Mixing Blues and the Nakota Nation In Music
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. The blues have always been a way to get at some of life's tougher trials and Otis Taylor's music is no different. Taylor, who calls himself a trans-blues musician, has taken on big themes like murder, racism and poverty in previous albums, but his latest album - his 13th and he says his emotional - started with four little words.
As Taylor tells it, he was having a backstage conversation with Mato Nanji, lead vocalist and guitarist of the band, Indigenous, and a member of the Nakota Nation. They were talking about Native American culture and Nanji told him, quote, "my world is gone." That conversation inspired the title track of the new album, "My World is Gone," on which both men perform. Here's a sample.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY WORLD IS GONE")
OTIS TAYLOR: (Singing) If you send me a silver mirror, oh, I walk. I walk the (unintelligible). If you send me a silver mirror, oh, I walk. I walk the (unintelligible). If you send me a golden razor, oh, I cut my hair. I cut my hair.
MARTIN: And Otis Taylor and Mato Nanji join us now to tell us more about it and themselves, we hope. Welcome to you both. Thank you both so much for joining us.
MATO NANJI: Thank you.
TAYLOR: Thank you.
MARTIN: Otis, you were telling us that the song is a love song. Tell us more about that.
TAYLOR: Well, I'm kind of noted for being dark, so even if I'm writing a long love song, it's kind of dark, so it's basically about a man that says, you know, he's given up. He's gone back to the res and his world is gone, but he's still going back and he's going to cut his hair, do whatever he wants to do so she'll have him come back. He'll cut his hair if she sends him a razor. You know what I mean? Cutting your hair is very symbolic, you know.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY WORLD IS GONE")
TAYLOR: (Singing) If you send me a golden razor, oh, I'll cut my hair. I'll cut my hair. If you send me a golden razor, oh, I'll walk. I'll walk (unintelligible). I'll cut my hair and I'll bury - oh, I'll bury it in the ground. I'll cut my hair and I'll bury it, oh, where the buffalo used to roam.
MARTIN: Do you remember what it is about those words that kind of struck a chord with you?
TAYLOR: Struck a chord with me? I don't know.
MARTIN: Just struck a chord with you. You remember?
TAYLOR: I just wrote the song. I wasn't thinking about it. I was just writing it. I'm not that deep. I'm not deep.
MARTIN: Oh, OK.
TAYLOR: I was just writing it. I wasn't thinking about it. Words come like a dream, you know.
MARTIN: OK. Mato, what about that? Do you remember making those comments and do you remember - I understand that you were backstage at a concert. Right? You were both performing and - yeah.
NANJI: Yeah, I remember saying that.
MARTIN: Do you remember saying it to him and did you think he was going to run with it the way he has?
NANJI: No. I didn't. I just - well, he actually mentioned that he'd, you know, got an idea right away off the words and, you know, I didn't, you know, expect a full record to be playing on it, so - but, hey, I'm honored to be on it and be a part of it.
MARTIN: Well, if you remember a little bit of the conversation, Mato, just if you could just tell us a little bit more. You are from the Nakota Nation. Do you remember what and why you - why that thought came to you?
NANJI: You know, they started talking about natives and, you know, Indians and, in this country, they're talking about casinos and stuff and I was like, you know, that's not who we are. You know, it probably is now, you know, what we're trying to do to survive, basically. But, basically, what I meant was my whole world - you know, being from this country - is basically gone. The way we used to live 200, 300 years ago, you know, thousands of years ago, you know, I mean it's all gone and now we're just kind of living, you know.
We're not gone yet and that's one good thing I like about, you know, the record that Otis did. It's just kind of showing that, too, that, you know, we're still here and we're still, you know, doing what we have to do and, basically, for me, it's kind of a uplifting record.
MARTIN: Otis, you were not - you're not Native American and you've never been to the Nakota Nation reservation.
MARTIN: Why are you laughing? I'm just confirming this for people who can't...
TAYLOR: No. Because - no.
NANJI: Well, there's...
MARTIN: I'm going somewhere. Go ahead.
NANJI: He basically is Native American because...
MARTIN: He is?
NANJI: ...he was born here when it was called America and, when my people were here, it wasn't America, so he's...
MARTIN: Oh, OK.
NANJI: ...a Native American...
MARTIN: Oh, OK. Well, thank you for translating.
MARTIN: ...Otis is just laughing at me, so thank you for helping out.
TAYLOR: No, no I'm not laugh...
MARTIN: But my point was...
TAYLOR: No, I'm not native...
TAYLOR: I'm not - I'm African-American, but it's like being a Mexican, I have like white blood, native blood, black blood. You know, I'm a black man with blue eyes so what am I? You know what I mean? I'm black. But you know...
MARTIN: I hear you. OK.
TAYLOR: My father was one-eighth Cherokee. My mother was one-eighth Choctaw. So what does that make me? I don't know. It just makes me a black man.
