Dancing to the Tohono O'odham polka

 

Polka is everywhere, including on the Tohono O'odham Nation in southwestern Arizona, where the Joaquin Brothers band -- playing a form of polka music that accompanies the "chicken scratch," a popular dance on the reservations of the Southwest -- has been going for more than 50 years.

"Waila" is taken from "baila," which means dance in Spanish. Blending polka, waltz, tejano, cumbia and Norteno, Waila's roots go back as far as the late 1700s, when European immigrants brought their accordions with them to work on the railroads. When electricity came to the reservations in the 1950s and '60s, the Joaquin Brothers amped it up with electric keyboards and guitars. They also added saxophones.

The band was founded by Angelo Joaquin, who was lured to Los Angeles ("where employment was plentiful") in the 1950s by the federal government's Urban Relocation Program. In Los Angeles, Joaquin formed his first group at the Papago Club, where relocated Tohono O'odham members gathered. Three generations later, the band is going strong and a new PBS documentary entitled "Waila: Making the People Happy" features the Joaquin family playing and telling their story.

Directed by Quechan Daniel Golding, the film follows the Joaquins from the reservation to Carnegie Hall, where they performed in 1994. "I wanted people to see a side of Native America not normally portrayed -- one that is a true representation of the Native spirit, fun," says Golding.

Curious? You can hear the Joaquin Brothers play such tunes as "Hohokam Polka" at Canyon Records.