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Elder and younger dancers at the 1997 Festival
Tohono O'odham dancers, elders and youngsters, dance to waila music at the 1997 Waila Festival. Photo: Scott Baglione

Annual Waila Festival

Founded in 1989 in Tucson, the Annual Waila Festival celebrates the social dance music, waila, of the Tohono O'odham, the Native peoples of the Sonoran Desert. Waila is an O'odham word derived from the Spanish word "baile," to dance. The mission of this two-day event is three-fold: to encourage and facilitate the artistic development of waila music and musicians; 2) to showcase this one-hundred-year-old musical form in a professional setting; 3) to bring this aspect of the Tohono O'odham culture to the public of southern Arizona. Since 1989, 60 waila bands have been presented to a total of approximately 55,000 people.

Also known as "chicken scratch," waila evolved from the music of earlier acoustic fiddle bands that adapted European and Mexican tunes heard in northern Sonora. By the mid-1950s, groups with a combination of different instruments, including the button accordion and alto saxophone, became known as waila bands. Today's Tohono O'odham waila bands also include electric six-string and bass guitars and a drum kits. The musical arrangements may have disparate phrases from familiar tunes woven into them; some waila pieces are adaptations of music heard on Mexican and American radio stations. Waila music uses no vocals and generally does not incorporate a keyboard. The dances performed in the waila tradition are the waila (polka), the chote (schottische), the cumbia, and the mazurka. Regardless of the beat, all waila dances are performed while rotating around the floor in a counter-clockwise direction.

Along with the dance music that is the heart of the event, the Waila Festival committee has also sponsored three Young Waila Musicians Workshops. Since the first Festival, several O'odham groups besides the musicians have given the event its special flavor. The O'odham elders have attended every year, teaching the traditional dance styles by example. O'odham food organizations have provided popular and traditional dishes for the hungry crowds. And O'odham artisans have introduced all forms of traditional arts, such as fiber, wire, and horsehair baskets, carvings, pottery, and traditional clothing, to the public. The festival will celebrate its twelfth year in May 2000.

Project documentation comprises a program from the 1998 Festival, a written report, and sixteen 8 x 10 black and white photographs and accompanying descriptions.

Originally submitted by: John McCain, Senator.

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The Local Legacies project provides a "snapshot" of American Culture as it was expressed in spring of 2000. Consequently, it is not being updated with new or revised information with the exception of "Related Website" links.

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