Blues From The Great Plains
By Mario Milan
Axe Magazine (Italy)
DECATUR – Growing up on the Yankton Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, Mato Nanji said classic American blues were not exactly the most popular form of music around. Most of the Native American residents listened to country if they listened to popular music at all, which made Nanji's deep appreciation for the blues all the more unusual.
It was thanks to his father, the pioneering leader of a 1960s blues band called The Vanishing Americans, that Nanji was exposed to music in the first place. With his father as his idol, the sound of the blues took hold of him and has never let go to this day.
“He and his brothers, my uncles, they were my heroes because they were in the band, even though it was before I was born,” said Nanji, who comes to Decatur Thursday night with his own band Indigenous as the first performer in the summer's Blues in Central Park series. “I never even got to see his band play together, but I listened to all of the records. He became a community leader, and he put the energy from the band into our family and teaching my siblings our instruments.”
Formed in 1998, Indigenous became the family band's next generation. Mato was the frontman, joined by his brother Pte, sister Wanbdi and their cousin Horse on drums. In the late 2000's, the other family members went their separate ways, but Mato Nanji played on and built himself a new band to continue his signature blues-rock sound.
“When we first started, Dad gave me some advice,” he said. “He and his band did a lot of covers, but the first thing he told me is 'You've got to write your own music, because that's what you want people to remember you for.' And so that's what I've always done.”
Likewise, leaving the “family band” format behind and striking out truly on his own helped Nanji step forward as a band leader. He still finds new inspiration in the blues, admiring the genre's focus on emotional intensity and a lack of reservations and self-awareness while performing.
“The great blues musicians don't hold back, they put it all on the line,” he said. “That's always been inspiring to me. I know that a lot of people say they think it's sad music, but in my experience it makes you feel better about life. It's music to bring you up when you're feeling low, it gets you up and dancing and putting your troubles behind you.”
Outside of Indigenous, the guitarist has also kept busy as a member of the annual Experience Hendrix Tour for more than a decade. It's just another opportunity to play the blues for Nanji, who said he believes the genre is still vital but has become more fractured, fully permeating other styles of popular music.
“It seems like there's a lot of bands out there that aren't really traditional blues, but they're keeping the spirit alive,” he said. “It's spread out across nearly every genre. Bands like The Black Keys have done really well with it.”
Ultimately, it's the live shows like Thursday night's Blues in Central Park appearance that Mato lives for. He's simply a born entertainer, someone who has known exactly what he wanted to do for a living ever since he was a young boy growing up in a South Dakota Native American reservation. It's easy to envy the self-assuredness with which he pursues his passion.
“I'm pretty happy being able to make records and keep touring, because no matter how much you tour, you're never going to hit every possible city,” he said. “There will always be new places to play. Being on the road can be tough, but the response from fans makes it worth it. That's what it's all about.”
Guitarist/singer Mato Nanji is the frontman for power blues trio Indigenous, which will perform May 1 at the Armory in Janesville.
By Bill Livick, Special to The Gazette
JANESVILLE—It's a long way from the Yankton Sioux Reservation in South Dakota to Washington, D.C., where guitarist/singer Mato Nanji performed at the American Indian Inaugural Ball in January 2013 to celebrate the re-election of President Barack Obama.
The contrast between a rural Indian reservation and the opulence of Capital Hill is symbolic of Nanji's musical journey since the blues-rock band Indigenous burst onto the national scene 15 years ago.
Now an award-winning band at the forefront of American blues music, Indigenous will appear at the Armory on Thursday, May 1. The band features Nanji on vocals and lead guitar, Derek Post on bass, guitar and vocals, and Charles Sanders on drums.
Guided by his musician father, Greg Zephier, Nanji formed Indigenous with his brother, sister and a cousin in the early to mid-1990s, while the four were still teenagers. Nanji said the group practiced for a solid year before playing for an audience.
“The band really got going once we were old enough to play in clubs,” Nanji said in a telephone interview. “We played for a year straight, and then my dad started booking us at high schools and any place he could find. We started touring when we were in our early 20s.”
Indigenous released its debut album, “Things We Do,” in 1998. The next year, it won three awards at the Native American Music Awards, including album of the year and group of the year.
