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Photo of dancers of many ages at the 1997 Festival
Tohono O'odham dancers, elders and youngsters, dance to waila music at the 1997 Waila Festival

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The Annual Waila Festival
A Local Legacy

Would you ever guess that 'waila' was a kind of social dance music? Also known as "chicken scratch" music, waila music is featured at the Annual Waila Festival in Tucson.

Waila music comes from the Tohono O'odham, the native people of the Sonoran desert and the largest Indian nation of southern Arizona. Waila (pronounced why-la) is an O'odham word that comes from the Spanish word "baile," which means "to dance." There are no words to waila music -- it is only instrumental, and is played on a button accordion, alto saxophone, electric six-string and bass guitars, and drums.

Waila began from the music of early fiddle bands that adapted European and Mexican tunes heard in northern Sonora. The dances performed in the waila tradition are the waila (which is similar to a polka), the chote (based on a folk dance from Scotland or Germany), and the mazurka (based on a Polish folk dance). Regardless of the beat, all waila dances are performed while moving around the floor in a counterclockwise direction.

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