The annual Waila Festival is off for now, due to budgetary reasons. But a waila special on KUAT-TV on Monday may take the edge off.
“Waila! Making the People Happy” is a half-hour film by Quechan tribe member Daniel Golding about the Tohono O’odham social dance tradition. The show airs on Channel 6 at 10:30 p.m. Monday.
A cousin of the northern Mexican norteño tradition, waila features polkas, cumbias and Schottisches. But while the musical repertoire of both norteño and waila overlaps, waila is a strictly instrumental tradition, played by ensembles typically made up of saxophones, button accordion, bajo sexto (a 12-string rhythm guitar), electric bass and drums.
The main instrumentation and musical styles came from 19th century European settlers. But over the years the Tohono O’odham have put their own spin on the music and made it their own.
Typical waila dances run sundown to sunup, and the band has a repertoire to span that time period.
Tucson has gotten to know the waila tradition better through the annual Waila Festival, which began in 1989 and has in recent years been a May event on the University of Arizona campus. But with the economy in a bind, the money that the festival usually borrows from the Arizona Historical Society is just not there this year, according to festival co-founder Angelo JoaquinJr.
“It was a cash flow problem,” Joaquin explains. To Joaquin and the festival committee it would be too hard to get everything together for a spring festival this year. But the group sees the current problem as an opportunity.
“It’s time for us to regroup and look at what’s really important and where we want to go from here,” Joaquin says. “I hope that there is quite a bit of support out there and people will work to help us put it on again next year.”
In fact, there may be two events – one in late spring, the other in winter.
The committee is focusing on creating an indoor dance to highlight more the orchestral style of waila. To be held sometime between November and January, the event hopefully will be a draw for winter visitors who likely will be surprised to see Native Americans playing and dancing to polka music.
Breaking from Native American stereotypes was on the mind of filmmakerl Golding when he started making “Waila! Making the People Happy.”
Golding, 42, first heard the music as a child growing up on the Fort Yuma-Quechan Reservation along the California border of Arizona.
A magazine article jogged his memory of the music, which is also called Chicken Scratch. He started researching the project in 2000 and began shooting in 2002-2003.
He called on Ron Joaquin (brother of Angelo Joaquin Jr.) – a second-generation member of the pioneering waila saxophone band The Joaquin Brothers – and started attending the Tucson Waila Festival, as well as “battle of the bands” events.
“What was neat was just learning how a Native people have adapted this musical style to fit into their own community,” Golding says. “A lot of times it seems like we’re portrayed as living in the past, in movies and TV. This is an opportunity to really show how Native people have adapted something that was given to them, made it their own and created this new contemporary tradition. I think that’s very empowering for people to see and learn about the Native communities.”
Although the project mainly focuses on the Joaquin Brothers, it shows some of the other bands in the project, too, Golding says.
“Talking to people even around Phoenix and Tucson, they’re totally unfamiliar with the Indian people that live right there,” he notes. “It’s almost like this cultural divide right there. People don’t get to experience it even though it’s right there in their own backyard. This is an opportunity for people to step into their world visually and see and experience what’s going on.”
For more information on this and other Daniel Golding films visit hokanmedia.com. And don’t miss “Waila! Making the People Happy” on Monday night.