Indigenous rocks its way up the charts

Indigenous is the first American Indian band to have a Top 10 rock radio hit.

The members are Nakotas, born and raised on the Yankton Reservation in South Dakota. Guitarist Mato Nanji, his sister, Wanbdi, brother Pte, and first cousin, Horse, style their music after Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and other bluesmen who left their indelible marks on this American art form.

At the moment, the band is in the studio recording new material, having just completed an American tour with B.B. King and Kenny Wayne Shepherd.

Onstage, the members of Indigenous don't evoke stereotypical American Indian imagery. They avoid it, preferring to be regarded as musicians first, American Indians second.

"Being who we are, when we go out to play, a lot of people expect flute music," Nanji says. At least, they did before word spread of this young band's incendiary guitarist and his accomplished blues chops. During a recent conversation after a set in Pittsburgh during the tour, Nanji explained the philosophy behind his searing guitar solos and the band's solid, percussion-heavy backing.

"We're trying our best to get people to feel the way we felt when we first heard B.B. or when we first heard Freddie King," he says, referring to two of the genre's greatest exponents.

Those feelings hit early, when Nanji and his siblings discovered their father's music collection. Greg Zephier, an American Indian movement activist and diplomat, once performed in a band called the Vanishing Americans. His tastes veered toward Santana, Hendrix, Buddy Guy, and other famed bluesmen. Inspired, the kids headed for the instruments they found stored in his basement. Wanbdi plays drums, Pte plays bass, and Horse is the percussionist.

"This is pretty much all we wanted to do, ever since [we were] 9 or 10 years old," Nanji explains. All four were home-schooled, which gave them more opportunities to practice.

"Our dad ... is the one who got us here," Nanji says, citing his parents as the band's biggest influence. Pte recalls Zephier's prediction that if they kept up their music studies, one day they'd be sharing stages with B.B. King and selling records like crazy.

"And it came true," Pte says, still in awe.

Indigenous's debut album, "Things We Do," (Pachyderm Records) has produced two hit songs, "Now That You're Gone" (the tune that made it to the Top 10 list) and the title track. It's poised to deliver more, including the now-climbing "Holdin' Out."

But according to Pte, "It was never a stardom thing.... It was just playing music, and if people loved it, they'd go buy it.

"I think we expected maybe selling about 10,000 [or] 12,000 units," he says, laughing. The album has already sold more than 100,000 copies, a fact the band still hasn't completely absorbed.

The goal, they insist, is keeping the blues alive. "This whole tour's been feeling like a big dream," Pte says.

As for their rock-music influences, they name Seattle bands Pearl Jam and Soundgarden and Coloradans Big Head Todd & the Monsters.

It would be easy to attribute Nanji's low-key playing style to Seattle's grunge-rock shoe-gazing tradition. But the truth is that Indigenous had never seen those bands - or any other - perform live when they started their own musical education.

Zephier had insisted they hone their skills to near perfection before they stepped on a stage. They spent two years doing just that.

If the passionate responses they've received everywhere they play are any indication, their next album, due next spring, will probably sell like crazy, too.

Just as Zephier predicted.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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