A’AGA, Something to be told: Waila

March 3, 2107


By Billy Allen


The O’otham area, here in Gila River and also with our sister tribes, has been piast central during these cool months. The Ak Chin community celebrated Masik Tas in December, and then late January had the Tohono O’odham Rodeo and Fair. Rain / ju:k stayed in Casa Grande for O’odham Tash. Now in March / Kui I’vakidag Masad it is our turn with the Mul Chu Tha.


In June, the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community will keep the piasts going. Each celebration is unique, but offer parades, rodeos, contemporary and old time athletic contests, food booths and music. For many O’otham music means vaila, now a part of the culture.


The Christian missionaries who journeyed to our land arrived with many European things: cattle, wheat, and music, to name a few. When O’odham learned how to play the violin, guitar, and bass drum, they quickly put a tribal spin on the Mexican interpretation of European dances like the mazurka, the waltz, and the polka.


Explaining European origins, the Waila Festival, Inc. website states waila is similar to a polka, the cho:di is from Scotland and/or Germany, the mazurka is Polish, and the cumbia came to us from Columbia by way of Mexico. Cumbia usually gets everyone on the dance floor. Don’t worry about the footwork – it’s all upper arm and body style while floating around—with or without a partner!


An older dance was the quadrille/kwariya, which for the O’odham is more of a circle dance. Pahko o’ola is the Yaqui/Hiakim term for “Old Man of the Fiesta” which is a dance we also borrowed. Entering the “global village” brings a lot of new music to all cultures.


An earlier polka move had dancers kick up their heels when turning. It reminded people of chickens scratching the ground, hence the term “chicken scratch.” Musician Philip Miguel took exception and remarked, “We are not chickens; we’re O’odham, and this is O’odham waila music.”


Boarding school introduced different instruments and with inter-tribal and Mexican influences, the “the voices of vaila,” the accordion and saxophone were added. Rock and roll and electricity ushered in amplifiers, electric guitars and microphones.   O’odham musicians didn’t skip a beat.


It’s said that the Lawrence Welk Show was popular for the polka music with urban O’odham away from the reservations.


In the mid 1950’s, a large O’odham community existed in Los Angeles due to the Relocation program of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Angelo Joaquin, Sr. and family formed an orchestra to fill the O’odham need to dance in LA. The popularity of the Joaquin Brothers band would extend nationwide, performing at the National Folk Festival in Wolf Trap in 1980 and New York City’s Carnegie Hall in 1992.


Vaila music seems to have stood the test of time by changing with the times. Old time dancers remember the practice of specific songs being played at certain times of the night and the retuning of instruments at midnight to a higher pitch. Singing in O’odham has a religious aspect and is reserved for special occasions. Traditional songs don’t translate well into vaila music.


Vaila bands do sing Mexican favorites, but with an O’odham flavor. However in the 1970’s, The Molinas recorded an O’odham cult classic, The Oik Oik Oik Polka. The band earned the title of Super Scratch Kings, won in 1974 at Salt River during the National Indian Trade Fair.


Today bands have women musicians with one band of renown led by a woman. Our himdag is constantly changing and so has vaila. Both have endured by being able to keep pace with the changing world. Attend the Mul Chu Tha and listen to survival. Dr. Ofelia Zepeda, University of Arizona professor of linguistics and Tohono O’odham language, puts it best with a poem, “Waila Music.”


"It is 1:30 am.

Sleep won’t come.

She listens to music.

O’odham waila music.

San Antonio Rose,

a wild saxophone and accordion.

In her mind she dances.

She dances with a handsome cowboy.

His hat is white, his boots are dusty.

They turn in rhythm together.

They don’t miss a beat.

Their hearts beat in sync.

Their sweat is mixed as one.

The earthen dance floor beneath them,

the stars and moon above them.

That rhythm, that rhythm,

it makes them one."


Information was taken from the following sources. Ocean Power, Poems of the Desert by Ofelia Zepeda, 1995 the University of Arizona.


The Accordion in the Americas, edited by Helena Simonett. University of Illinois Press; The Music of Multicultural America, edited by Kip Lornell and Anne K. Rasmussen. University Press of Mississippi, Jackson.






The Tucson Citizen and the Arizona Daily Star.