A’AGA: Something to be told or talked about

Submitted by

Billy Allen


Music and songs tie us to episodes of our lives. My 2023 was a year of changes.  John Lennon comes to my mind:

There are places I remember all my life, though some have changed. Some forever, not for better. Some have gone, some remain.

Life becomes different when “some have gone,” but we must keep walking on.


I binged “Reservation Dogs,’ and while “In My Life” was not part of the TV show, it would have fit so many scenes.


“Reservation Dogs” centers around four young Oklahoma Natives who lose a friend to suicide, how the community was affected, and how all handled their feelings.  There are funny and heartbreaking situations, a slice of life, our human condition, the Native experience. It could have been stories from the Gila River Indian Community.


The soundtrack caught my good ear— it was like another character. A memorable scene took place at a river where the four youths sought guidance from two elders in reversing a curse, they felt plagued their town. To reverse the curse, a sacred song had to be sung.  The youths looked expectantly to the elders; the elders looked back. Then Brownie broke into ‘Free Fallin,’ a 1989 Tom Petty song. For him, the elderly, it was ancient and sacred.  I wondered what songs GRICster musicians would have offered?


I turned to a singer with Sweetwater roots. He recalled going to various celebrations on the Gila River, Salt River, Ak Chin, and Tohono O’odham communities. Back then, the entire family would go. Such doings usually had elders singing old songs, who sang for the joy of it. The boy would go and listen, he knew O’otham, but some words, phrases, he couldn’t grasp. It stirred a desire to learn more.


In the late 1980s, this future ne’edam or singer felt he needed to learn a song. He asked Barnaby Lewis for help, so Mr. Lewis drove to Tucson because the future ne’edam was working for Native Seeds Search.


As a result, he was invited to come sit in with a group of ne’edam also learning. This future ne’edam showed up with his plain, handmade gourd rattle or savikud. He also picked up more gourd making skills which he continues to make today. As the future ne’edam began to learn the songs, his father gave him some advice, “Be strong and keep doing it.


If you were meant to sing, you will become one.” The father was a member of an Old Time Fiddler O’odham band, no amplification. Some of their Canyon Records recordings still exist.


The ‘Peace and Dignity’ Run of 1990, had Native runners from North and South America run to Mexico City. This ne’edam participated in the relay run to San Xavier, which took 4 days and 4 nights. (Wally Kyyitan stayed with the group all the way to Mexico City.)  But an opportunity arose to fly to Mexico City. He joined the relay as they made their way to Teotihuacan, home of the Pyramid of the Sun and Pyramid of the Moon.


Different indigenous villages welcomed the runners and made them feel at home.  After one dinner, Robert Stone took out his faithful handcrafted gourd to sing an O’otham song. Using his gourd and O’otham voice, the song echoed off the pyramids.


The other musician who shared was more modern, he liked amplification. His uncles, Virgil Jose and Joe Miguel, learned music at boarding school and came home to channel their musical knowledge in forming a chicken-scratch band.  Musical instruments were among the playthings at the house. His mother learned early that music had a calming effect on her son. As a young boy he spent some time in Santa Rosa, Tohono O’odham was a hotbed for waila bands. Returning to Stotonic, his father began teaching the boy guitar chords.


An uncle taught the grade schooler bass notes gleaned from vaila cassette tapes.  The next thing the young boy knew, he was in the Assembly of God church band.


Then one day his uncle came to take him to play with the vaila band—in a bar. His mother and the boy were scared, both knew what could take place there on a Saturday night. But his father decided to let his son experience a part of the family tradition.  The boy was anxious but overcame the fear.


In his teenage years, modern rock was on the airways, he turned to s-ve:c vainom or heavy metal. At a musical crossroad, he chose vaila. We are grateful for that. Over the past 37 years, playing with various vaila bands, he has noticed learning the different steps for the various styles seem to be less popular. But with the first notes of a cumbia, the floor becomes a swirling parking lot.


Corwin Norris does publicize vaila but prefers to let the music sing for itself. ‘I believe people will come on their own. O’odham musico, is one way to express pride.’ Adding, ‘I just stuck with it. It’s in my heart.’

Music preferences for O’otham and O’odham are varied. Individuals have their favorites, age-groups have their standards. I don’t know what song I would sing if I was in Brownie’s position. But I know what style two O’odham musicians would choose.