Tohono O'odham

"Tohono O'odham Fiddle Music"
Contributed by Barbara E. Sherrill and Susan Gage
MUS334 Professor Sturman
September 30, 2002

Tohono O'odham fiddle music is a unique and distinctive musical tradition heard in Southern Arizona. The O'odham people, formerly known as the Papago and Pima tribes. The Tohono O'odham nation includes the desert and the river territory stretching from Phoenix, Arizona to the Mexican border. The word O'odham means "people" in the indigenous language spoken throughout South Central Arizona and small pockets of Sonora and Durango, Mexico. The traditional O'odham fiddle music band consists of two violins, one or more guitars and a bass and snare drum. The tunes are usually not named, but can be identified by humming a few bars of music.

O'odham fiddle music was a result of the arrival and influence of European missionaries, which began in 1539. It continued with the arrival of Father Kino in 1687 as a Catholic missionary for the Court of Spain. This was the beginning influence of Catholicism, its masses, rituals and a global world connection for the Tohono O'odham communities. By 1915 the Franciscan missionaries arrived and continued the influences of Father Kino and others with the O'odham communities. The O'odham communities developed a kind of "folk Catholicism", that allowed them to retain some of their old, pre-Catholic traditions. One of their most important traditions is the holding of village saint's day feasts. These feasts included praying, marching in processions, feasting on special foods, and couple-dancing to European-style music, or O'odham old style fiddle music. The music and feast goes on all night long until dawn. Different tunes are played in the early evening, after midnight and early morning. The instruments are usually retuned to a different pitch after midnight.

The Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries taught their European instruments to the Tohono O'odham communities so they could play music for Catholic masses and other Church occasions. The San Xavier community south of Tucson probably had such instruments. It is believed that the American 49'ers traveled through the San Xavier community. This is probably where the Tohono O'odham learned the polka, mazurka, waltz and schottische dance music. These dances became the primary forms for the traditional Tohono O'odham fiddle music, transforming the music for church to secular purposes. Written records indicate that by the 1860's, an O'odham band of fiddles and guitars played at Tucson's annual Fiesta de San Agustin. This traditional fiddle music was used until after the Second World War, when it was replaced with the modern day waila band.

Three traditional dances are performed to the old style Tohono O'odham fiddle music. The kwariya is a circle dance in which couples promenade, reverse direction, do a grand chain, and then form into two-couple sets for well-known Anglo-American square dance figures. The couples exit by promenading under a bridge of hands. The music is played in 6/8 time. A special kwariya tune is known from Eastern Europe to Arizona as "Flop-Eared Mule." The other two dance types, the Pascola and the Matachine dances, are strictly associated with religious ritual. The Pascola dance was traditionally taken from the Yaqui Indians, but with a heavy Christian influence by European missionaries. The music that accompanies matachines dances dates back to medieval Spain.

Since the mid 1980's traditional O'odham old style fiddle band has enjoyed a revival of interest. Veteran musicians have formed three bands that currently perform waila fiddle music: the San Xavier Fiddle band, the Gu Achi Fiddlers, and the Gila River Fiddlers. Each band represents a different region of the Tohono O'odham nation. All three bands have produced recordings.

To purchase Tohono O'odham fiddle music, visit these websites:


Lornell, Kip, Anne K. Rasmussen. Waila: The social Dane of the Tohono, in Musics of Multicultural America: A Study of Twelve Communities. New York: Schirmer Books, 1997: 187-297.
Lornell, Kip. "Ethnic and Native American traditions," in Introducing American Folk Music: Ethnic and Grassroot Traditions in the United States. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002: 226-30.


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