His name is Mato Nanji (“Standing Bear” in Nakota). His band is Indigenous.
Forget the image of flutes, drumming and screaming eagles soaring over a canyon. The songs of this singer-songwriter-guitarist will never be played inside a New Age bookshop. That’s because Nanji, a proud Nakota from the Yankton Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, isn’t restrained by the label of “Native American” music.
Instead, think fierce guitar and bluesy soul along the lines of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Hendrix and Carlos Santana. Think sophisticated songs that pierce through the guise of Native stereotypes.
Released in August, his second album, Broken Lands, dispels hackneyed portrayals while honoring Nanji’s Native heritage. It also signals a fresh direction for the band, which started about 10 years ago including his two brothers and sister. The siblings have since moved on, and Indigenous today has new backup musicians with Nanji and his wife Leah co-writing all the tracks.
The changes have produced an artistic clarity; demonstrated by the band’s musical depth as well as Nanji’s growth as lead vocalist and songwriter. It is, he says, a “brand new band,” in every sense with Kris Lager, Chico Perez, Jeremiah Weir and Aaron Wright and Kirk Stallings rounding out the group.
“The changes we’ve made? It’s been a combination of everything,” he says. “Myself, being able to stretch out and begin doing more what I want to do as a musician. And the fact that this record is all original music.”
Original and compelling. Nanji has always been lauded as a kickass blues guitarist, but there’s a whole lot more on Broken Lands to dive into. The lyrics and vocals are a cut above any of his previous recordings—evident on the ballad “Eyes of a Child,” with Leah singing background harmonies. Likewise, the riff-rocker “Place I Know,” depicting the physical and economic poverty of reservation life, is refreshingly shorn of pretense.
“This song is probably the most personal to me. It matters that I’m true in all that I’m doing. That,” he says, “is what making music is all about.”
The guy has a passion for what he does; that’s pretty clear. He also is utterly comfortable in his own skin, continuing to make his home in Sioux Falls not far from the Nakota reservation of his youth. He is Indigenous in every sense of the word, although his music, he insists, shouldn’t be defined solely by his race and culture.
“I would like to think of what we do as good music. I wouldn’t put a label on it. Doing that restricts a lot of artists because it categorizes you. Good music is good music, which is something I learned from my father.”
Maybe because he defies the status quo of what it is to be a Native artist, or maybe because he’s a rocker who happens to be Native, Mato Nanji is quietly carving a reputation as a major player in the blues-rock genre. Indigenous plays venues with a predominately Indian audience; they play venues in large metropolitan areas with few or no Natives.
“We’ve attracted a wide range of fans of all backgrounds from young people to old people who’ve come up to me saying they’ve seen Cream or Jimi Hendrix,” he says. “…I’d like to definitely go out there and reach more fans, and continue to grow as an artist. That’s what it has always been about for me and always will be. If you’re true in what you’re doing, than that’s what it’s all about.”
Through it all, he remains consistent. Mato Nanji aka Standing Bear is Indigenous. And heeding the words of his father, he continues to make good music. Music that will never, ever be played inside a New Age bookshop.