Big Jim: A journey into Tohono O'odham music, part 3

2014-01-17T00:00:00Z Big Jim: A journey into Tohono O'odham music, part 3Jim Griffith Special to the Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Now we come to the most familiar form of O’odham music — waila. The word means both this genre of music and “polka.”

Modern waila is almost exclusively instrumental dance music, and is usually played on saxophone, button accordion, electric guitar, electric bass, and full drum kit. I have also heard it played on piano accordion and electric keyboard. The bands often alternate between polkas, two-steps (Sp.”chotis,” T.O. “chode”) and cumbias, a Caribbean-derived genre.

The first two dance types are performed by couples in the standard waltz position, with an emphasis on small steps and smoothness. The polka step is a simple walking step. (Dancers being more energetic on a June afternoon in Southern Arizona might well one-two-three-hop themselves into a heart attack!) The cumbia is a side-by-side couple dance with the dancers performing complex turns and footwork.

I’ve mentioned that by the mid-1800s, O’odham were playing polkas and other European-derived music. The tunes and dances may have arrived in a number of ways — just who brought them remains uncertain. But they certainly caught on.

Then around World War II, changes started happening. This was the era of the Indian boarding schools, when boys were urged to form marching bands. Most of the older O’odham sax players I’ve interviewed told me that they learned their instrument in that setting. Thus waila can be seen as a product of the two great directed culture change programs aimed at the O’odham: the Spanish mission system and the U.S boarding school.

One more important musical instrument entered the waila tradition in the 1940s and ’50s: the button accordion. This instrument arrived from Texas in the hands of Mexican norteño musicians, in whose repertoire polkas featured prominently. Add the growing electrification of the Reservation and the increased mobility to and from nearby cities afforded by paved roads, and you have the contemporary waila band.

What do the bands play? Just about everything. The waila repertoire includes the old fiddle band tunes, norteño songs and tunes, popular mainstream songs, and original compositions. On a more specific level, I’ve heard waila bands playing “San Antonio Rose,” “Turkey in the Straw,” “12th Street Rag,” and a host of other recognizable melodies. However, waila tunes, which are passed on by ear, don’t always travel with their titles attached. A band will record a song and make up a title for it, often honoring some specific village where the song went over especially well. Anyone requesting a tune often needs to hum a little bit of it.

The Canyon Records on-line store sells “Waila!” ( CR-6805), a sampler from the first-ever waila records. Coming next: the River People, “Chicken Scratch,” and a great story.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

About this blog

Jim Griffith is the former director of the Southwest Folklore Center at the University of Arizona, and co-founder of Tucson Meet Yourself. He’s also the author of seven books on the folklore and folklife of our region, most recently “A Border Runs Through It.” His books can be purchased at

If you have questions or suggestions for Jim Griffith or this blog, e-mail


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