Big Jim: A journey into Tohono O'odham music, part 2

2014-01-14T00:00:00Z 2014-09-18T10:35:36Z Big Jim: A journey into Tohono O'odham music, part 2Jim Griffith Special to the Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

The music I described the last time is what is left over from the days before the Europeans arrived in this region. It has changed, of course, but it has the oldest roots of any O’odham music.

The arrival of the Jesuit missionaries in 1687 signaled the start of a new musical era. The missionaries taught the Indians to play European music for Mass and other ritual occasions, and introduced such new instruments as the violin, guitar, and the skin-headed tension-hoop drum. The O’odham accepted these, and found new uses for them. By the mid-19th Century, the O’odham were playing European-derived dance music on these same instruments.

The earliest mention of instrumental O’odham dance music is a description of a band from San Xavier who played polkas and other dance music at Tucson’s San Agustín fiesta in the 1860s. Later called waila (from the O’odham pronunciation of the Spanish baile or “dance”), this music, played on violins, guitars, and drums, was popular into the 1950s, and can still be heard today. The typical old-time waila band consists of one or two violins, one or two guitars, a snare drum and a bass drum. The music includes polkas, two-steps, mazurkas and cumbias, the latter being a relatively recent arrival. The O’odham polka dance is a smooth, walking step, and like the circle dance, is typically performed counter-clockwise.

There is one more kind of dance in the old-time O’odham repertoire — the kwariya or cuadrille. This is set to a 6/8 rhythm, and is performed by couples who start in a big circle and then break into such familiar square dance figures as “birdie in a cage” and “swing your opposite.” One of the dancers serves as caller. This music and dance may well have come to the O’odham in the 1840s and 50s, when San Xavier was a popular wagon-train stop on the southern route to California. At least one of the kwariya tunes is a variant of the well-known American fiddle tune “Flop-Eared Mule."

The fiddle-based waila bands were replaced in popularity in the ‘50s and ‘60s by the modern waila bands, which will be the subject of our next blog. They enjoyed a comeback in popularity in the 1990s, and now may occasionally be heard at festivals and village feasts.

Canyon Records has one excellent CD available: CR-8082 The Gu Achi Fiddlers: Old-Time O’odham Fiddle Music.

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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 tucson.com/wildcatgear.

If you have questions or suggestions for Jim Griffith or this blog, e-mail bigjimgriffith@gmail.com

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