“Music is what it’s all about. It means everything to me,” Indigenous front man Mato Nanji tells SFR.
A South Dakota native and member of the Nakota Nation, Nanji was not influenced soley by his cultural background. It was his father, blues-rock musician and American Indian Movement activist Greg Zephier, who made a musical impression on Nanji and his two siblings.
“My dad had all kinds of records from the ’60s and ’70s, which is how I learned about music,” Nanji says. “I grew up listening to Cream, Eric Clapton, BB King and Otis Redding. That really got me into the blues.”
Those strong influences steered him away from the more commercial sounds of the ’80s and toward blues, soul and classic R&B. Nanji picked up his first guitar around the age of 12 and began to take it seriously a few years later. With his sister Wanbdi, brother Pte and cousin Horse, Nanji formed Indigenous in the early ’90s. The band would eventually garner significant nationwide recognition as a group of tremendously gifted performers. Nanji’s unyielding guitar solos quickly accrued comparisons to guitar gods such as Jimi Hendrix, Albert King and Carlos Santana. After 10 solid years of recording and touring together, the original lineup disintegrated and each member went on to pursue other ventures. The quartet’s last album, 2006’s Chasing The Sun, showcased a brilliant fusion of blues, rock and R&B, but ultimately commemorated the group’s demise.
“It was actually easy to move on because it was the right thing to do at the time,” Nanji says. “I’m happy we were able to do it for so long, but everybody has to do their own thing. As the main songwriter of the group, I had to keep the Indigenous name out there and keep making music.”
That is exactly what Nanji did. His sixth studio release under the Indigenous moniker, Broken Lands, was crafted with a fresh lineup that includes guitarist Kris Lager, keyboardist Jeremiah Weir, bassist Aaron Wright and drummers John Fairchild and Kirk Stallings. Percussionist Chico Perez and Nanji’s wife, Leah, also contribute backing vocals.
“If anything, I’ve concentrated more on singing with this album,” Nanji says. “At first I was all about the guitar, I just loved it. But I try to do different things on each record. This time I tried to work on developing my vocals.”
From the very first note on Broken Lands, Nanji flexes his warm, textured voice. “Should I Stay” appropriately addresses the beginning of a new journey highlighted by a lazy-day tempo and ample guitar riffs. It leads into the slower, ballad-esque “Eyes Of A Child.” But it’s the powerful “Place I Know” that really shows off Nanji’s guitar prowess. With its gritty, hard-blues rock edge, the nasty sounding guitar adds an element of raw, uncontainable energy that carries on through the remainder of the record.
“This record is a mixture of all of my earlier influences, from Stevie Ray Vaughn to Santana,” Nanji says. “There’s lots of diversity. With each record, I try to incorporate a little piece of them into my music.”
“Make A Change” carries more of a country feel with brutally honest lyrics eluding to lost loves and second chances, while “All Night Long” executes a slick slide guitar introduction then kicks into high gear with a very blues-oriented, honky-tonk rhythm.
Lyrically, this is Nanji’s most revealing record to date. He touches on universal themes of relationships, loneliness and heartbreak, but makes them his own by recalling personal experiences that molded him. The lyrics of “Place I Know” stem back to his childhood on the impoverished reservation where he endured hardships and constant challenges. “All I Want To See” is mostly an inquisitive love song clearly dedicated to his wife as it beautifully describes his feelings for her.
As Broken Lands comes to an end, the last two tracks, “Still Remember” and “Waiting,” take the tempo to a snail’s pace, revealing the softest side of Nanji. The drowsy acoustic guitar and mellow vocals allow Nanji’s raspy voice to shine and the music to speak for itself.