The Music of the O’odham

For some people, traditional American Indian music is associated and connected (1)with high penetrating vocals accompanied by a steady drumbeat. In tribal communities in the southwestern United States, however, one is likely to hear something similar to the polka-influenced dance music of northern Mexico. The music is called “waila.” Among the O’odham tribes of Arizona, waila has been popular for (2)more than a century. The music is mainly instrumental—the bands generally (3)consist of guitar, bass guitar, saxophones, accordion, and drums.

Unlike some traditional tribal music, waila does not serve a religious or spiritual purpose. It is a social music that performed (4)at weddings, birthday parties, and feasts. The word itself (5)comes from the Spanish word for dance, baile. Cheek to cheek, the dance is performed to the relaxed two-step tempo, (6)and the bands often play long past (7)midnight. As the dancers step to the music, they were also stepping (8)in time to a sound that embodies their (9)unique history and suggests the influence of outside cultures on their music.(10)
The O’odham in the 1700s (11)first encountered the guitars of Spanish missionaries. In the 1850s the O’odham have borrowed (12)from the waltzes and mazurkas of people of European descent on their way to California. In the early 1900s the O’odham became acquainted with marching bands and woodwind instruments (which explains the presence of saxophones in waila).(13) Around this time the polka music and button accordion played by German immigrant railroad workers; (14)left their mark on waila.

It should be no surprise that musicians these days are adding touches of rock, country, and reggae to waila. Some listeners fear that an American musical form may soon be lost. But the O’odham are playing waila with as much energy and devotion as ever. A unique blend of traditions, waila will probably continue changing for as long as the O’odham use it to express their own sense of harmony and tempo.


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