Reservation Blues

In Native American folklore and art, the circle often illustrates the continuum of life (What? You were thinking of The Lion King?). So it's only appropriate that the Native American blues-rock band Indigenous would title its sophomore effort Circle. Released last year on Pachyderm Records, the album has garnered a solid buzz for the group made up of three siblings and a cousin. But a circle of another sort is on the mind of guitarist and lead singer Mato Nanji. He recalls the first time Indigenous played Houston, as part of the 1999 B.B. King Blues Festival held on the Arena Theatre's infamous revolving stage.

"Yeah, I remember that one! It was pretty weird," Nanji laughs, speaking from his home in Rapid City, South Dakota. "It just kept going around and around, and I got pretty dizzy after awhile. That was the first time we'd ever played on something like that."

This time around, the group will be on a more stationary stage as Nanji, brother Pte (bass), sister Wanbdi (drums) and cousin Horse (percussion) continue to tour behind Circle. Produced by the equally talented and ubiquitous Austin singer/songwriter/ drummer Doyle Bramhall, it's a scorcher in the grand tradition of that city's famous blues-rock exports. It's also a vast improvement over Indigenous's first effort, Things We Do, an inauspicious debut that offered tepid rhythms and brief, generic lyrics.

The upgrade, Nanji says, was just part of the band's maturation. "We were just 21 or 22 when we did [Things We Do], so we were still digging around from influences. It was a starting point." Bramhall's contributions to Circle, he adds, gave the group the guidance it needed.

"We felt that he had a lot to offer [to] help us bring our own sound together. And he added a lot musically," says Nanji. The collaboration between Indigenous and Bramhall grew out of a show in which they shared the bill, but the fact that Bramhall frequently worked with Stevie Ray Vaughan, whom Nanji somewhat resembles in singing and playing style, probably figured into the decision as well.

Circle opens with the blistering "Little Time," hinting at some of the fire and fury to come in "You Left Me This Mornin'," "Stay with Me," "Seven Steps Away" and "Waiting for You." What's more, Nanji's guitar lines are much more fluid and interesting this time out, and the lyrics (while still mired in traditional bluesy imagery) show similar growth.

Those expecting lyrical laments about the plight of the Native American might be surprised to find those sentiments wholly absent. For while the band is distinctly proud of its ethnicity -- and Nanji admits it's a good publicity hook -- Indigenous no more wants to be known as the "Indian blues band" than Living Colour wanted to be the "black rock band" or the Beastie Boys the "white rap band."

"I think … we just take it as it comes in terms of that. It's who we are, and we're happy with that. But our first [priority] is to be a great blues-rock band," Nanji says. "How we grew up really doesn't affect that." So don't expect any tunes about the Trail of Tears or any other Native American History for Dummies topics on the next record.

The heritage that did influence Indigenous was much more immediate: It came in the form of Greg and Beverly Zephier, parents of three quarters of the group. Growing up on the Yankton Indian Reservation (population around 2,000) near tiny Marty, South Dakota, in the '80s, Nanji (the oldest) was immersed in the popular music of the day -- even Duran Duran. Though he originally wanted to be a drummer ("My mom used to set up cans for me to beat and stuff"), he soon discovered his musician father's guitar, bass and amplifiers in the basement. Like any curious child, Nanji tried on the big guitars for size.

Greg Zephier was far from unhappy to discover his son's interest in music. He began teaching Nanji the rudiments of guitar and turned him on to his vast lode of LPs, richly streaked with glittering veins of Hendrix, Clapton, Jimmy Reed, the Kings (B.B., Albert and Freddie) and Carlos Santana, who re-enters the story years later.

Under the Zephiers' direction, Pte, Wanbdi and Horse began similar apprenticeships (an older sister, who played keyboards, later left to start a family). After endless rehearsals, the band's first performance was at a reservation bingo hall for family and friends. More woodshedding and gigs later (often with Mom and Dad joining them on stage), they decided to go pro. "That was our parents' decision, too," Nanji notes, unfazed at any hints of parental stage-managing. "They told us when we were ready." (Sadly, Greg Zephier died two years ago, and Circle is dedicated to both parents.)

The first big break for Indigenous came in 1997, when Indigo Girl Amy Ray invited the band to Minnesota's Pachyderm Recording Studios to contribute a track to her Honor the Earth benefit CD. Catching the ears of a Pachyderm producer and an A&R man, the group quickly recorded what would become the title track to Things We Do, even making a video with director Chris Eyre, who also helmed the acclaimed Native American-themed film Smoke Signals.

The growing word of mouth on Indigenous already has landed it opening slots for Bob Dylan and the Dave Matthews Band. Nanji even fulfilled a dream recently when he was invited on stage by old inspiration Carlos Santana for an impromptu jam on some Bob Marley tunes. Santana apparently was as eager to throw down with Nanji as vice versa; the elder guitarist already had been captivated by the band's Austin City Limits appearance.

"We were just trying to get some tickets to the show, and our managers connected," Nanji remembers. "I was awful nervous, and I didn't even know what we'd be playing. But it was wonderful, and the energy that [Carlos] and the band were putting out was pretty awesome."

Soon Nanji and Bramhall -- or "Big Doyle," as the group calls him -- will hunker down to work on the third record. ("Little Doyle," former Arc Angel and current Eric Clapton collaborator Doyle Bramhall Jr., also contributed some guitar work to Circle.) "I think we want to go heavier on the next one," Nanji says. "You know, rock out a little bit more." That's a goal that not every close-knit musical family shoots for. Just ask the Osmonds.

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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero