Jourdan Bennett-Begaye
Indian Country Today

PUEBLO and JICARILLA APACHE LANDS, New Mexico — Mato Wayuhi heard a rumor that he had a music gig for “Reservation Dogs.”

But confirmation from the show’s co-creator, Sterlin Harjo, was slow coming.

“I was like a girl waiting for a guy to ask me to dance or something, so I was just sitting there for months on end, like, 'okay, well, maybe he will, maybe he won’t,'” the Oglala Lakota artist said. “There was a gray area for a long time because I wasn't hearing anything.”

The 23-year-old had no second guesses to saying yes to the dance when the two connected in early 2021.

“He asked me to the dance,” Wayuhi said. “The whole storyline I really fell in love with and what they're doing with the show and what they're accomplishing.”

The project allowed him to dip his feet in a pool of very few Indigenous artists who are creating original music for films and TV. His friend, Renata Yazzie, who is Diné and a musicologist, says she knows three other Native people in the country actively composing for films. Wayuhi is the fourth and youngest. He stands out from the group as a non-traditional composer because he doesn’t score using classical music, she said.

His musical composition was far from traditional — just like the show itself.

You might recognize his music from the trailers and promotional videos for the show. The original score soundtrack was released on Oct. 15. 

Of the eight episodes, episode five named “Come and Get Your Love” was a fun favorite to score.

“I got to do this like the Miami Vice 80s theme. It's so corny. Ooh, but it's really good,” he told the crowd during a Sundance Institute panel in August during Santa Fe Indian Market weekend in New Mexico.

Wayuhi’s own music did make it on the show at the beginning of episode two, where Bear is walking the alley with headphones on. The showrunners wanted it.

The job of a score composer is to convey emotions through music.

The way that worked was that editors, some producers, Harjo and Wayuhi would meet up virtually for the “sound spa.” They’d go through each episode, scene by scene, stopping where sound is. Pause is hit, and they’d talk it over.

One of the two situations would happen. The first option is a scene that would have no music or music isn’t working. Harjo would ask him to make something. “Whatever you feel like lends to the narrative of this scene,” Wayuhi recalls. “‘Make it more Mato. Make it sound like Mato.’” His music is very kaleidoscopic and draws from pop, soul, funky, jazzy, hip-hop. The second situation would be making an iteration of a song that they couldn’t get the license to because it’s extremely expensive to obtain. “That’s really fun because it helps me to grow as a musician, gets me more out of my comfort zones, gets me to kind of grow up a bit.”

Mato Wayuhi, Oglala Lakota, at soundcheck with his friend David Adrian Nunez-Brenes, Cherokee and Purhepecha, and other artists before a show during Santa Fe Indian Market weekend in Santa Fe, New Mexico, on August 21, 2021. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Indian Country Today)

As for the creative process, he had to tap into the emotion that pushed the narrative for the show. “So that will be a lot of me just tinkering in front of my little electronic keyboard thing and just playing little things,” he said. Other times he’d be washing dishes, hear a melody in his head, and get it into voice memos on his phone.

In the last episode, he had four different cues, which are little scores, where he had to make a club beat. He recalled Harjo asking him, “Could you put in a Muscogee (Creek) war cry in it?” So he put Wayuhi in touch with a person to record the war cry.

The cues would take him a couple days to complete. Typically he got the cues done in a day and went back to it a day later to touch up or redo. 

“I'm a person who would like when I'm making it I’m like ‘this is going to solve climate change’ and ‘no, they're not going to be ready for this shit,’’ he told the laughing crowd at the panel. “And then the next day, I listen to them like ‘oh god, that’s so bad.’ So I have to stop myself a lot from finishing everything in a day.”

Harjo gave him a lot of freedom when it came to creating the music, especially in a virtual room with 10 people and two Natives, Harjo and Wayuhi. “For him to back me up like that, it’s been like infinite gratitude,” he said.

(Related: Director Sterlin Harjo talks ‘Reservation Dogs’)

In fact, they finally connected in-person this past weekend in Los Angeles where Wayuhi wrapped up filming a music video and Harjo presented at the 73rd Emmy Awards with the show’s actors D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, Devery Jacobs, Paulina Alexis, and Lane Factor.

“There's so many similarities between him and I,” Wayuhi said. “We’re both just big clowns that just love to tease and love to razz each other and whatnot.” ‘

The two caught up about the second season of the show, which Wayuhi will be officially scoring for again. They also chatted about how life now feels like “pre-Reservation Dogs” and “post-Reservation Dogs.”

‘Training in the dark’

Wayuhi recalled him and Harjo talking about how they created their art, before the history-making show, because they loved it.

“Oftentimes you're training in the dark and you don't know why, what your reps are going towards, and as long as you're doing your reps, then the light will come. I think that's what a lot of my work is,” he said. “I didn't know why, but I just did it. And it was very intrinsic, it was just a part of my identity. And a part of my mission was just to do that.”

The artist has been producing music seriously since he was 16 years old. It was a form of expression that he could finally grab onto — and stay out of teenage trouble. Before he would tinker around and perform at talent shows. He didn’t win but still performed at them.

“I was always really inclined but I was kind of afraid of going so deep in it, because you see the pitfall and the demise of local rappers. I was really scared that that was gonna be me,” he told Indian Country Today after participating in the panel.

Mato Wayuhi, Oglala Lakota, performing at a show during Santa Fe Indian Market weekend in Santa Fe, New Mexico, on August 21, 2021. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Indian Country Today)

Then when the time to choose a college came and what to do, he was “in this Troy Bolton world.” He played football for 10 years and considered playing in college for the sport (he’s north of 6-feet tall, just in case you’re wondering), but chose his brain health instead.

