Mato Nanji of Indigenous

Mato Nanji of Indigenous

By Rachel Lee
November 2009

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When thinking of South Dakota, most people don't think of the blues.

A few weeks ago I went to Harper's Ferry to interview Mato Nanji, the 35-year-old singer-guitarist for the blues-rock band Indigenous. The band has released several recordings including Chasing the Sun, which charted at #2 on Billboardís blues album chart, and is currently touring in support of their latest release Broken Lands.

Standing outside Harper's Ferry I was intercepted by the band's driver, Scott (who is also Matoís uncle). Mato (pronounced Ďmah-TOEĎ) is a member of the Nakota, which along with the Lakota and Dakota Sioux are among the indigenous peoples of South Dakota. Before showing me where Mato was having dinner, Scott gave me a quick overview of the linguistic difference between the Nakota and Lakota dialects.

While chomping down on what looked to be Korean food, the soft-spoken singer was sitting with his bass player Aaron Wright and his drummer Andrew Tyler, both from Nebraska. They cheerfully told me of the thirty-below winters they are accustomed to in the Midwest.

After dinner, I got to ask Mato some questions.

Rachel Lee: Where is home for you right now?

Mato Nanji: Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

RL: When did the band start out?

MN: The original band started out with my brother and sister and we started probably in 1990, just practiced real hard together and got started then and started touring after that, made a couple of records that we sold from the car.

RL: Did you originally start out as a blues band?

MN: Well I grew up listening to all kinds of music, but blues captured me the most out of all the types of music that I grew up listening to. But now I kind of mix everything together; some rock, some blues, r&b, soul music. Iíve always liked all that kind of music, so I try to blend it all together.

RL: When you were starting out, was it hard to find places to play in South Dakota?

MN: It was at first. We rehearsed for a year straight before we went out and played. So then my Dad would just start booking shows at high schools around the area and then we did a little benefit concert that he put together that went pretty well, had mostly just family and friends at that show. Then after that we hooked up with a booking agent out of Nebraska and did regional stuff and slowly started building a following around the area and ended up getting signed on a record deal with Pachyderm Records probably in 1996-1997 and put out Things We Do. That was the first national release for Indigenous and then we started touring the country after that.

RL: How would you describe the difference in the South Dakota music scene between when you started out and now?

MN: The music scene I think is pretty much the same as what it was back then, a lot of country music.

RL: Were you the only blues artists around?

MN: I never went out and tried to find anybody else but Indigenous was one of the first rock blues bands. There were a few there after we started touring but since then I think itís picked up a little bit. Thereís been a lot more blues and rock bands in the last 10 years.

RL: Youíve been compared a lot to Stevie Ray Vaughn. When did you first hear Stevie?

MN: I was listening to B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Freddie King, because my Dad had the old blues records and he was actually the one that found Stevie Ray Vaughn. He heard the record and brought it home and said, ďcheck this out!Ē I was probably about 14 or 15 at the time. I thought it was the greatest thing I ever heard. I never heard anyone play like that or sing like that. He had his own thing like Freddy King, B.B. King, and it all hit me in different ways.

RL: What other types of music were you exposed to as a child?

MN: Santana was a real big influence on me, Cream, Stevie Winwood, Hendrix.

RL: Did you listen to the radio at all?

MN: Never listened to the radio actually, 'cause at that time, growing up in the '80s, there wasnít really any blues on the radio and I donít even think they do it that much now except for satellite radio. So I never really got into the radio thing that much, 'cause I think back then it was all like Culture Club and Michael Jackson, which if thatís your kind of thing is cool, but Iíve always tried to find other types of music that they donít play on the radio 'cause Iíve always felt thereís something different about that, than what you hear on commercial radio.

RL: How did you learn to play guitar?

MN: My dad sat me down and told me to listen and thatís how I started learning. Sat down every day, played records, catching peopleís notes, licks, and chords.

RL: What type of guitar do you play?

MN: I play a '62 reissue Stratocaster and also an acoustic.

RL: What current guitar players are you interested in right now?

MN: I really like Los Lobos a lot, David and Caesar are the guitar players, and the Black Crows. Those bands came out when I was growing up, too. They do soulful blues type stuff, too.

RL: Youíre a member of the Nakota nation. How did that influence your songwriting?

MN: I think anybody who makes music and writes music, they draw from where they came from and where they grew up and so itís definitely a part of everything I write, everything I create. So itís always there, I mean you canít explain what it is but itís a piece of everything Iíve ever done musically.

RL: Your uncle told me about the different dialects that the Nakota, Dakota and Lakota speak.

MN: Yeah the Lakota would use an ďLĒ where the Dakota would use a ďDĒ in certain words.

RL: So do all the tribes still understand each other?

MN (Laughs) Well there are not very many indigenous people who really speak the language anymore.

RL: Do you speak the language?

MN: No, not really.

RL: But you speak a few words.

MN: I know a few words but Iíve never really had a chance to do it because our ancestors, like my grandpa from that generation, kind of got that beat out of them. So they never wanted to speak it or they never wanted to talk to their kids 'cause they were forced not to do it. So when that happens, it really makes it hard for anybody else to follow that and really understand what's going on.

RL: Do you worry about the language dying out at all?

MN: Well, I think it will always be there because there are still people that can really speak it and there are people teaching it so it will always be there. You've just got to stay strong and keep learning.

RL: Your latest release is Broken Lands.

MN: It came out a year ago and weíre still pushing it. Itís one of those recordings Iíve written with my wife Leah. We had a lot of songs written before we did the record so we put about twelve songs together. And prior to Broken Lands there were some records where we wrote the songs.

RL: How long have you two been a songwriting partnership?

MN: We have been for a while. When it was the old band with my brother and my sister we never really had the opportunity to put more stuff that we co-wrote together, so we just kind of set it aside. Being in a band like that, everyone kind of has an idea and a say of what they want to do, but now Iím the last one left (of the original band) so I pretty much write what I want and write with who I want. But itís been awesome to have someone like that so close to me to be able to write with and sing with.

RL: Would you say Broken Lands is a musical departure from your earlier recordings?

MN: I think it draws a little more from influences that Iíve always wanted to use.

RL: Itís not as strictly blues?

MN: Yeah, well itís definitely got the blues feel. Iíve always liked to incorporate that into anything I write but it was just what I felt at the time. I mean the next record is going to be completely different than what that was and Iíve always liked to do that with each record, experiment and do different things.

RL: Was this the first record with the new lineup change?

MN: Broken Lands was the latest one where I had another guitar player and another keyboard player and I brought my wife in and did a lot more backing vocals. Iíve always been a big fan of women doing backing vocals in bands, like in Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Allman Brothers and the Black Crows.

RL: Broken Lands is dedicated to the memory of your father?

MN: Yes, he actually passed on in 1999. He was one of my biggest influences as a human being and as a musician. Everything heís ever showed me musically comes out in whatever I do.

RL: You have kids of your own?

MN: Yes, five kids from 15 to 5.

RL: Broken Lands just won an award didnít it?

MN: Yes it just won a best blues album at an awards ceremony in Milwaukee, the 2009 Indian Summer Music awards. What it is all about for me is the music, but it does mean people are listening and catching on to the music and liking it. I appreciate the opportunity to play music for people that are interested in hearing it.

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