Month: March 2002

She doesn’t do interviews, but she talked with us anyway: An interview with Wanbdi of Indigenous

They learned how to play instruments in their basement by listening to their parents’ collection of blues greats, but their sound is all their own. Brothers Mato Nanji and Pte, sister Wanbdi and cousin Horse are Indigenous, a rocking blues band that is all native and all family.

She is used to sitting at the drums behind her famous brothers and cousin, especially charismatic front man and guitarist, Mato Nanji. The limelight is usually focused upstage of her and she prefers it that way.

As a Dakota Indian woman in a renowned group, Wanbdi occupies a unique place in the world of rock and roll. She is on tour much of the time, traveling with her family and playing to fans on a hectic schedule that includes venues all over the United States and abroad. After several tries and bad cell phone connections, we finally caught up with her one warm winter’s day while she was around for the weekend.

TNV: We don’t seem to hear much from you. We hear a lot from Mato and from the rest of the group. I don’t really remember hearing much from you, you know, specifically. Has this been by your choice?

Wanbdi: I really don t do interviews. I pretty much just stick to my own thing and I’m not really interested in this kind of stuff. I’m more interested in just playing music and, you know, just living my life. I don’t really have much to say to anybody.

TNV: Well, that’s kinda how it looks. Like you just want to have your privacy and do your thing. The reason we wanted to talk with you is that it seems like there are a lot of people who watch you and even though you’re sitting at the drums and are behind everybody, and you kinda stay quiet, people still notice you, you know. You’re very pretty and the only woman in the group so you’re going to get attention. When did you start playing the drums?

Wanbdi: When I was about 15. My Dad’s the one who encouraged me to play. I didn’t really know anything about it and he raised us not to…I wasn’t any different from my brothers or I wasn’t any different from him or any different being a girl or whatever. He always made it to where I was not any different from my brothers. It was the only instrument left anyway…because you know, Mato took the guitar, and everybody took their instruments, so it was the only instrument left to play, so I took it.

TNV: You got the drums kinda by picking straws almost, huh?

Wanbdi: Yeah.

TNV: Do you play any other instruments?

Wanbdi: Well, I play guitar. Do both, now and then.

TNV: How is it playing the drums? You’re the backbone of the rhythm section, the center of the music.

Wanbdi: It’s pretty hard sometimes. But once you get used to playing and playing in front of people then it’s a little easier, but not really. You’ve got to be concentrating all the time on what’s going on.

TNV: You guys just started out just playing around here in South Dakota, right?

Wanbdi: There’s nowhere really to play here in SD so we started out small, like going to Nebraska, Iowa and surrounding areas and just started going from there.

TNV: What’s the most people you’ve played in front of?

Wanbdi: I think maybe 7,000. When we played with B.B. King there was way more, like 20,000 or something.

TNV: That’s a lot of people. What was it like being in front of 20,000 people?

Wanbdi: Pretty scary.

TNV: What goes through your mind?

Wanbdi: Um, just `I hope I don’t mess it up!’ That’s the only thing. Just pretty nervous about it….

TNV: Do people ever get surprised because you’re a woman playing the drums?

Wanbdi: Uh, yeah, I think they do sometimes. But I don’t really…I don’t really see a difference, I don’t really feel different from anybody else, being a girl or woman or whatever. I was raised to believe that it was no big deal. I could do whatever I want. It didn’t matter if I was a girl or not.

TNV: I love that. That’s great. You’re really lucky. A lot of women, a lot of young girls don’t get that kind of encouragement.

Wanbdi: Yeah, I’ve noticed that.

TNV: Has anybody ever said anything to you?

Wanbdi: In the beginning they used to try to — I got a lot of sexist remarks and stuff. I really don’t like to communicate with anybody because I don’t really like to hear anything — because it brings out a part of me, you know, I will say something. That’s why I tend to just stay away. I would rather just keep things flowing in a good way, in a healthy way instead of getting angry about something that somebody is gonna say. Because people say stupid things all the time and that will probably never change because the way society is.

TNV: Well hopefully there’s progress being made. You know, a little bit at a time. I really think you’re fortunate. I wonder why your Dad was different that way?

Wanbdi: I don’t know, he just, uh…a lot of the traditional things that were going on around the time when we were born, like AIM and all that kind of stuff, he just didn’t believe in making women stay home with the kids and, you know, things like that. He wasn’t like that. It kinda came out in the end in me and my brothers, too. They have a lot of respect. They listen to what I have to say. They don’t think of me as `Oh, she’s just a girl’…’Oh, you’re just my sister.’ They don’t think like that They think more of how we have the same opinion, the same way of thinking or whatever. We got that from our Dad and our Mom too — they shared everything together. So when it came time for us to play in a band it was easy for us to get along because we already had that.

