Tearing up Indian Country on a $50 Button Accordion: Tohono O’odham Gertie Lopez
To the rest of the world, an accordion is a squeezebox, a bellows-driven musical instrument. To Gertrude ‘Gertie’ Lopez (Tohono O’odham), a battered diatonic button accordion represented fun and future in the form of her Native Waila, or chicken scratch, social music.
“The story I heard from an elder was that when people dance in the desert, they kick up a bunch of dust like chickens do when they’re poking around the barnyard. We kick up a bunch of dust when we dance to this kind of music,” says the 57-year-old tribal library resource coordinator/music teacher by day, veteran performer by night.
Gertie and the T.O. Boyz have been entertaining audiences for years now and in the process have earned numerous honors. As the only female bandleader on the Tohono O’odham Nation, Gertie has been honored as a nominee for a Native American Music Award in the Waila category and has coordinated production of six albums with number seven in production.
Her music titles reflect who she is and where her heart lies—tunes like The Rez Waila, Indian Beautychote, Libby Bird Song mazurka and Little Native cumbia.
“We share our music with people both on and off the reservation. Toss in an accordion, a violin, a guitar, bass, saxophone, and drums, and there’s a whole lot of scratching/dancing going on. It’s uplifting music—happy music—and you don’t even need a partner in order to get up and dance.”
According to the Southwest Folklife organization, “Waila originates from acoustic fiddle tunes and evolved to include different styles like polkas, mazurkas, cumbias, and chotes or two-steps” as well as zydeco, conjunto, and Cajun. Says Ms. Lopez: “Sounds connect cultures.”
Growing up in Chuichu Village in the Sif-oldak District of the Tohono Nation, Gertie and her 8 siblings would watch their musician father, Augustine, and his mariachi and Waila bands play gigs with guitar, guitarron, and vihuelah. By the time she was in seventh grade, she was playing drums in one of her father’s groups.
She moved on to play the guitar and several other instruments, but her future took a different course when she was 10 years old and her father brought home a simple box-instrument, a button accordion (that he paid $50 for). He set the instrument in the living room without a word and let curiosity work its magic as Gertie quickly began learning how to play. “My brothers and I formed our own Waila band and although my style was basic, never fancy, I started getting my own gigs when I was 15,” she says.
Two decades ago, she recorded her first CD with a rock band called A:cim or “Us” in the O’odham language. In 2003, she formed Gertie and the T.O. Boyz, a four-person sound machine specializing in Waila with Gertie on accordion and vocals and the three other musicians backing up with bass, guitar, and drums. A saxophone and violin were added later. “We’re the only band that travels with a violin, an influence straight from my dad.”
The “Boyz” in the band rotate stage appearances. “I don’t have the same guys every time,” she says. “Everyone is comfortable playing with everyone else, so it all works out.”
It all works out too with her own choir group with her mother, the Ida Lopez Group, that she leads for the San Xavier Elder choir where she lets someone else play the accordion and she plays guitar and sings in O’odham, Spanish, and English.
Not only does she share her talent with others through music, she finds solace in that sound. “Music is my form of prayer and I pray a lot for the children.” Not only pray for them, she acts as an ambassador for Waila music and youth, helping share the traditional sound by teaching classes at Baboquivari High School in Topawa on the Tohono O’odham Nation, acquainting the next generation to that form of tradition.
Sitting in a Mexican restaurant sharing a bowl of chips and salsa, ICMN asked Gertie to describe the essence of Waila music. Instead of explaining, she starts singing one of the social songs—much to the delight of the diners around us.
Afflicted now by severe joint pain, she plays through it. “I won’t let rheumatoid arthritis put me down because music is my life. I ask those who have left us to give me strength and although the hands get sore, they still continue to make music.”