NANJI: Yeah. Yeah.
TAYLOR: So that's why I laughed, you know.
MARTIN: OK. Well...
TAYLOR: So, you know, it's all connected, you know.
MARTIN: It's all connected. Well, there is - and one of the reasons where I was going with that, thank you, Mato for helping me out here because Otis is, as we discussed, laughing at me.
MARTIN: The reason I was asking is that you were telling...
TAYLOR: I'm not laugh - I'm just laughing. Can't I laugh?
MARTIN: Yeah. You were telling us earlier...
TAYLOR: I thought this was America. I thought we was free in America.
MARTIN: Yes. Just not on my show.
TAYLOR: Oh, OK.
MARTIN: We are.
TAYLOR: Yes ma'am.
MARTIN: On your record. That's why you have your record so you can be free.
TAYLOR: Yes, ma'am.
MARTIN: You were saying that this was the most emotional record you've done. And since you've done a lot of records and you've tackled a lot of themes, I was just wondering why that was.
TAYLOR: Well, because I made my living when I was young selling Native American Indian art, blankets, and rugs, and beadwork and it just sort of always bothered me that I was selling things that other people wore - their clothing, you know basically and their art. And, but then I never - I didn't buy it from them so I kind of was able to deal with it. You know, I bought it from estate sales and Goodwills and it was a productive part of my life financially, you know?
MARTIN: Mm-hmm. But you were also telling us, you said, I don't usually care what I say, but I was much more careful. I wanted to get it right and do something that will make things better.
TAYLOR: Because it has to do with native people breaking treaties and the way that people treat the Native Americans, you know, or Indians, whatever, you know, you know, like they really got the shaft, you know. So I just, I didn't want to hurt them. I wanted to help the situation with my message, you know?
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm joined by Mato Nanji. He performs on Otis Taylor's new album. It's called "My World is Gone."
And I wanted to play another clip from one of the pieces that Mato, you were telling us is one of your favorites on the album. I'll just it. It's called "Blue Rain in Africa."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLUE RAIN IN AFRICA")
TAYLOR: (Singing) Well, I saw a white buffalo on the Dakota. So there must be blue rain in Africa. Oh there must be, blue rain in Africa.
MARTIN: I think it's one of my favorite too. Mato, why is this one of your favorites?
NANJI: I just, I liked everything about it and I'm happy Otis let me play guitar in it.
TAYLOR: He's too good. He's stealing the show.
MARTIN: He's stealing your shine?
TAYLOR: He sings good, plays great guitar. It's like I want - I had to make it an Otis Taylor record. I had to kind of back him off a little bit, you know. He wanted to play on all the songs in there, I don't think so.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLUE RAIN IN AFRICA")
TAYLOR: (Singing) I saw the eagle, Lord, I saw him flying at night. I saw the eagle, I saw him flying at night. There must be, blue rain in Africa.
MARTIN: Well, Otis, how important was it for you? I'm going to switch it up a little bit. Was it - how important was it for you that Mato play on this album?
TAYLOR: Well, it's the whole concept to the album, you know, that's what makes it happen. He's playing and singing with me and all the songs were vetted. All the songs that he played on I had them check out the words and make sure he was comfortable with everything and the concept.
MARTIN: Hmm. Why was that important to you, Otis?
TAYLOR: Well, I didn't want him to say look what he did to me. You know what I mean?
TAYLOR: No way, you know, enough has been done to the native people, why do I need to do something bad, you know? So I had to make sure it was right.
MARTIN: Mato, what about that? What do you make of that?
NANJI: I've talked to Otis before when he was talking about doing the record and stuff. Last year was a while back but I thought it would be great when he told me he was, you know, going to create the whole concept. You know, there's not a lot of records like this, you know, out there that are coming out. There's not any, really. So I mean I think it's really unique and it's really, it's a great record.
MARTIN: And you were telling us that you think that part of the strength of this album's message is that it was made by somebody who is not quote-unquote, speaking of our prior conversation, not quote-unquote, "Native American," as it's commonly known...
NANJI: Well, it's...
MARTIN: Or they're not American Indian, all right? So, true?
NANJI: Well actually he's part - he was saying he was part now, so I mean so yeah, it definitely comes from, you know, it comes from him and, you know, that's good. So now I know that, you know, he's got all the pieces of, you know, the people of the world, you know, he can put it out there now and, you know, be really universal with it.
MARTIN: You know, that's a tricky thing, though. Sometimes people don't appreciate it when people claim a heritage. The only reason I'm raising this is that during the last political campaign year in the Massachusetts Senate race - I don't know how closely you follow this - there were people who criticized the candidate who eventually won, Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat, because she claimed heritage and other people were saying well, prove it.
MARTIN: There is that.
