Big Jim: A journey into Tohono O'odham music, part 1

2014-01-10T00:00:00Z 2014-09-18T10:35:35Z Big Jim: A journey into Tohono O'odham music, part 1Jim Griffith Special to the Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Last Saturday morning I was eating menudo at the Little Mexico Steakhouse on Valencia Road and discussing possible blog topics for the new year with the folks at the table when Ken Boom suggested that I write something about waila music.

I agreed that it was an interesting topic – many newcomers have been surprised when they encounter a group of Tohono O’odham belting out polkas and two-steps on accordions, saxophones, electric guitars, and drums. But the more I thought about the project, the more it wanted to turn into a series about all the different kinds of O’odham music and dance we are likely to experience in southern Arizona. So here goes!

The oldest kind of O’odham music and dance that the outsider is likely to experience is group singing to accompany group dancing. The singers may be men, women, or a mixed group. They accompany themselves on gourd rattles and a hand-held drum. Originally this drum was a large overturned basket, but now that such baskets have become valuable items to be kept or sold, a bowl-shaped piece of rawhide or some other stiff material is used. Whatever the material, the drum produces a dull “thunk,” rather than a hollow boom.

The song melodies are usually in what some call “terraced” style. The singers will hold to a note, then drop down and hold another, and on to the end of the rather short phrase. The texts are often descriptive, in an allusive rather than a direct way.

Unless one is at a meeting that starts with a solo blessing song, an outsider is most likely to experience O’odham singing accompanying an exhibition dance at a public festival like Tucson Meet Yourself. The dances involve lines of dancers who advance, retreat, turn, and perform other figures.

The other popular form of public dance is the keihina or circle dance, sometimes called the “friendship dance” because all those attending are invited to participate. In this dance, men and women join hands in a large circle and dance counter-clockwise. At first, only the rattle accompanies the singers, and the dancers walk quietly around the circle. After a couple of repetitions, the basket drum joins in and the dancers do a sort of two-footed sideways hop until that song is over. O’odham songs tend to be repeated four times, or in multiples of four.

We’ll continue our exploration of Tohono O’odham music in the next blog, which will concentrate on violin music. Canyon Records of Phoenix has an excellent CD of traditional O’odham singing — CR-6107. Google them up and find it in their store under “Traditional Treasures.”

Copyright 2015 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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