The record also produced a single, “Now That You're Gone,” which peaked at No. 22 on Billboard's mainstream rock chart, making Indigenous one of the first American Indian bands to achieve that level of success. Amazon.com named the band blues artist of the year, and Indigenous was featured on a host of national television and radio programs.
Blues icon B.B. King became a self-proclaimed fan and invited Indigenous to join his Blues Festival Tour.
Indigenous has had two albums that reached No. 3 on Billboard's top blues albums chart. The band's 2006 release, “Chasing the Sun,” peaked at No. 2.
Nanji said a personal highlight came in 2002 when he was invited to join the Experience Hendrix Tour, a month-long series of concerts featuring some of the country's top blues guitarists performing the music of Jimi Hendrix.
Nanji developed friendships with several artists—relationships that carried over to various recording projects with such stars as Jonny Lang, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Eric Johnson and Robert Randolph. After their 2012 Experience Hendrix Tour, Nanji collaborated with two of his fellow EHT band mates, David Hidalgo of Los Lobos and Luther Dickinson of North Mississippi Allstars, on the hard-driving, blues-infused “3 Skulls and the Truth.”
Indigenous Interview: Mato Nanji
July 1st, 2013
Native American rocker Mato Nanji of the powerful blues group, Indigenous, began embracing the blues and utilizing his musical talent at a young age, as he was influenced heavily growing up by his blues musician father and his native culture. Now, with his 9th commercial record release, Vanishing Americans, Mato can be proven to practice what he preaches – hard work and sincerity certainly pay off in the music business, and yet, oftentimes, are the most difficult aspirations to hold on to. Jill Jacobs caught up with Mato as he was traveling in the mountains on the west coast for their current U.S. tour, during which Nanji discussed everything from the album process to inspiration to expert advice for an amateur music business dreamer and seeker.
Vanishing Americans is your 9th studio album. How is this album different from the others, and what did you do to prepare for this album?
It was one of the records I wanted to kind of pay tribute to my dad and my uncles and one of my cousins that all played in the Vanishing Americans, which was another group back in the late ’60s – early ’70s. They just influenced me a lot, even though I never got a chance to really see the band or go on to play or perform together or any of that, but people were out in the area that were in really, really good bands, so…[laughs.] And also that my dad was just, you know, my favorite musician, so he really influenced me a lot with everything. I just felt it was time to kind of pay tribute to him and the band. So that’s kind of how we got started, and I guess that was kind of the concept behind the whole record. At first I wasn’t really thinking about it; we just went in the studio and just started, you know? I just had a bunch of songs kind of ready to go and written and, after which, we recorded the record and stuff and that’s when we were kind of looking for album titles and, you know, just different things, and so that’s kind of how it came to be and I had to start thinking, “Well, yeah, that’d be cool,” [laughs.]
How would you say that your Native American culture impacts your music, as a songwriter and as a musician?
Greg Zephier, in the jean jacket, 1981, with his family. Zephier is Mato Nanji’s father, for whom Nanji has named his new album. COURTESY/Dick Brancroft 1981
“Indigenous” guitarist Mato Nanji talks about his father, Greg Zephier, and his influence on the new album,“Vanishing Americans.” Courtesy/Mato Nanji
Mato Nanji reflects on new album origins
By Christina Rose
Native Sun News Associate Editor YANKTON — Mato Nanji, Ihanktowan Nakota, the songwriter-guitarist-lyricist of the ever-evolving band, Indigenous, is home on the Yankton Reservation after an East Coast tour.
The band is promoting their new album, “Vanishing Americans,” which was just released last week. Nanji is resting up for week or so before heading out for a follow-up West Coast tour. He admitted it was good to be home.
“Vanishing Americans” is the group’s 10th commercial album, featuring 13 tracks with songs that run the gamut from love and hope lost-to hope-to love regained and found anew.
The album takes much of its lead from Nanji’s father Greg Zephier, who was a well-known spiritual advisor and spokesperson for the International Indian Treaty Council, a United Nations organization based in New York City. Zephier passed away in 1998, but he left his mark as an influential activist and was, according to Nanji, a musical genius.
“My dad was my biggest influence,” Nanji said in a Native Sun News interview. “He pointed me in the right direction, and I am honored to have had that kind of father.” Reflecting on his father’s activist and musical influence, Nanji said, “I grew up listening to Rhythm and Blues and now I try to mix it all into one.”