NANJI: Well, that's where I disagree, I guess. You shouldn't have to prove who you are, you know? I mean, if that's who you are and you're proud of it then to me it doesn't really matter what anybody else thinks of that, you know? So I am who I am and proud who I am, which I'm sure Otis is too. That's the important thing that kind of seems to be lost, you know, in a lot of countries in a lot of races, you know, a lot of different people, you know, all over the world. So I think if people just sat down and thought about that and who they really were and, you know, felt proud of that, then I think they would think differently about everything.
MARTIN: Do you have a favorite, Otis?
TAYLOR: I have...
MARTIN: Do you have a favorite song?
TAYLOR: I have no favorite songs. I don't know.
MARTIN: Favorite song, yeah.
TAYLOR: I don't know. I love - I don't know.
MARTIN: I know. It's like choosing among your kids.
TAYLOR: I like "Blue Rain in Africa" but, you know, it depends.
TAYLOR: But I don't get to do - all the ones that he played on I don't get to do much, you know.
TAYLOR: He didn't tell you the whole story. I was visiting him at the Hendrix tour. You know, like you got to be one of the top lead guitar players to play in the Hendrix tour so he's just being modest, so just, you have to get this in perspective, you know? But that's my thing is getting the great musicians to play with me.
MARTIN: Let me just...
TAYLOR: Not the most famous but the greatest, I think, really exceptional musicians.
MARTIN: Let me just play one more song on the album, "Never Been to the Reservation." It's about a man living a life of luxury oblivious, you know, to the hardships on the reservation. I'll just play a little bit.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEVER BEEN TO THE RESERVATION")
TAYLOR: (Singing) They got baby sleeping on the ground. Oh, and he's drinking his champagne all. He's eating his caviar, drinking his fine wine. But, you know, but, you know, he ain't never been to the reservation. He ain't never been to the reservation.
MARTIN: You know, we talked about at the beginning of our conversation you said, you know, you're known for being, you know, quote-unquote, "dark." And I wanted to ask, what's the trick of it to get people to want to listen to something hard?
TAYLOR: It has to be interesting. It has to be good. You know, yet to sell it, you know. It's a niche kind of market, you know. I mean I don't do a lot of love songs so it make said, you know, harder. But, does that make any sense what I just said?
TAYLOR: I mean I sell records. I don't sell millions of records. I'm happy with what I sell and I'm happy for all my music that gets in movies and things like that so I'm not really worried about selling a lot of records, you know?
MARTIN: Who are you hoping will find this album? Anybody in particular you're particularly hoping they'll find their way to this one?
TAYLOR: Well, I think everything is serendipitous. It's just, you found out about it and it's all serendipitous. That's all I with my PR agent...
MARTIN: And you're like and you're and idiot so you found it, then it's all good.
TAYLOR: I didn't say that. Aw, man.
MARTIN: It's all good.
TAYLOR: Mato, look what she's trying to do to us? Whatever you do to me you're doing it to him. He's my brother.
MARTIN: So, all right, Mato, what about you? Who are you - are there anybody in particular you're hoping will find this one?
NANJI: I just hope everybody gets a chance to hear it because I think it's really unique music, so, you know, I would just love to, you know, for them to get a chance to hear it.
MARTIN: Well, thank you both so much for spending some time with us.
TAYLOR: Can I say one thing?
MARTIN: Sure. You certainly may.
TAYLOR: The song about "Sand Creek Mourning," it's a real important song historically about the Sand Creek Massacre, you know, that's pretty important. But it's a dark song.
MARTIN: Well, I was going to ask you what would you like to go out on. So would you like to go out on that one?
TAYLOR: Well, I think the most historical song and it's important for people to know that story because it is a horrific story, you know?
MARTIN: OK. Well, we will go out on that one. "Sand Creek Massacre Mourning."
TAYLOR: You sure you want to go out on such a note like that?
MARTIN: It's fine. It's all good.
MARTIN: I think people can handle it. If people can live it then people can handle it. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAND CREEK MOURNING MASSACRE")
TAYLOR: (Singing) They're waiting for the dawn. They're waiting for the dawn. They're coming down on the Sandy Creek. They're waiting for the dawn. Oh shield and toms in a town near Kiowa. They're waiting for the dawn. He's coming down. He's coming down. He's waiting for the dawn on the Sandy Creek.
MARTIN: Mato Nanji is the lead guitarist and vocalist of the band Indigenous. He joined us from South Dakota Public Radio. Otis Taylor is a trance bluesman musician. His latest album is "My World is Gone." It's due out in February. Mato Nanji appears on the album. And Mr. Taylor joined us from KGNU in Boulder, Colorado.
Thank you both so much for joining us.
NANJI: Thank you.
TAYLOR: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MARTIN: And that's our program for today. And remember, to tell us more, please go to NPR.org and find us under the Programs tab. You can find our podcast there. And you can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter @TELL ME MORE/NPR. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News and African-American Public Radio Consortium. Let's talk more tomorrow. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.