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.
"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.
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
In a village in the heart
of the T.O. nation
Stands a house made out of earth
Where the people go together
To help bring the stormy weather
To sing and laugh and dance the night
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.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.