TNV: That’s really cool.

Wanbdi: I think that that’s why a lot of people are the way they are. Because of their parents or because of the way that they were raised or whatever. I think that’s how they become how they are, you know, sexist or whatever…you know, `Oh, they’re second best because she’s a girl’ or `She can’t do that, she’s not good enough.’ Whatever! That kinda comes from being raised in this society. That’s all it is. I’ve been all over the country and been in Canada and everywhere and it’s the same, you hear the same questions: `Why are you playing?’ `I thought only guys played drums. How come you’re not playing something easy?

TNV: Easy?

Wanbdi: Yeah, pretty lame. I don’t really understand it so I tend to stay away from things like that.

TNV: There are other women drummers out there.

Wanbdi: Yeah, there are a lot, actually. I’ve met a lot, seen a lot, too. Maybe people don’t notice [them]. That’s maybe why I don’t see it as being so special, because there are a lot of women drummers out there.

TNV: What do you like the most about being in the band?

Wanbdi: Just getting up and playing the music. It’s a lot of fun playing with my brothers, and traveling with them too. We have a lot of fun together and stuff. It’s just, pretty much the fun.

TNV: How do you feel about being looked at as a role model? And, if you’re going to be a role model, in which way do you want to be a role model? As a musician? As a healthy living person? As a traditional person? As a woman? Is there anything in there that really fits you, that you feel comfortable with?

Wanbdi: Probably just as an example that it doesn’t matter what you are, doesn’t matter what color you are, or what race you are, or if you re a girl or a boy. It doesn’t matter. You can do whatever you want.

That’s the only positive message I can think of. Because anything else, like religion and cultural stuff…I tend to stay away from things like that. I was raised to believe what I wanted to believe and what I thought. Instead of something being pushed on me like, `Oh, this is how it was’ or `Because you’re Indian….’ I wasn’t raised that way. I’d rather just play and get inspired. That’s what I enjoy doing the most.

TNV: You can provide a really good example for the girls.

Wanbdi: Yeah, well, that’s got to come from them, too. The way that I am and my brothers…we didn’t go to school, we were home schooled. So, we kinda have our own way of thinking. It seems like a lot of people after you talk to them after they go to school – they change and a lot of freedom that they had before is gone. I believe that before you even go to school you should already have your own mind. Think about things and have your own mind instead of having it altered or changed by anything going on in this country now.

TNV: A lot of people don’t have that kind of family support. They have to find it somewhere else. It’s natural to do that. People will look for what they need elsewhere if they don’t get it at home.

Wanbdi: Yeah.

TNV: Just by your being out there you are providing a good role model for the kids. We have an eight year old daughter. It helps that you’re out there, and I can say `hey look, they’re playing rock and roll and they’re doing it in a way that’s cool and they’re doing it in a way that’s positive and as a family.’ I appreciate that. I just want to let you know I really appreciate that.

Wanbdi: Thanks. Yeah, Thanks.

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Can you make it sound like a prayer? Annie Humphrey, Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) singer/songwriter, invites us along for a ride

Before the written word, stories were told with the voice. For eons, our ancestors governed themselves and taught their children and shared their history with spoken word and song. The written word, the first vehicle of mass communication, silenced many oral traditions. There is a power in these old traditions, and it is kept alive by those who still remember and practice them.

Anne Dunn, an Anishinaabe storyteller, is one of those people. She writes and recounts these tales to inspire and teach and heal. It is not so surprising that her daughter is the noted folk singer/songwriter Annie Humphrey, who won Best Female Artist and Best Folk/Country Artist at the 2001 Native American Music Awards for her CD The Heron Smiled. She has been inspired by her mother and has learned much about storytelling in the process. Annie has been working at her craft for many years now has become one of the most recognized Native talents in the music industry. Billboard magazine recognized that Annie had A powerful and affecting voice set to stunning affect (July 15, 2000), and Native Peoples wrote The Heron Smiled is full of .. powerful statements of Native pride (July 2000).

Annie Humphrey is not one to hide while telling a story. She partners with her guitar and boldly tells the truth and invites us into her journey. The music is the invitation, and then the lyrics build a boat and take us downstream with her. The Native Voice has had the privilege of one early invitation — Annie sent us a CD with some of her new tracks currently in development at Makoche Records. We had a chance to visit with her about the new work, to discuss her creative process and the current state of affairs in her life.

