Original Recipe

Chicken-scratch music predates the railroads in Arizona, but mainstream audiences are just now getting a taste for the stuff

The Native Americans are restless.
It's a chilly January night at CJ's Coyote Lounge, a tee-shirt-and-jeans tavern where dollar bills paper the ceiling behind the bar. The Dallas Cowboys have just won the Super Bowl, and the crowd is in a dancing mood. But so far there is no sign of the Renegades, a five-piece band from Sacaton on the bill for tonight.

Carmen Velasquez sits at the bar in a blue pullover, giggly and eager for music. A cumbia, a polka, a mazurka--any sign of the chicken scratch she has come to hear at CJ's from her home on the nearby Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community.

When most people think of Indian music, chicken scratch is not what leaps to mind. Powwow chants, maybe, or the solemn, cliched flute of R. Carlos Nakai--but accordions and electric guitars?

"A lot of people don't take [chicken scratch] seriously, because it's so much fun," says Kelly Burke of the Phoenix label Canyon Records, which has produced Native American music since 1951. "Now they're realizing it has to do with ceremonies and social life. It's really not just party music."

Chicken-scratch music and culture date back more than a hundred years, exclusive to the Pima and Tohono O'odham (formerly Papago) Indians of Arizona's central and southern deserts. Called waila (WHY-la)--from the Spanish "baile," meaning social dance--by the Tohono O'odham, it's starting to scratch at the door of mainstream USA, as rapidly growing numbers of bands take their music from reservation-based parties to the retail shelves.

To Pima and Tohono O'odham in and around Phoenix and Tucson, waila is just part of the family, one of those Native American traditions that, like fry bread, has found its way off the rez. Until recently, recordings had been available only at trading posts and gift shops on or near a reservation. But some of the more popular groups, such as Southern Scratch, have distribution that now extends to major outlets like Best Buy.

Chicken scratch's crossover popularity is largely because of Phoenix- and Tucson-area venues like CJ's. Located in north Mesa just south of the point where Country Club Drive becomes Highway 187, CJ's has featured chicken scratch since owner Cathy Franano opened the bar six years ago. Before that, she helped her family run a Phoenix bar called the Roadrunner, where the band Red Express introduced her to chicken scratch.

"We'd never heard it before, but we noticed we had a good turnout any time they played it," she says. "They told us, 'That's what the Indians like.'"

When the Roadrunner stopped booking live music in the early '90s, Red Express became the house band at CJ's. The band plays rock 'n' roll as well as chicken scratch, but Franano says the older form is more popular. "The more chicken scratch they play, the better I do, and the less complaints I get."

The origin of the term "chicken scratch" has faded into the ages. Velasquez, at CJ's bar counter, remembers: "When I was little, we had chickens, and when the music played, we'd peck and scratch." She retracts her arms like folded wings. "But we never really thought about it." Which is about as good an explanation as any you'll hear.

"Where you from?" she asks. "Phoenix? Not too many people there looking for chicken scratch."

The Renegades finally arrive without fanfare about an hour after the game ends, filtering onto the stage over the course of ten or 15 minutes. Everything happens in its own time around here.

With no introduction, the band rolls out a chote, a rollicking, buoyant schottische (from which the name comes) favored by the older folks. The tiny dance floor fills with couples doing the distinctive chicken-scratch two-step--a slower, simpler version of the country-and-western dance tailored for a desert swelter that has watched generations come and go.

For as long as anyone can remember, the classic venue for chicken scratch was a weekend bonfire party called a piest, or piast, that burned around the clock for two days straight. "There used to be some good ones at private residences on the rez," Velasquez says. But she and others say a number of encroaching factors, among them the scourge of alcoholism, began to take their toll while other musical influences altered the form itself. She says the bonfire parties fizzled out four or five years ago. "Nobody does [piests] no more. It's too much hassle."

Over on the San Xavier Tohono O'odham Reservation just outside Tucson, Carmen Mattias works the gift shop. "When I was little, I used to go and see the dancing," she says. "The old-timers used to really dance. They had lanterns and bonfires, and no electricity. Families went and met other families."

Few people had wheels, so partygoers stayed all night, two-stepping into dawn. But as cars became more plentiful, Mattias says, people started hopping from party to party. They moved at a speed that was foreign to the reservation. Pretty soon, it seemed, acquaintances were beginning to outnumber friends.

Canyon Records, on 16th Street north of Indian School Road, released its first waila recording in 1973. Since then it's launched another 75 or so, but only recently has the boom taken hold. Estimates for a few years ago placed the label's roster of chicken-scratch bands in the mid-20s, but Canyon currently boasts 40 scratch bands in its catalogue--and numerous requests from fans to release more of the stuff on CD.

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