The white man or woman who plays the blues is often forced to confront a long-standing stereotype: the idea among blues-brained purists that only black artists can truly sing about pain, loss and heartbreak. Of course, music history begs to differ with this notion. Some of the most wrist-slitting blues have come from ivory-skinned artists, while some of the genre's lamest, "whitest" efforts have been produced by people of a much darker color. Yet even if those in the blues-from-black-musicians-only crowd truly believe that white folks have no business wailing on a blues riff, they would be hard-pressed to deny that there is second demographic that can legitimately claim a cultural right to testify: the American Indian. After all, the government's sanctioned whipping (not to mention genocide) of the American Indian predates slavery and the Civil War -- historical events that gave birth to African-American blues music -- by hundreds of years. In some ways, then, it seems that if any race has a right to moan across America's original chord progressions, it's the nation's original residents.
That said, the four Nakota Nation members who make up the band Indigenous (guitarist Mato Nanji, bassist Pte, drummer Wanbdi and percussionist Horse) come to the stage with a whopping dose of blues credibility. But if you come to one of their shows looking for diatribes on the American Indian struggle, you'll be disappointed. The band avoids addressing the historical plight of the American Indian in the same way that the federal government has.
"That's a whole different part of us from what we're doing," Wanbdi says, explaining her group's apolitical approach. "It's kind of private and not in us to exploit whatever people gain from using their Indian heritage. We're interested in people listening to our music and wanting to buy it for that reason only." But why not use your history for creative fuel? "People already know what's happened and what's going on," she says, "and for us, we just kind of live. We don't sit around and go, 'God, I feel sorry for myself,' you know? We write about things that happen in everybody's life. Everybody feels the same, it doesn't matter what color you are."
On Things We Do, the band's most recent studio disc, the feelings expressed are typical of many blues recordings. Unfortunately, these themes get no updating on Things, either: The disc's lyrical explorations frequently border on sophomoric, cliched explorations of lost love and such. "I had the blues this morning since my baby's been gone/Now I don't know why she don't want me no more," from "Blues This Morning," is a particularly trite example. The group treads a musical turf that's also been heard before, the Texas-blues of the late Stevie Ray Vaughan, whose singing and Stratocaster-playing influences dominate Things. But at its best, Indigenous stretches these too-familiar sounds into a fresh recombination by infusing the material with palpable passion and touches of Latin grooves and percussion, with Horse's spicy congos adding occasional Santana-esque flourishes. Mato's impressive playing (which will either thrill fans of the late Vaughan or anger them: Mato frequently lifts Stevie's licks) also elevates the band's sound to lofty heights. Particularly when he strays from Vaughan's playbook and wades into his own deep-blue waters.
All of these elements have combined to make Indigeneous's brand of blues red-hot in the bandmembers' native land -- and the musical world at large. The band's single of "Now That You're Gone" -- a funky little number that could've easily been culled from a long-lost Vaughan collection -- charted at number eight in the Billboard top-twenty rock radio tracks list; it was the first time an American Indian act had landed in the magazine's top ten. Indigenous has also appeared on virtually every major network's late-night talk show and morning news program, and Things has sold close to 125,000 units since its release in late 1998. Indigenous has garnered a reputation as a formidable live act, which has landed it spots on tours with a number of blues and rock heavies (including Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt and B.B. King), and the group's live shows have become spiritual events for their growing tribe of followers.
Indigenous got its start just outside a Nakota reservation in South Dakota. Growing up, siblings Mato, Wanbdi and Pte (Horse is a cousin of the three) were introduced to music by their father, Greg Zephier, who had played with a blues-rock band called the Vanishing Americans in the '60s and early '70s. Zephier showed his children the basics of their chosen instruments and then set down some staunch guidelines, telling the kids they had to practice hard for two years before he'd allow them to play out. He also provided his children with some awareness of American Indian political issues by taking them to American Indian Movement meetings, among other things. Two years after their studies began, Wanbdi says, the quartet played its first show in a rented-out bingo hall, where it performed for family members and friends. "He taught us all about work and discipline," Wanbdi says of her late father, who turned the children on to the three Kings (B.B., Albert and Freddie), Santana and Jimi Hendrix. But it was a later discovery that cinched the band's sound. "When Mato showed us some Stevie Ray Vaughan stuff," Wanbdi says, "we decided, 'This is what we're going to do.'"
In 1998, the band released its debut, Blues This Morning, and began touring extensively. While on the road, Indigenous was approached by Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls, who asked the bandmembers to record a cut for her Honor the Earth compilation. Jim Nickel of Pachyderm studio recorded the song and eventually signed the band to his independent label. The label released Things We Do later the same year, and a live disc, Live at Pachyderm Studios, followed in 1999. On May 9, Indigenous will release a new recording, Circle, a disc that will continue the band's honoring of Vaughan's legacy. It was produced by Doyle Bramhall, a frequent collaborator and longtime friend of Vaughan's. Bramhall also contributed a pair of songs to Circle.
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Like its predecessors, Wanbdi says, the new CD will be another universal endeavor that eschews songs of cultural struggle for more personal ones. Would this approach please her late father, who has been described by some writers as an activist? "They really played that up," she says of some of the group's early chroniclers. "He helped people a lot, but he wasn't no Russell Means. He was more for the people; he wasn't an activist at all."
And even if he were, Wanbdi says, it's likely he'd approve of the methods she and her rising-star mates are implementing to gain exposure for themselves and their music. Though Indigenous is not politically radical, the band's increased profile in music surely has some social effect; whether it's their mission or not, the band is increasing awareness that Native Americans do not always fit the mold of social stereotypes. Sometimes, for example, they like to play the blues.
"We have to approach things in a different way than people did back in the '60s and '70s," Wanbdi says. "Hollering in people's faces -- it ain't gonna get their attention. So what do you do? You show them that there are other ways to get around things, other ways to get things done, other ways to help your families. Like going about it in a sober, drug-free, clear-minded way when you're trying to get your life together. I think that's where a lot of the problems come from when it comes to Indians being oppressed for so long and not having any self-esteem, no nothing.
"Inside people," she says, "that's where everything has to start." And could that same internal approach apply to the soul battling a wicked case of the blues, too? No matter what their skin tone? "Yes, it would," Wanbdi says. "Once that happens, lives will get better. And not just for Indian people, but for all people who are down."