It s a privilege to see an artist s work in progress, as many people are shy about exposing their unfinished projects. Annie is not worried at all about how polished it all sounds. She is excited about the process and knows that the essence of a good song is present and palpable without the finishing touches. The new work, lyrically and musically, is striking. First of all, save for one collaboration with John Trudell (a moving, political piece called The Edge of America), all of the words are hers. It s a much more personal album than The Heron Smiled in its candor and bold expressions of love and passion, tough times and happiness. She is working on all emotional cylinders this time, unafraid to show us that she is a woman very much alive and willing to tell us about it.

“I don’t need a psychiatrist,” Humphrey explained. “Writing is my therapy. I have books and scraps and binders full of fragments of thought and I can go back and know what I was thinking in that moment. I go back and write around phrases sometimes and come up with lyrics.”

“I help myself this way, and I try to say things that will help people, encourage them and help them to think about their power again cause sometimes we loose our power to other things… like drinking, or the wrong man, or, a lot of things,” she continued.

“When I was working in the jail there would be women doing time and they just would have had a baby two weeks ago and their milk was coming through their jail uniform, and they were there because they were drinking. They lost their power to it.”

It wasn’t always this way for Humphrey. Back in 1988 she was playing in bars and was in a much darker place: “I was playing in bars at the time – it was awful, the most depressing scene when I think about it I was drinking and singing and seeing Indians drunk. I can’t believe I spent any time in there doing that.”

It was an evening at a U2 concert that sparked her transformation. She said, “It was that night, the U2 Rattle and Hum concert when I came out of the theater I thought – wow, they are really political, they sing about things, and Bono is very intelligent. It made me want to write and play for something.”

This concern for people, especially the women, forms a theme to this new work. “When you hear the rest of the record, the songs are all connected to women,” Annie said. “There are earth themes, too, and I consider those to be women things, too.”

This theme is clear in the song, Moon Daughter, which Annie says was inspired by a story her mother wrote in her first book entitled When Beaver was Very Great. It tells a woman’s story:

“A precious moon daughter left her sky-home to dwell on earth, she heard the rumble of distant wars saw the dead of many nations. She learned war makers were rich men who never died in bloody fields. She read of weapons that destroyed entire populations gone, gone.”

The music backing these lyrics is just as strong, with unexpected changes and uplifting chords. She teaches us again about our power; that life has dark times and it s our choice to find the path back home to ourselves, our happiness:

“Wait, wait moon daughter wait, wait. I too have head the music, together we can remember, remember.”

Annie really wants to talk about her happiness, as she explained, “When I was a kid I didn’t know any happy people.” She talks a lot about the importance of putting her family first, above everything. In fact, she home schools her children and schedules her tours to fit her family life. She seems most proud of the fact that her children laugh every day. This is her point, “Right now, though I m in a really good place I m happy and healthy and my kids are happy and healthy and my husband is happy and healthy and everything is good.”

Humphrey is very much in love and has married her best friend of many years, who she met while in the Marines. They wrote to each other over the years, especially since he’s been in prison. It’s a love that matured and grew over distance and over time. Annie s moved in from her A-frame in the woods to be closer to him. And they see each other as much as the situation allows.

Humphrey has had her share of bad relationships, and explained that she had to find this one to know how unhappy she had been before.

In the track Choices, Annie sings:

“Don’t just spit my name out, can you make it sound like a prayer? So sick and tired of these ugly thoughts I want to feel like me again.”

The answer to her prayer, it seems, is found in the song, Shine, which is about the love she shares with her husband:

“I was on a journey searching for myself. We stood in the silence and heard love arrive I found you, you led me back to me.”

Annie explains, “See, I think we all need balance and even though some people see me as a feminist or something I need my man and it s okay I love him deeply and even though I am fiercely independent I am other things, to like all women we have many facets and it’s a good thing.”

The song Mother’s Rain is about her mother and father and the memories of being a child in their violent home. “I couldn’t express it any way at all how I felt about what happened in our house until I was 34,” Annie said. “And I think how did I feel when I was seven or eight?”

What she remembers is clear, as she sings, “In a town on the Rez in a sad, sad house it was choked with bad dreams, and I felt buried. I blamed him, he took away her choices by breaking his vows and breaking her face… it sounded like thunder and nothing could stop it.”

It’s a poetry of violence, but with a happy ending, as Annie reveals her strength and her determination to build a safe and happy home for her children:

“Inside me there s a story. It began the day I stole the rain from mother’s storms to fill my strong woman heart, it pounded like thunder, and nothing could stop it.”

Annie takes us on her journey, and it is a good one. She knows, and shows us, that we can choose to start the long walk out of our misery, and that dreams can be reborn at the end of it.

Her work tells the truth and reminds us to believe in the journey, especially since we get to go along with her.