a little town of about 2000 people. A younger, more naive Nanji didn’t realize then how difficult his musical journey would be. “I guess I never really thought about [the reservation] being any different than anywhere else, because when you’re young, you’re just doing what you’re doing.”

What he was doing was playing music—the drums, specifically.

“My mom would set up cans for me to beat and stuff,” he says. But then, hidden deep in the bowels of their basement, he stumbled up his father’s guitars and record collection.

“My father had all the great music, all the great record collections, all the great guitar players. Hendrix, Santana, Clapton. All the great singers, and all the blues players: Robert Johnson, BB King, Muddy Waters. I’ve loved slide ever since I found Elmore James in my father’s collection of old blues albums. And then my dad brought home Stevie Ray Vaughn.”

Everything changed. From that point, the guitar held Nanji, not the other way around.

A great blues-rock band

If you’re expecting some sad Indian plight story, or Native American History for Dummies threaded intp Nanji’s music, you will be sorely disappointed. Although proud of his heritage, Nanji hopes that Indigenous will be labeled not an “Indian Blues Band,” but just a great blues-rock band. And, according to the publication Modern Guitars, the group is just that; the magazine dubbed Nanji “A blues Master in the making” while drawing comparisons to his guitar heroes, Vaughn, Santana and Clapton.

The Things We Do was Indigenous’ debut album in 1998. The record—complete with soaring guitar solos and Delta Blues slide—spawned “Now That You’re Gone“—a Top 40 Hit on Billboard’s rock chart—and the video for the title track was directed by Chris Eyre (of the award winning film Smoke Signals, which is based on Sherman Alexies’ book The Lone Ranger & Tonto Fistfight in Heaven).

The video won the American Indian Film Festival Award, and the group was featured on shows like NPR’s All Things Considered, Late Night with Conan O’Brien and Austin City Limits. They shared the stage with Dave Matthews, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt and Bob Dylan. Nanji was even asked on-stage by guitar legend Carlos Santana, “To jam with him on some Marley tunes”—and BB King personally invited Indigenous to join the Blues Festival Tour.

Indigenous continued its upward spiral, and released Live at Pachyderm Studios that same year. In 2000, that record won two Native American Music Awards, including Best Blues Album and Group of the Year.

The band’s original lineup recorded a total of five full-length albums and a pair of EPs before taking separate musical paths. Nanji retained the name and went on to record Chasing The Sun (2006) and Broken Lands (2008).

Family ties

It is Nanji’s father, Greg Zephier, who the guitarist unequivocally cites as his primary influence.

“A big part of my music has to do with where I grew up and who I am,” Nanji says. “What I do, what I write, my dad, my family… it’s all in there.”

Zephier was a musician in the 60s. He was the founder and lead guitar player for the band the Vanishing Americans, which was one of the first native bands to travel nationally. In the 70s, Zephier put his guitar down to pursue political leanings. He joined the American Indian Movement and became a noted American Indian diplomat and advocate. He participated in The Longest Walk in 1977, which was a 3200 mile-long trek intended to educate the public about the United State’s continuing threat to Indian sovereignty—specifically focusing on 11 pieces of legislation ranging from land and water rights to religious restrictions. Zephier also co-founded Yellow Thunder Camp in South Dakota, which helped American Indians reestablish their rights to practice their religion in the sacred Black Hills.

In later years, Zephier’s attention became focused on guiding and developing his children in their musical pursuits.

In 1999, Zephier passed away. The following year, Indigenous released the full length LP Circle, which is introspective and intelligent, capturing a transitional point in Mato Nanji’s career and life. It was made for, and dedicated to, both of his parents.

Despite criticism for being “too mellow” and “lacking the powerhouse, in your face guitar” Nanji is known for, Circle found its home on Billboard’s Top 10 Blues Albums, and Nanji was dubbed “Blues Artist of the Year” by Amazon.com.

The Acoustic Sessions

Indigenous’ current release, The Acoustic Sessions, takes Nanji back to some of the most noteworthy tracks from the Indigenous catalog. “A celebration of our nationally released records,” he calls it. “Which started ten years ago with The Things We Do, and up to current times with Broken Lands.”

“When I sit down to write, it starts with acoustic. So, this is the original version of the songs. It gives people a chance to see when I’m at home writing a song—this is how it starts. All the songs we picked were ones that became singles. These are the best.”

And the best, according to Nanji, are the blues.

“A lot of Indians who live on reservations seem to be drawn to country music. But I’ve always felt more of an emotional connection to blues. It’s definitely got that feel, the kind that makes you feel better about the situation you’re in and the negative things that are going on around you. That’s what I got out of blues and all the musicians I grew up listening to.”

Nanji’s voice possesses a definite certainty, and I realize that when it comes to the reservation and it’s boundaries, there is a third type of Indian—for them, reservation lines do not exist and boundaries hold no power.

“I think, really, we’re all the same people and we all have a connection no matter what—across the nation and across the world,” he says.

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