He’s not a politician, he’s not a lobbyist and he doesn’t hold a degree in environmental sciences.
Mato Nanji is the vocalist, guitarist, songwriter and front man for the band Indigenous.
In addition to the skills that have helped to make Indigenous a force on the blues scene ever since their first album – Things We Do (Pachyderm Records) – came out in 1998, Mato (Ma-TOE) is also blessed with a boatload of good old-fashioned common sense.
“If we don’t have water, we don’t have people. We don’t have anything without water,” he recently said.
Mato’s response to the firestorm that is currently burning at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation – the sixth-largest Native American Reservation (in land area) in the United States – boils the essence of the matter right down to its very core.
The Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) is meant to transport oil through four states – and over 1,100 miles- from the Dakotas down into Illinois. When the DAPL was rerouted from its planned path near Bismarck (the capital city of North Dakota), to near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, is when the protests began. The tribe that calls Standing Rock its home opposed the new route of the pipeline, because they felt it’s construction under Lake Oahe – along with the Missouri River – would pollute those waters and have a harmful impact on countless lives in the area. In addition to the potential for pollution, the tribe also believes the DAPL violates established treaty rights and puts sacred burial grounds in peril.
So far, those tasked with constructing the pipeline (referred to as the ‘Black Snake’ by many Native Americans in the area) have chosen to ignore many of the concerns with the project and thus, a standoff was born between the two sides.
While it’s failed to become the lead story on any of the nightly newscasts that mainstream media has to offer up, the situation at Standing Rock (which covers land in both South and North Dakota) has nevertheless become a huge presence on just about every social media site and that has helped lead to protests and demonstrations in places thousands of miles from the Dakotas. From Denver to San Francisco to Miami and even New York City, those concerned are making their feelings well known.
Mato – who was born and raised on the Yankton Sioux Reservation in South Dakota – has been doing his part to bring awareness of Standing Rock to a heightened level, even helping to bring the blues crowd up to date with the struggle.
Mato has played several benefit shows for Standing Rock this past year and he says he’s been encouraged by the response to the shows.
“It’s been really good. A lot of people have shown up and have shown support. We’ve done quite a few benefits for it, actually,” he said. “A lot of people have turned out and it’s good to see so many folks coming out and supporting the cause. It’s really been good to see everybody – not just Natives, but everybody – come together. They know it’s important. It’s inspiring to see so many people coming together and supporting the cause to stop the waters from getting polluted. I know that other waters in this land are already polluted, but we need to do as much as we can to stop any further pollution.”
Although the epi-center of the battle is several hours from where he currently calls home, Mato says the possibility of negative impact is imminent where he lives, as well.
“I’m about seven hours away from there (Standing Rock). I’m actually right along the Missouri River, where they’re trying to put the pipe,” he said. “I live south of there, right along the river where it meets up with Nebraska. So what’s going on there really affects us here, too.”
Standing Rock didn’t come up many times on last year’s campaign trail, from either the Democratic or Republican candidates, and the currently-standing administration has not had a whole bunch to say on the matter, either.
So, are those involved with the protests encouraged at all that the new administration will listen to the voices of the people and become involved?
“It’ll probably just be more of the same, you know? I think there’s probably people that may have some ideas of getting in there and setting things right, but I don’t know what happens, but it always seems to be more of the same,” Mato said. “I think if they could just move it (DAPL) to another spot, then you wouldn’t have to worry about polluting everybody’s water that they get from there. The people responsible for the pipeline are probably not thinking about that, because they don’t live there. But it’s not just Natives. Everybody on down along the river could be affected. It’s everybody. But hopefully, they’ll think about it and do the right thing. That’s all everybody wants; for them to do the right thing.”
While the Dakotas have been much talked about in recent months because of Standing Rock, the two states were never much a part of the national conversation when the talk turned to blues music.
Mato and Indigenous helped to change that.
The original lineup of the band included Mato (guitar, vocals), his brother Pte (bass), his sister Wanbdi (drums) and cousin Horse (percussion). In addition to being a spiritual advisor and spokesperson for the International Indian Treaty Council, Mato’s father – Greg Zephier, Sr. – was also a musician, who was in a group with his brothers. He helped turn on Mato and his siblings to the wonderful world of the blues.
“When I grew up, my dad had all the old blues and all the old records and that’s where I heard all of that music. I grew up in the ’80s and heard a lot of ’80s stuff, too. Popular stuff like Wham! and Boy George,” he laughed. “But it was the sound of the old stuff that kind of caught my ear, more than anything else. We just got together and started practicing and rehearsing and started trying to play anywhere we could.”
