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Chicken scratch music inspires Quechan filmmaker
The story of how O'odam Indian villages took the music of European immigrants and created a tradition all their own will soon by told to the world, thanks to a Quechan filmmaker fascinated with "chicken scratch."
Daniel Golding, who specializes in making documentaries about tribal culture, says felt it was his duty to preserve the story of a unique type of music only found in the American Southwest.
"I really wanted to tell people about this great musical style and expose part of Native America that most people just aren't exposed to. I want to help preserve the music.
"It's so different from what people perceive to be native music. It's contemporary native music and it has its own place within the community."
Chicken scratch music marks the blending of indigenous music with influences ranging from European polka music to Mexico styles such as norteno. The music is performed without lyrics on fiddles, guitars, accordions, saxophones and drums.
The Yuma resident recently released "Waila: Making the People Happy," a documentary that's already being snapped up by PBS stations coast to coast.
The documentary will be available for viewing locally through several regional PBS stations. KCET Los Angeles plans to run the piece at 10:30 p.m. on Monday. KAET Phoenix will run the documentary on April 27, with KUAT Tucson on May 4. Those showings will also be at 10:30 p.m. (Refer to listings to confirm exact times.)
"Waila: Making the People Happy" is also being picked up by PBS stations around the nation, including Cincinnati, Philadelphia, San Antonio and Seattle.
"I'm looking into Canadian public television and am talking to someone in Germany," Golding said.
"This has just been amazing. I think what is neatest is going through the PBS program guides and seeing the title of my film in there just like in TV Guide! It just feels good."
Golding graduated with honors from the film school at San Francisco State University. He has created numerous documentaries and one fictional movie, which was has earned showings at film festivals throughout the U.S., Canada and Australia.
The film was also shown at the famed Sundance Film Festival and won honors at the American Indian Film Festival and the Marin County Film Festival.
"Waila: Making the People Happy" focuses its spotlight on the Joaquin Brothers, one of the greatest bands in the chicken scratch tradition. The documentary was mostly filmed on the Tohono O'odham Nation, which stretches between Tucson and Ajo, Ariz.
"The movie tells the history and development of the music through three generations of one family," Golding said. "The Joaquin Brothers are sort of like the legends.
"They are the older ones who got everything going. They were even invited in 1994 to play at Carnegie Hall."
In the documentary's title the world "waila" - pronounced WHY-lah - is another name for chicken scratch music. Waila is believed to have sprung from "bailar," the Spanish word for "dance."
"Boarding schools played a big part in waila. People would learn these songs and they would go home and play for their villages, incorporating their influences," Golding explained.
"People say it's norteno or it's something else. But if you really listen you can tell it has its own beat. One of the players jokes that they play the music with an accent."
Most chicken scratch music is passed down orally.
"Ninety percent of the people that play don't know how to read music. They just hear it and learn it by ear," he said. "Everyone knows the songs and everyone calls them by their own names, but it's the same music."
Chicken scratch music enjoyed its peak in the 1940s-1960s, but the music keeps on playing today.
"Everyone is into it. They used to have dances every week in the villages. They would play at fiestas, anniversaries, weddings or these dances where they would play until the sun came up.
"Today, even the young people are really into waila. You can see tough, rugged gang-banger Indians out there dancing waila."
Chicken scratch generally revolves around pretty lively tunes, which plays into Golding's choice for naming his documentary.
"The music really fits into the community to make the people happy. The musicians help you forget the troubles of your day. That's the musicians' role in the community."
Chicken scratch also enjoyed a place in local culture with the Quechan and Cocopah tribes, but mostly in the past.
"I remember hearing the music when I was a kid," Golding said, adding that he had forgotten about the music until reading a magazine article as adult.
"I hadn't thought of it for years. Nobody really plays it here anymore."
He added that this particular musical tradition promises to keep playing strong in southeastern Arizona. Golding stressed that the musical evolution that created chicken scratch continues today.
"A lot of the older waila songs aren't being played as much. You see younger bands adapting more cumbias and Tejano beats. I don't think chicken scratch is going to disappear, but I think it's still evolving."
Darin Fenger can be reached at
firstname.lastname@example.org or 539-6860.