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Documentary on Native American polka music debuts on PBS

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LINCOLN, Neb. – Among the swaying giant arms of the saguaro cactus and clouds of dust that drift along isolated roads in southern Arizona is a soothing rhythm, a sound so distinct and stimulating that it arouses both the heart and soul.

Central European immigrants brought polka music to America in the mid-19th century, but here among the O’odham nations Akimel and Tohono tribal members have made the mixture of accordions, saxophones and percussion all their own.

Taken from the word baila, which means dance in Spanish, Akimel and Tohono people have created waila, a form of music that embodies polka, waltz and Mexican music, tejano, cumbias and Norteno, creating a vibrant, whimsical tone.

The history of the music and its founding fathers are the subject of a new documentary for public television, “Waila! Making the People Happy,” a co-production of Daniel Golding and the Independent Television Service. The film has also been produced in association with Eight/KAET and Native American Public Telecommunications. “Waila!” is being released to PBS stations across the nation starting in April. Check your local PBS station for air dates and times.

In the late 1700s and early 1800s, missionaries who brought violins and guitars on their journey taught the Akimel and Tohono O’odham to play instruments so there would be music during mass. Tribal members developed an ear for accordions after coming in contact with European immigrants who worked on the railroads.

After electricity came to the reservations in the 50s and 60s, the Joaquin Brothers picked up electric guitars and keyboards, and were one of the first to develop waila, which is also known among the tribes as “chicken scratch” after seeing people kick up their heels and scoot around. Four generations of Joaquins are playing waila now, including at the prestigious Carnegie Hall, and there’s no stopping them, even at two in the morning.

“When everybody is just having a good time and dancing away, it’s a fun feeling to know that what you are doing is helping people forget about their problems for awhile,” said Ron Joaquin, who has been performing since he was 14.

“Some of the young kids are learning – they really like cumbias because that’s freestyle and they can do their own thing,” said Mary Lou Listo, Ron Joaquin’s sister. It’s “whatever your body wants to do. You know in the end when we take friends, they are at least doing the cumbia and they are having fun. It’s just good, happy, lively music. It just makes people happy.”

Although some may think that the sound of accordions and saxophones doesn’t constitute “Indian music,” “Waila!” Producer/Director Daniel Golding, Quechan, said he made this film to show a slice of real Native America in the 20th century.

“I wanted people to see a side of Native America not normally portrayed – one that is a true representation of the Native spirit, fun; one that thrusts the viewer into the community so they can experience for themselves the true realistic beauty of the people, our communities and cultures that make up today’s Native America.”