He got accepted into USC, but didn’t know what to study once he got there. Any college student knows that being undecided is a tough and awkward place to be. “It's like going to a dog convention and not having a dog.”

It was either music or film school for him. “I visited the music school and they were not nice. And so I said okay well I don't even know how to read music. I'm not going to get into the music school.” To this day, Wayuhi doesn’t want to learn to read music. But some would say it’s overrated because many of the greats like Jimi Hendrix, Kanye West, Eric Clapton, Michael Jackson, and Paul McCartney never learned to read music.

Film school it was, since he took film classes in high school and made films. Luckily, he got accepted because plan C was to drop out.

“As I got into film school, I really went 10 toes deep into music at the same time,” he said.

His friends and him started a band, he was writing his own original music, and exploring what he wanted to do. “I was learning and I was embracing everything I could, but I'd be in class sometimes and I was writing lyrics or thinking of music video ideas, and I looked like I was paying attention,” he said. “My body was there but my mind was making music.”

But he says he took himself too seriously back then to get to where he is currently.

“Now I think I'm at a place where I have my head in the sky, two feet on the ground,” while appreciating the small moments and clowning around like the typical Native cousin.

His friend, David Adrian Nunez-Brenes, also known as DA, and him were passing out flyers at Santa Fe Indian Market for Wayuhi’s show. 

“I was like, ‘Hey, come to the show at Tumblr Root,’” DA said. “And he was like yeah this guy's huge say stuff like, ‘Yeah, he got nominated for Latin Grammy you should pull up’ or like, ‘Yeah, he was featured on America's Got Talent,’ or something like that and it's just really random things and we always just make stuff up like that. That's what makes it so fun.”

During the “Reservation Dogs” panel last month, Wayuhi joked with the crowd how he legally adopted DA as his son.

“I clown people. I tease people, that's how you know I like you, if I'm teasing you,” he said during the panel. “It’s just love.”

Mato Wayuhi, Oglala Lakota, at soundcheck with his friend David Adrian Nunez-Brenes, Cherokee and Purhepecha, before a show during Santa Fe Indian Market weekend in Santa Fe, New Mexico, on August 21, 2021. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Indian Country Today)

Sometimes Wayuhi would need a real instrument to score the show, he plays piano and has been “flirting” with the guitar recently (but not as good as DA, he says). So he brought on DA to help score sometimes.

“He was totally in director mode so there we’d be in the studio, and by studio, I mean like upstairs in this little living room area,” DA said. “Sometimes he would have something for me to play, and I'd get through it like easy peasy like one take and it's done. But then there's some times where it's like we would do something a little bit more intricate or something that's out of my comfort zone with like regarding genres and stuff.”

For instance, Wayuhi asked DA to do a “slow, kind of blues off tempo lick, just like free time, type of thing” which took them three hours — and they didn't end up using the tape.

“Sometimes it goes by really fast, and sometimes we really got to work extra hard to get a specific sound because Mato is the type of person who knows what he wants,” DA said, while waiting to do a soundcheck in Santa Fe.

His work ethic, raw talent with no formal music training, and an ear for sound makes Wayuhi “breaking into a whole new genre of music.”

“He’s doing a lot of really crazy things that I feel a lot of Indian Country hasn’t really heard before,” DA said. “It’s so uniquely him. I can’t necessarily compare him to any other artists.”

Living the dreams of those lost

His earliest memory of music inspiration came from his grandma singing Dancing Queens by ABBA to him from her kitchen. She sang to him all of the time.

“We’d be on the rez, she’d be making oatmeal on the kettle potts, ‘Dancing Queens!’” he sang. She showed him it was okay. “I was like wow, like four years old, watching my grandma just dance around. ‘Robert! Robert, come sing with me!’ That’s my grandpa. She’d be dancing around and enjoying herself as if she was on stage. So that was really impactful for me growing up.”

He feels like he is doing what he’s doing for a lot of people like his grandma.

“I feel like I'm living her dream right now. She always wanted to be a singer,” he said. “I think a lot of times with music, specifically this generation, we’re living the dreams of those who we lost through our music, through our expression.”

Including his dad.

His dad, Michael Dean Standing Soldier, died on September 1, 2020, after complications from surgery.

Mato Wayuhi, government name Mato Standing Soldier, and his dad, Michael Standing Soldier, in front of the 50-foot Dignity statue of Chamberlain, South Dakota, in 2019. (Photo courtesy of Mato Wayuhi)

They grew closer in the last four or five years before his death. Wayuhi moved back home, South Dakota, for five months during the pandemic to get groceries and shop for essential items for his parents. During that time, from April to August during the pandemic, his dad gave him Lakota lessons every Sunday.

Wayuhi had just moved back to California when his dad died. On the red-eye flight back home, he realized he didn’t have “that one person, that conduit” who he could talk to about their land, the culture, family dynamics, ancestry. He had extended family but not someone who he could text daily.

In fact, his dad taught him how to translate starry eyes about a week before his death, which is part of his song “Constellations” on his new album, Pleasure. Not only did he pour his grief into the album, but it allowed him to focus and heal through a love and breakup album.

“That’s going to live on forever. That was really gratifying,” he said of the song. “My dad is still proud of me. I really took the next step in my artistry right as he passed so he didn't get to be here physically, but everything I do is to honor what he allowed me to do.”

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This story was updated to add the score soundtrack release date and playlist. 

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