Waila (pronounced “why-la”) is an extraordinary fusion of Native American, Mexican/Spanish, German/Central European and Southwestern U.S. genres of music that twist and turn around each other just enough to make us dance.
In 1853 the O’odham Nation, a Native American nation that has existed for centuries or more on a large expanse of land known as the “Papagueria,” a huge tract that historically extended from what is now Sonora, Mexico, north into what is now Central Arizona and as
far west as the Gulf of California, was split in two. Before the mid 19th century most of O’odham land had fallen under Mexican control. In 1853 a treaty divided this land in half between Mexico and the United States. The treaty (known as the Gadsden Purchase)
assured the O’odham who ended up in the U.S. the same land and constitutional rights as any other citizens of the States…though bit by bit the U.S. government ate up O’odham lands by granting them to settlers, miners and railroad interests. Today the O’odham nation lives in a much smaller region on either side of the strictly fortified U.S. border. Most O’odham in the U.S. are from the Tohono area of modern-day Arizona’s Sonoma desert.
In the early and mid-1800s, Christian missionaries visited the O’odham and, in the process of their missionary work, introduced musicians in the Tohono and Akimel areas of the O’odham nation to the fiddle. Tohono and Akimel O’odham fiddlers began to play norteño music–putting their own tribal spin on the Mexican interpretation of European dances like the mazurka, the waltz and the polka. The genre became known as “waila,” from the Spanish, “bailar,” which means “to dance.”
Over time the typical waila band came to include not just fiddles but also bass, guitar and drums, and, since the 1950s, accordion and alto saxophone. Musicians also embraced cumbia, and adopted some of the American country cadences of tejano music. The O’odham even developed a dance specific to their Native American/Mexican/European hybrid–“the chicken scratch,” which is a gliding, counterclockwise two-step polka that features the kicking of the heels, a move characteristic of Tohono O’odham dances that make the dancer’s steps look somewhat like that of a scratching chicken. [See scenes from a Waila social, including some chicken scratch dancing, featuring a performance by Gertie and the T.O. Boys | Watch the Cisco Band performing some non-waila music
that still inspires chicken scratch dancing in 2008 at the Hickiwan Recreation Center’s “Celebration of Life”]
In class we’re going to simulate an O’odham all-night feast, or “piast,” held to celebrate an event like a saint’s day, a wedding, birthday or graduation. and dance the chicken scratch,
reveling in the wonders of this fusion of Spanish, German, Mexican, Native American and Southwestern American music. We’re going to dance along to “Who Knows?,” a track from the ’70s by two of the most famous waila bands, the Cisco Band and the Joaquin Brothers.
Angelo Joaquin Jr. introduces us to Waila and the annual Waila festival | Learn more by watching this clip from “Chicken Scratch Musica del desierto norte SonorArizona” part 1, part 2, part 3 | Official website of the Tohono O’odham Nation | Canyon record’s collection of “waila classics” and “chicken scratch dance” CDs.