Just 24, Mato Nanji of the blues-rock band Indigenous has quickly gotten the attention of guitar fans, earning comparisons to the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix and Carlos Santana.
But that's not all the bad news.
"It's not comfortable for me, because I've never put myself in one of my heroes' shoes," says Nanji, who's also Indigenous's lead vocalist. "To me they're always going to be like one of those people that I'm always going to look up to for influence. It's the same way with my parents, like my dad and my mom. They totally influenced me, and I'll never say, 'Well, I think I'm just as good as them.' That doesn't fit right to me, and it never will. I'll always be the learner, I guess."
If Nanji's work on Things We Do, the first nationally released CD by Indigenous, is any indication, the guitarist has learned a thing or two about those six strings.
Nanji's playing is the highlight of the CD, which follows two self-released studio productions, Awake (1994) and Love in the Midst (1996), and a live CD, Live Blues from the Sky.
He plays fluid leads as on "Nothing I Can Do," unleashes the stinging riffs that punctuate the hard-edged "Got to Tell You" and crafts the chordal solo that gives "Now That You're Gone" (the CD's lead single) a considerable lift.
Despite his obvious ability, Nanji rarely goes overboard. The focus of Things We Do is firmly on the songs, and the solos and fills usually support and enhance the vocal melodies and rhythm guitar lines.
The dozen tracks all strike a neat balance between blues and rock. The sound evokes comparisons to the music of Big Head Todd and the Monsters on the tangy ballad "Bring Back That Day" and the smooth title song, Vaughan's shuffling "What's Goin' On") and Hendrix's stormy "Holdin' Out". Still, Indigenous plays with enough passion, honesty and melodic appeal to make the derivative moments in some songs easy to overlook.
In and of itself, the quality of Things We Do would be enough to get the band noticed. But what makes Indigenous unique is the heritage of its four band members.
Nanji, his sister, drummer Wanbdi Waste Win, his brother, bassist Pte Wicasa, and his cousin, percussionist Tasunka (who goes by the English translation of his name, Horse), are all Native Americans who grew up on the Yankton Reservation in the southeastern corner of South Dakota. The band's fast-rising success -- "Now That You're Gone" recently became the first single by a Native American group to crack rock radio's Top 10 -- has put it at the forefront of a movement, recognizing Native American talent in rock.
Even so, the four family members never pursued music to become standard-bearers for their people. For Nanji, the pure enjoyment of music was the only motivation.
"We just wanted to make music, make records and tour whenever we could tour, and just try to get music fans and keep making records and giving it to the music fans," he says. "It's always about that for us. It's never about, 'We're going to try and win a Grammy' or 'We're going to try and make a hit.' It was never like that."
Nanji first started to take an interest in music before he was in his teens. His father, Greg Zephier, had played guitar in a Native American blues-rock group called the Vanishing Americans. The band toured a bit in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but Zephier never pursued music beyond a four-year stint in the band.
But as a youngster Nanji discovered remnants from his father's days in the biz: his guitars. Young Nanji liked what he saw. His father showed him some tunings and chords, and also his record collection, which was heavy on albums by blues masters such as B.B. King, Freddie King and Buddy Guy, as well as rockers like Hendrix and Santana.
But rather than give Nanji lessons, Zephier instructed his son to listen to the albums, experiment on his own with the guitar and try to develop his own sound.
As Nanji began to figure out some basics, others in the family found their way into music. Wanbdi took to the drums, Pte to bass, and Horse learned an array of percussion instruments. By age 18, Nanji had started writing songs and the foursome had coalesced into Indigenous.
The musical development of Nanji as a songwriter and the band as musicians happened without much outside influence. Aside from their father, they didn't cross paths with other musicians and didn't see any concerts. In fact, Zephier insisted that they practice on their own for two years before playing live.
Nanji thinks the isolation may have helped the band members develop their sound and musical abilities. "I think it helped us concentrate a lot more on what we were doing," he says. "It probably was an advantage. Maybe it wasn't [sometimes], because you wanted to see other bands. But there weren't really any other bands around where we lived."
With no clubs to play near the Yankton Reservation, Indigenous began touring in the early 1990s, beginning an ambitious national schedule that today numbers some 150 live dates annually. In between tours, band members started recording their original material.
Audiences and other musicians started to notice the CDs and the band's incendiary live shows. Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne both became fans. The Indigo Girls had the band contribute to its 1996 Honor the Earth CD, which benefited Native American and environmental causes. Indigenous recorded an early version of "Things We Do" for that album at Pachyderm Studio near Minneapolis.
This was its lucky break. The owners of the studio, Mason Munoz and Jim Nickels, were looking to start a record label, and when they saw Indigenous, they knew they had found their flagship act.
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Soon a deal was struck and the group members were back at Pachyderm Studio, laying down tracks for Things We Do. For a band used to recording on pocket change, the chance to work in a first-class facility like Pachyderm, where bands such as Soul Asylum, Nirvana and Toad the Wet Sprocket have recorded, was a significant benefit, as was the more flexible recording schedule.
"It just gave us a little more time to, like if we heard something we didn't like, we'd go back and redo it," Nanji says. "In the other studios we didn't really have that much time. We'd go out on tour and then we'd do a song, come back and do a song, kind of like that. That's kind of how this record got put together, but then we still took a little more time to get it done."
The extra work has paid off.
Indigenous performs Thursday, September 30, at the Arena Theatre, 7326 Southwest Freeway. Call (713)988-1020 for more information.