Original Recipe

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

Tonight's occasion is a party in honor of a 21-year-old woman in earth-colored traditional dress, Victoria Pablo, who has recently won the title of Miss Tohono O'odham nation, or "Miss T.O."

Cars roll in and out of the dirt parking lot, flashing brake lights and churning up dust, while the crowd of about 60 waits for the band to play. Hordes of kids scamper in random streaks and packs, clambering like Marines over the benches. Onstage, under the light of four weak bulbs, the members of the Cisco Band tune and tweak their instruments in no particular rush.

Though its role in social functions remains mostly intact, waila is evolving as it becomes mainstream. Along with an adaptation of other musical styles, one of the newer changes is the increased use of lyrics. Red Feather, a band that has melded country with waila, has a song called "The Piast" performed in a flat voice unaccustomed to singing:

Down south tonight upon
the reservation
In a village in the heart
of the T.O. nation
Stands a house made out of earth
and wood
Where the people go together
To help bring the stormy weather
To sing and laugh and dance the night
away.

Under the ramada lights, the electric guitar trots to life as the Cisco Band plays its chicken-scratch version of "Ghost Riders in the Sky." A carousel of jeans and tee shirts immediately rushes the dance floor, circling the center post of the ramada like sparkles on a glitter ball.

The song ends. The floor empties. Minutes later, a cumbia begins and generations of couples, all smiles and flowing black hair, swarm the floor again in high-tops, slip-ons and cowboy boots. They're not so much dancing as walking in rhythm. Some add a little shake to their step, a little shrug to their stride.

A woman moves alone, holding a young boy of about 1 and a half. Kids barely two feet high are paired off, swinging their arms, holding hands. A few tykes hop onstage with the band, shaking maracas, rattling tambourines, pounding the railing with drumsticks. They are in remarkably perfect time.

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