Original Recipe

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

"There's gotta be 50 bands out there, if not more," says Kelly Burke, head of artist services for Canyon. Most popular among them are the Cisco Band, Santa Rosa Band, Red Feather and Southern Scratch, which has eight out-of-state performances to its credit and was featured on Garrison Keillor's National Public Radio show in November.

Real chicken-scratch fans, though, aren't picky about their loyalties. They call to see what the newest release is and then buy it. "If you love rock 'n' roll or classical, and there's only 50 albums in the world of that music, you're gonna want to buy them," Burke says.

Chicken-scratch musicians typically can't read music, and most play several instruments simply by ear. Band lineups change from week to week, depending on who's available, and tend to be family-based, with one generation handing off the reins to another, along with the band's name. For instance, one version of the Cisco Band is actually the sons and nephews of its original members.

One notable exception is Southern Scratch, headed by Ron Joaquin. Though his father taught him to play music, Joaquin wasn't going to wait around to inherit what is now the longest-running chicken-scratch band in the country. (Angelo Joaquin Sr. founded the Joaquin Brothers Band in 1956, and has played Carnegie Hall along with his share of all-night parties.)

"I've grown up with it," Ron Joaquin says. "It's fun to see people happy when you're playing. We play for social dances, baptisms. We also say we'll play for divorces. We got asked once, but it was on a Wednesday and we couldn't make it."

Now it's son Brandis' turn to learn from his dad. Brandis, who started out playing cowbells for Southern Scratch, now at age 13 is the band's full-time drummer.

"He's amazing," says Burke of Canyon Records. In general, she says, children are readily included at chicken-scratch gigs, which tend to be more casual than your average live venue since they're usually family gatherings. Things start when they start; breaks between songs can seem interminable, but no one complains.

At one performance she attended, Burke says: "Kids came up and grabbed the cowbells or wanted to help strum. That's encouraged. If it was a rock band, they'd be like, 'Get this kid outta here.' But they don't seem to have those kinds of boundaries. The kids are the next musicians."

Waila is essentially timeless, but as a clearly defined form it dates back to the 1860s, where Native American bands near Tucson played spinning, up-tempo numbers based primarily on acoustic fiddles and drums.

In the mid- to late 1800s, Germans came to the region of southern Arizona and northern Sonora for jobs in Western railroad construction. According to folklorist Jim Griffith of the University of Arizona's Southwest Folklore Center, they introduced the accordion to Mexican and Native American musicians, who made it a defining part of their music. Both norteno and chicken scratch now teem with bouncy, accordion-based polkas.

The next major step in waila's evolution came in the 1940s, when Indian students were shipped off to American boarding schools. Band class taught them wind instruments. Within a decade, both button accordion and saxophone were regular chicken-scratch features. As electricity charged through reservations after World War II, so did the electric guitar. Today, the typical lineup for a chicken-scratch band is: accordion, sax, drums, bass and electric guitar.

Early scratch songs were mostly adaptations of European and Mexican melodies culled from Jesuit missionaries and norteno bands. Along with a slightly faster beat, what distinguished the music from norteno was that the tunes had no words. It was all just music to dance to as hot desert evenings gave way to chilly, lantern-lighted nights when the coals produced by bonfires would be laid at the feet of tireless musicians.

Over the decades, American tunes were reborn as chicken scratch--"Turkey in the Straw," "Battle Hymn of the Republic," even "Jesus Christ Superstar" and the theme from The Flintstones. Each has taken on the accordion-led, oompah-pah beat, colored with occasional drum flourishes. Songs borrowed from Mexican radio are often nameless until they reach the recording studio, at which point they are christened with impromptu names to satisfy record executives--"Pebbles' Cumbia," "Stir It Up Chote," "Saint Rose of Lima Mazurka," "Virg's Waila" and the "Adios, Adios Waltz."

As waila moves from the reservations to the neon suburbs of Phoenix and Tucson, modern influences are starting to show through the music's age-old exterior. Some bands, for example, are adding strong country flavors. Burke, of Canyon Records, says the Cisco Band opened at Electric Ballroom one night for rockers Clan/destine and layered its cumbia-style music with a rock-guitar edge, complete with Beavis-and-Butt-head head-banger action. "It was really hilarious," she says. "It was like heavy metal."

It's a cool, breezy night in April. The people once called Papago shift and gab on wooden benches surrounding a concrete-floored ramada on the San Xavier Reservation outside Tucson. The quiet silhouette of Mission San Xavier del Bac, founded three centuries ago by a Jesuit missionary as the northernmost outpost of New Spain, hulks in the darkness, against the lights of the city.

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