Friday, March 31, 2006


A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
March 31, 2006

Are you ready for Native American polka?

Some of the craziest, most infectious high-energy dance music of the Southwest is waila, sometimes called “chicken scratch,” created and perfected by the Tohono O’odham tribe (formerly called Papago) of southern Arizona.

There’s even a Waila Festival that takes place every May at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

Canyon Records, that venerated purveyor of American Indian music both traditional and contemporary, recently re-released four of its classic 1970s waila albums on two CDs.

Waila! consists of the groundbreaking Chicken Scratch! (featuring two bands, El Conjunto Murietta and Mike Enis & Company) and its sequel, Chicken Scratch with Elvin Kelly y Los Reyes & Los Papagos Molinas. Both were originally released in 1972.

Then there’s The American Indians Play Waila, which consists of the first two albums by the Tohono O’odham band called The American Indians.

Waila — a word that comes from the Spanish baile (dance) — is predominantly instrumental music in which the lead instruments typically are the saxophone and accordion. At least since the rock ’n’ roll era, waila bands usually also include electric guitar, electric bass, and drums.

The history of waila is one of those tales of cultural cross-pollination that make America great. When German immigrants moved to Texas and introduced the accordion to the Mexicans already living there, the resulting proto-Tex-Mex sound swept the American Southwest (and northern Mexico, for that matter).

Tohono O’odham musicians, who had been introduced to European instruments by Catholic missionaries, took up the new sound, though the accordion wouldn’t become a staple in Tohono O’odham dance bands until the last half of the 20th century.

According to the Waila! liner notes, until the late ’40s, the typical band consisted of a fiddle, an acoustic guitar, bass drum, and snare drum. Sax and accordion came later — as did the wah-wah pedal, which American Indian John Manuel hooked up to his accordion in 1976 to produce some otherworldly sounds.

The nearby Pima tribe also embraced waila. Most of Los Reyes’ members, for example, are Pimas.

The songs come from old tribal melodies, Mexican songs, and European sources. Waila bands play a number of styles — polka, mazurka (originally a Polish folk-dance style), chote (a form of the German schottisches), and Mexican cumbia.

On some recordings, the guitars seem just slightly out of tune and the drums just a little clunky. I’m not sure if this is done intentionally, but the effect gives the music a strong DIY edge, an aura of roughness that distinguishes it from some of the squeaky-clean, overly precious polka records out there.

Also recommended

* Polka Uber Alles by The Polkaholics. Did I say something about “squeaky-clean, overly precious polka”? I sure wasn’t talking about The Polkaholics, a Chicago band that once declared itself “Polka Enemy Number One.”

This is basically a guitar-based (No accordion! No sax! No tuba!) power trio led by "Dandy" Don Hedecker.

Basically, The Polkaholics are to polka what The Pogues and The Dropkick Murphys are to traditional Irish music.

They’re loud, drunk, rowdy, and irreverent. But Hedecker knows his stuff about polka. For instance, he’s a fan, friend, and champion of Li’l Wally Jagiello, the old Chicago polka king whom Hedecker has referred to as the Elvis Presley or Muddy Waters of polka.

These polka punks play extremely hopped-up, hyperdrive polka melodies that celebrate the trappings of the polka lifestyle — crazy dancing, greasy sausages, polyester clothes, and, of course, beer, beer, and more beer. Song titles include “Let’s Kill Two Beers With One Stein,” “Beer, Broads and Brats,” and “Beer, Breakfast of Champions” (which has a melody similar to “Did You Ever See a Lassie” and a chorus of “So drink chugga lugga, drink chugga lugga.” )

My personal favorite on this album is “Too Smart Polka,” which contains the immortal line, “She’s sophisticated; I’m intoxicated.”

Sure, they’re a novelty group in their bowties, frilly vests, and Revenge-of-the-Nerds glasses. But there’s no denying that The Polkaholics are fun. As the song says, “Polka Your Troubles Away.”

*Carnival Conspiracy: In the Marketplace All Is Subterfuge by Frank London’s Klezmer Brass All Stars. Why should I review this album? London says it all in his liner notes:

“Esteemed reader, you have purchased the greatest recording of all time, a CD so powerful that it will cure you of all ailments from impotence to flatulence. Let my bowels be ripped out and roasted if I am exaggerating. Simply carrying this disc on your person will lead to untold fortunes! Wrap this compact disc in warm, moist linen and apply it directly to any afflicted area of your body. It has the strength to cure Toothache, Ulcer and STDs. Is this nothing?”
No, it’s something. While I don’t know about its medicinal value, this might just be the coolest klezmer album I've ever heard.

With the help of “40 artists from eight countries,” trumpeter London, a founding member of The Klezmatics, has infused Jewish jazz with Brazilian carnival music, marching-band music, and even a little Mexican conjunto. At its best, it sounds like mad circus music from another dimension.

London, besides his talents as musician and arranger, has a wonderful sense of the surreal, as evidenced in his song titles: “Oh Agony, You Are So Sweet Like Sugar I Must to Eat You Up,” “Another Glass of Wine to Give Succor to My Ailing Existence,” and “In Your Garden Twenty Fecund Fruit Trees.”

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