There was no master plan for Mato and his siblings to make an immediate splash on the blues scene and begin world dominance back in those days. Rather, they were just interested in getting out and playing in front of as many people as possible, starting with their local circuit.
“There was a regional booking agent in Nebraska and he started helping us in the early days. He started booking us in the area. We weren’t really thinking about breaking our name or anything like that. We just wanted to play music,” he said. “So we went out and toured as much as we could. Slowly, we started building a following like that. Each time we’d go out and play, there would be more people there than there were the last time. It was like building a foundation and working off of that.”
It can sometimes be hard for a group of young blues players in their teens and early 20s to break through and find welcoming ears among the older, more mature fans of the genre. It’s almost like if a younger band has not earned their stripes, then they can be shunned. Compound youth with being Native Americans playing the blues and it would seem like Indigenous had a lot of barriers to break through and a big mountain to climb in order to find love amongst the blues crowd. By Mato says that really was not the case.
“No, I’d have to say we never experienced anything like that. Everywhere we played from early on, there seemed to be a lot of support from the fans and musicians, too,” he said. “I mean, we toured with B.B. King and Robert Cray and Buddy Guy and it’s always been really supportive from the audiences on to the musicians we’ve played with.”
However, being Native American and playing in a band called Indigenous did leave some fans scratching their heads early in the game, Mato says.
“Sometimes early on the road, we did have a few fans come out and say because of the name of the band they were expecting something like the stereotypical flute music or something like that,” he laughed. “But at the end of the night, they’d be happy and like the music, so we kind of converted a few of those fans over, maybe.”
The original lineup of Indigenous lasted for four more albums after their debut (Circle, Fistful Of Dirt, Indigenous and Long Way Home) before Mato and his siblings decided the time was right to go their own ways in 2006.
“We had worked together and lived together ever since we were kids and then toured together in a band for about 10 years. It got tougher and tougher (to do that) the older that everybody got, so I think it was a good move for everybody to do their own separate thing. Everybody starts going their own direction, but I think that’s the case for a lot of bands, even if the members are not related to each other,” he said. “I’ve always felt like I was the main songwriter and wrote most of the music, so that’s why I decided to keep going with the name and keep going with the music. It just felt natural for me to keep the name going and to this day, I’m still putting it out there.”
Although they may not be related to Mato, that family vibe still runs deeply through Indigenous in 2017.
“Right now, I’ve got some young guys, Navajo guys (from the Navajo Nation in Tohajilee, New Mexico), that have been playing with me for the past two of three years. The Plateros is their name. Actually, Levi (Platero; guitar) has just started going out and doing his solo thing. I’ve still got Doug Platero on drums and Bronson Begay on bass (both are cousins of Levi Platero). And Horse, from the original band, has been coming out and playing percussion with us a lot. So yeah, it’s close to what the original band was right now.”
Indigenous recently completed work on a follow-up to 2014’s Time Is Coming (Blues Bureau Int’l).
“We just finished it and are getting ready to mix it and hopefully get it released this spring,” he said. “Mike Varney is producing this one, too.”
Varney has been behind the board on the last three Indigenous albums. After working with and helping to launch the careers of some of the most hair-raising guitarists on earth (including Chris Duarte, Yngwie Malmsteen, Paul Gilbert and Marty Friedman, to name a very few), it’s safe to say that Varney knows guitar like Willard Scott knows weather.
“He’s (Varney) awesome to work with. I always have a lot fun going out and doing a record with him. He does it all, produces, helps you to arrange … he just fine tunes everything,” said Mato. “I bring in all the songs and the music and then we sit down together and go over it. He works with you and doesn’t come in saying, ‘It has to be this way or it has to be that way.’ He lets you be you. That’s pretty cool. And me and him co-wrote a few songs on this new record, which was really fun.”
Mato is not one of those songwriters who feels the need to sit down with a pen and paper in hand and forcefully try to write a song. For him, the process is more organic.
“I just kind of let it happen on its own. I’ll be playing the acoustic a little bit and all of a sudden, I’ll get an idea for a riff. I used to have a tape recorder, but now when I get an idea, I’ll record it on my phone,” he explained. “I try to record riffs and if there’s a melody, I’ll try and record that so I don’t forget it. You never know when you get something and if you don’t get it down right away, chances are good you’ll soon forget it.”
Since first hooking up with them in 2002, Mato has been a featured and integral part of Experience Hendrix, the annual tour that celebrates the music and legacy of Jimi Hendrix.
