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'Express Yourself,’ by Thee Express

In 1978, Ricardo Vavages founded “Papago Express,” an energetic American Indian waila dance band. In the 1980s, when the tribe changed its name to Tohono O’odham, Vavages also changed the name of the band, and “Thee Express” was born. The band now consists of Rupert Vavages; his son, Steve; Isaac Vavages; Andy Juan; Brandis Joaquin; and Ryan Felix. Their latest album on Canyon Records, “Express Yourself,” is a combination of old favorites and exciting new tunes.

Waila has a fascinating history that reveals the inspiring innovation of Native musicians throughout the last three centuries.

In 1694, missionary Father Eusebio Francisco Kino became the first European to enter Tucson. Throughout the 1700s, the Spanish continued to colonize and settle the river valleys of southern Arizona, establishing missions along the way. The entire territory remained part of Spain, then Mexico, until the Gadsden Purchase of 1853 placed Southern Arizona in the possession of the United States.

In these Catholic missions, priests taught the local mission-educated Indians, particularly the Tohono O’odham (at that time the Papago), to play European musical instruments. Guitars and fiddles were the most prominent types of Spanish instrumentation, and soon these budding musicians were providing music for Mass.

European revolutions around 1848 brought many talented German immigrants to Texas, bringing with them accordions and a love for schottische, mazurka and polka music. When these exciting new types of rhythmic dance music were unveiled in Arizona, adventuresome musicians began experimenting with the new sound.

Tohono O’odham bands began performing the new music at festivals and social dances called waila. Waila is an O’odham word meaning “dance” and is derived from the Spanish word baile.

Meanwhile, boarding school-educated Indian students were being introduced to new instruments like the saxophone and snare and bass drum. By the 1950s, a typical Tohono O’odham dance band consisted of a guitar, string bass, fiddle, accordion, saxophone and small drum kit. These bands played a combination of European and Mexican tunes in styles that included the polka, schottische, mazurka and norteno music.

Interestingly enough, Native dancers performed a “walking two-step” or a “chote” with smooth gliding movements as well as a traditional Tohono O’odham dance, which involves kicking out the heels, much like a chicken scratching the ground. The result was chicken scratch.

Chicken scratch has been a cultural phenomenon on the Tohono O’odham, Pima Salt River, and Gila River reservations since the 1950s; but by the early 1970s, the spirited strains of waila had also invaded the desert communities of southern Arizona from Phoenix to Sonora, Mexico.

The traditional setting for waila music is an all-night feast, or “piast.” These celebrations are held to commemorate religious holidays, weddings, birthdays, graduations and other special occasions.

During the piast, feasting and merrymaking begin at sundown and end at sunrise. Participants surround an elaborately decorated dance ramada. Bonfires light the faces of the cheerful festival-goers. The entire community, both young and old, enjoys the revelry and participates in the dancing.

In 1972, Canyon Records released its first recording of waila music: a compilation album of two bands, El Conjunto Murrietta and Mike Enis and Company. The album was simply titled “Chicken Scratch!” Sales were phenomenal, and Canyon began a search for more waila bands. Today, Canyon has an extensive catalog of more than 60 waila recordings, and chicken scratch is a mainstay of many Southwestern bars, dance clubs and radio play lists.

In recent years, waila music has spread beyond the reservation community. Southern Arizona festivals devoted to waila draw thousands of chicken scratch enthusiasts each year. Waila bands have performed at such diverse venues as the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C.; at Carnegie Hall in New York City; at the National Folk Festival at Wolftrap, Va.; and at a “Polka Powwow” held in Buffalo, N.Y. In 1995, a waila band was featured on the National Public Radio’s “A Prairie Home Companion” show.

Much credit for the expanded popularity of waila must be given to the Arizona Historical Society for sponsorship of the annual Waila Festival, held in Tucson under the directorship of Angelo Joaquin Jr. and Karen Seger.

In addition, the Waila Festival Committee established the Young Waila Musicians Workshops in 1995. Sponsored by University of Arizona’s School of Music, experienced waila instrumentalists instruct groups of O’odham students, ranging in age from 10 to 22.

“Express Yourself” features fourteen energetic pieces of waila music that truly exemplify the amazing power and diverse traditions of genuine Southwest Chicken Scratch. The album, which is available through the Canyon Records Web site, is a wonderful introduction to the exciting sounds of waila.