Big Jim: A journey into Tohono O'odham music, part 4

2014-01-21T00:00:00Z 2014-01-21T11:58:58Z Big Jim: A journey into Tohono O'odham music, part 4Jim Griffith Special to the Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

The Tohono O’odham are not the only folks in Arizona who play waila music. The sounds of waila are just as popular among their cousins, the River People, whom many outsiders call Pimas. I can’t hear much difference between the two musics, but there is a difference in what they are called. The River People are comfortable with the name “Chicken Scratch” for the music, while the Tohono O’odham say that the label applies only to a particular dance, and is mildly derogatory. As I heard one senior musician say, “We are not chickens. We are Tohono O’odham and we play waila music.”

But the O’odham play other kinds of music. One of my favorite stories concerns a boy from the Gila River Reservation named Russell Moore (1912-1983). When he was young he went to live with his uncle, who had been resettled in the Chicago area. There he discovered jazz and listened to many of the great musicians of the time.

Moore took up the trombone, and soon after graduating from school he found a place in the Lionel Hampton band. Under the name of “Big Chief Russell Moore” he played in many top jazz bands, and even toured Europe with Louis Armstrong. Every now and them, he would take his own band on a tour of the reservations in Arizona.

In fact, you can find almost any kind of music being played by O’odham if you look — and listen — around you. There are even occasional O’odham blues bands!

One more thing I forgot to mention a couple of blogs back: some O’odham fiddlers play for the pascola dance. Pascolas are ceremonial solo step dancers who accentuate the rhythm of the dance by wrapping strings of cocoon rattles around their ankles. Many O’odham have told me that their people learned the dance and its music from the Yaquis, whose ceremonial music I’ll take up later in the year. O’odham pascolas dance to the violin and guitar; Yaquis to the violin and harp. Both O’odham and Yaqui pascolas usually appear in the Sunday program at the Tumacacori fiesta, where you can compare the two related musical styles.

And that’s all in this series; next blog we’ll be on to something else!

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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

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