“Those tours are awesome. Everybody’s great … all the people working on the tour, the people that puts it together, the musicians … they’re all great. It’s really cool to see all the different musicians bring their different takes on Hendrix songs every night,” he said. “I mean, I get a chance to jam with Billy Cox (bass), who played with Hendrix and I get to play with Chris Layton (drums), who played with Stevie Ray Vaughan. I get to jam with Buddy Guy and all the different musicians. It’s just awesome. I look forward to it every year.”
Hendrix is one of those iconic musicians whose popularity never seems to dip or wane, even nearly 50 years after his passing.
“It’s almost like he’s still around, making that music. It’s really awesome. He was one of my big influences from the start,” Mato said. “It’s really cool that the Hendrix family, along with John McDermott, who puts the whole tour on, are still bringing his music to a lot of newer and younger fans. Fans that didn’t get a chance to hear or see him when he was alive. It’s great they’re keeping that music going and alive, and it’s cool to see the younger fans at the shows jamming to his music. That’s inspiring.”
After the 2012 edition of the Experience Hendrix Tour wrapped up, Mato went into the studio with a pair of fellow guitar slingers from the tour – Luther Dickinson (North Mississippi Allstars) and David Hidalgo (Los Lobos). When they re-emerged, the trio came out with 3 Skulls And The Truth (Blues Bureau Int’l), an album that more than showcased their abilities on the guitar. It was bluesy, psychedelic, loud … and above all … down and dirty.
In 2013, Indigenous released Vanishing Americans (Blues Bureau Int’l), an album titled after the name of his late father’s 1960’s band – The Vanishing Americans. “My dad was my favorite musician, so he really influenced me with a lot of everything,” Mato said. “I just felt it was time to pay tribute to him and his band.”
Mato has never been strictly a blues player, nor has Indigenous ever been strictly a blues band. But blues music is most definitely what provides the fuel that feeds the engine that keeps Mato and Indigenous rolling along. And the way he sees it, people that are listening to his band as more of a vehicle to rock out to, may not even realize that they’re getting a hearty dose of the blues along the way.
“I think a lot of people that may hear music may not know that it’s the blues or has blues-influences or feeling in it. They may hear something they like, but not recognize it as the blues and that’s OK,” he said. “People like that would probably be surprised at how many musicians – who don’t play straight-up blues – are influenced from all the great blues players from back in the day. That probably goes for me, too. I don’t feel like I can do it as great as B.B. or Buddy, so I try to use other avenues to try and pull together all my musical influences and make the music that I make. But the blues is always the base of everything I do. It just is … I never planned it that way, but that’s just how it is.”
When he young, Mato might not have known that his father was a musician and played in a band, but seeing his instruments around the house still had a magnetic effect on him during his youth.
“I found his guitars and amps at our house when I was real young, but I didn’t really start trying to play until I was a teenager,” he said. “I was like 16 or 17 when I started playing guitar and I didn’t start singing until I was 18 or 19, so I was a late starter. I don’t know what it was, but just being able to make sounds was interesting to me. Then hearing all the different guitar players that he (his dad) told me to listen to really inspired me. Actually, the first guitar player for Chicago – Terry Kath – was a huge influence on me early on. He was one was of my favorites growing up, along with Hendrix and Santana and Clapton and all the guys. But Terry was awesome.”
After first picking up one of his father’s guitars and then learning to play as a teenager, Mato probably didn’t stop and think for one second that a couple of decades down the road, that he would become an inspiration for today’s generation of young blues guitarists to sink their teeth into.
“No, I never would have thought about that back then. It was just about making music and hitting the road in those days. Even now, its’ all about making good music and giving it to the fans who want to hear it,” he said. “That, and going out and playing live for them, which is what we’ve always done from the start. Those things are what matter the most. Seeing Buddy Guy and Billy Cox, who are in their 70s, get up there on the Experience Hendrix Tour and do it every night is so inspiring. It really makes you want to do this for as long as you can.”
Visit Mato’s Indigenous website at: www.indigenousrocks.com
Blues Blast Magazine Senior Writer Terry Mullins is a journalist, author and former record store owner whose personal taste in music is the sonic equivalent of Attention Deficit Disorder. Works by the Bee Gees, Captain Beefheart, Black Sabbath, Earth, Wind & Fire and Willie Nelson share equal space with Muddy Waters, The Staples Singers and R.L. Burnside in his compact disc collection. He’s also been known to spend time hanging out on the street corners of Clarksdale, Miss., eating copious amounts of barbecued delicacies while listening to the wonderful sounds of the blues.