Chapter 6 Preserving Territory: The Changing Language of the Accordion in Tohono O’odham Waila
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6 Preserving Territory The Changing Language of the Accordion in Tohono O’odham Waila Music janet l. sturman “Waila Music” It is 1:30 a.m. Sleep won’t come. She listens to music. O’odham waila music, San Antonio Rose, a wild saxophone and accordion. In her mind she dances. She dances with a handsome cowboy. His hat is white, his boots are dusty. They turn in rhythm together. They don’t miss a beat. Their hearts beat in sync. Their sweat is mixed as one. The earthen dance floor beneath them, the stars and the moon above them. That rhythm, that rhythm, it makes them one. Waila music, like the poetry of the Tohono O’odham poet, linguist, and distinguished professor Ofelia Zepeda, is plain and direct, yet evocative and invigorating . The accordion and saxophone entwine like the dancers and celestial bodies 113 Preserving Territory thatZepedacallstomind.Suchsimplicitybeliesitspower.Connection—between peopleandmusic,languageandinstrumentalperformance,andmusicandmemory —lies at the heart of the story of the accordion in waila music. FortheTohonoO’odham,theindigenouspeopleofsouthernArizonaformerly known as Papagos,1 the accordion is not a native instrument. It arrived by way of Texas and northern Mexico in the 1890s, along with German immigrants who farmed, raised cattle, and helped construct the factories, railroads, and mines in the region.2 As prospectors and entrepreneurs traveled west, spurred by the growthoftheminingindustry,musictraveledwiththem,andtheaccordioncame along, aided by a nascent recording industry.3 The O’odham adopted the Texas and northern Mexican music styles (see the previous chapter by Cathy Ragland), enrichingthemwithinfluencesfromtheWestCoastandLosAngeles–basedChicano styles to create their own popular borderland music, calling it waila. Essentially dance music, waila derives its name from the Spanish word for dance (baile), and most players prefer this term over “chicken scratch,” another widelyusedlabelforthestyle,withitsgood-naturedbutfaintlyderisivereference to the appearance of the dancers in the desert dust. The term waila also refers to the polka beat, the defining dance rhythm in the waila repertoire. The earliest ensembles were string bands commonly featuring two fiddles and a guitar with a snare and bass drum or a bass fiddle, but by the late 1950s the accordion had become a signature instrument of waila.4 One of the fundamental distinctions between waila and norteño, Tejano, and other comparable traditions is that performances of waila customarily exclude partsforvocalists;thesinginglinesareperformedbythesaxophone(s)andaccordion ,expandingtherolepreviouslyundertakenbythefiddlersinearlierO’odham instrumentalgroups.5 Therelationshipbetweenlanguageuseandaccordiontechnique lies at the heart of the distinctions between these kindred styles. While Tejano accordionists play flashy, often elaborate interludes between sung verses deliveredbyvocalists,wailaaccordionistssupplyorreinforcethemelodiccontent ofthesong.6 ManyO’odhamplayersidentifytheaccordionas“thevoiceofwaila.”7 Brandis Joaquin, the accordionist for the Mario Brothers and Thee Express, explains : “It seems like everything fits to the accordion.”8 Even when saxophones areassignedtheroleofsinger,theaccordionmayberetained.Brandisadds:“You might say it replaces the double saxes, but we like to combine saxophone with the accordion. In Thee Express we use two saxophones with accordion—this is a popular instrumentation today.”9 Notonlydoestheaccordionstandattheheartofthecontemporarywailapractice ,butrecentchangesinhowplayersviewsingingilluminatenewtechniquesin accordionperformance.Afocusonapproachestoasingleinstrumentalsoreveals thatthestyleandpracticeofwailaisfarfromuniform;therehasalwaysbeencon- 114 janet l. sturman siderable variation among performers. Varied techniques signal nuanced views of what waila contributes to modern O’odham life. Recognition of this fact calls for equal recognition in academic contexts. Ethnographic focus on identifying shared cultural practice often obscures the fact that many times such choices result from individual desire and taste. One of my aims in this study is to illustrate the importance of such personal choices and toexploreameansforincludingindividualityinanexplanationofsharedcultural practice, similar in some ways to what the anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod has called “the ethnography of the particular.”10 Despite variations in performance practices, O’odham listeners uniformly value waila because it connects them to each other and “makes them happy.”11 The focus on how and why waila musicians play the accordion the way they do allows us to see how the music also links O’odhamtonon-O’odhamandtomuchwidersocial,musical,andeveneconomic circles. Yet even as waila musicians engage with the non-O’odham world, they simultaneously hold it at bay.12 Methodology While a study of the waila accordion implies a focus on the instrument as an object , the accordion itself matters much less than who plays it, what is played, and where, when, and why it is played. My service on the Tucson Waila Festival committee since 1995 has provided me with the opportunity to hear a wide range of waila bands, meet many waila musicians, and observe how O’odham and nonO ’odham respond to the music. The annual Waila Festival, held in Tucson, Arizona, since 1988, is one of the best ways to hear waila off-reservation.13 The...


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