O'odham waila music evolved from fiddling missionaries
Arizona Republic
March 24, 2008


Author: Clay Thompson, The Arizona Republic
Today's question:

I recently overheard a couple of people talking about an annual "whaling" festival in Tucson. Since they were strangers, I didn't want to butt in and interrupt them. Why would Tucson have a whaling festival?

Umm, you need to work on your eavesdropping skills. You didn't quite hear them right. They said "waila," not "whaling."

That said, there is an Arizona legend that sometime in the 1850s the carcass of a whale was found along the banks of the Salt River somewhere near present-day Mesa.

Supposedly, the beast got lost in the Gulf of California, swam up the Colorado River and then into the Salt, where its luck ran out.

This, of course, is hooey, but it's a good story.

Anyway, about waila. Waila music comes from the Tohono O'odham culture . The word is pronounced "why-la" and comes from the Spanish "baile," meaning "to dance."

In creating waila, Tohono O'odham fiddle bands borrowed from polka, schottisches, norteno music of the border area, cumbia music from South America, mazurkas and who knows what else.

It is strictly instrumental and traditionally is played with just fiddles and guitars. According to the Arizona Historical Society, fiddles were introduced to the Tohono O'odham by missionaries, who used the instruments for church music. The earliest documented performance of a Tohono O'odham fiddle band took place at Tucson in the 1860s.

Waila may have started out as fiddle music, but modern artists use button accordions, saxophones, electric guitars, drums and sometimes keyboards.

Traditional waila dancing is pretty much a rhythmic shuffle, and the dancers always move around the floor counterclockwise. It also is known as the chicken scratch dance.

The Arizona Historical Society sponsors a waila festival every year in Tucson. About 60 bands have performed in the 18 years of the festival's existence. This year's festival, featuring music, dancing, native foods and arts, starts at 5 p.m. May 20 at the University of Arizona's Bear Down Field.

You can read more about waila and the festival at www.arizonahistoricalsociety.org.

Do you have an Arizona history question? Reach Thompson at clay.thompson@arizonarepublic.com or 602-444-8612.
Edition: Final Chaser
Section: Arizona Living
Page: D2
Dateline: AZ
Record Number: pho98611818