Tohono O’odham tribal members playing accordions and saxophones in the southern Arizona desert is more reminiscent of old world polka than a present-day tribal favorite among the O’odham Nations.
Daniel Golding, the filmmaker behind Waila! Making the People Happy, grew up in Arizona listening to such melodies—a historical blend of European instruments infused with modern-day electric keyboards and guitars. The music the O’odham call waila is derived from the Spanish word for dance, baila.
Waila! Making the People Happy is being released to public television stations in April 2009 and is set to debut on some stations on May 4 after Geronimo, part four of American Experience's series about 300 years of Native American history in America, We Shall Remain.
“I’m definitely a fan, although I haven’t gotten the courage to go out and dance,” said Golding, who is a member of the Quechan Indian Nation. “But when I do go to these things and listen to it definitely puts a smile on your face. It’s fun.”
The evolution of this music and how it has been carried on to today’s generation are more than explored in the film. Waila! brings you on the journey of the famous Joaquin brothers, who were instrumental in developing the music, more commonly known as “chicken scratch.” When tribal members saw people dancing to waila, they said it looked like chickens kicking dust around.
European immigrants working on the railroads brought this music to Arizona, influencing the O’odham. In 1957, Angelo Joaquin was told to start a band. When the brothers would play, people would come from miles around.
Their popularity would take them all the way to the prestigious Carnegie Hall.
This music “is so different than what people perceive Native people to be,” Golding said. ”Their thoughts on music is traditional music, you know, drums, things like that. Here’s this contemporary music. I thought it would be neat to break those stereotypes or perceptions of what Native people are.”
Golding started the project in 2000 while at San Francisco State University film school. He has formed a close relationship with the Joaquin family through filming, a friendship that continues today.
“I love making movies about people because you’re really making new friends,” Golding said. “You’re building a relationship with them that goes beyond just making a film. They welcome you into their homes…You spend so much time really talking to them and getting involved in their personal lives.”
Such eagerness to become close to his on-screen characters beyond what is required for the film has been a seemingly effortless forte of Golding’s, said friend and colleague Mike Smith, president of the San Francisco-based American Indian Film Institute (AIFI).
“I think Dan really connects with his subject matter and the community he comes from,” Smith said. “That’s very important for a filmmaker.”
Smith first met Golding about nine years ago when he entered a short film into an AIFI contest, which Golding won. Golding has been involved with AIFI since by participating in the Institute’s Tribal Touring Program. The program teams filmmakers like Golding with Native youth for an all-expense paid opportunity to learn about film and ultimately produce a 5- to 10-minute video in 10 days.
“Dan really does connect with the young people. He has valuable teaching skills and patience,” Smith said.
Encouraging youth to tell the more unconventional, modern-day stories of their tribal people is an important and recurring message of Golding. Waila! is a positive aspect of Indian communities versus the regular gloom and doom disproportionately paid attention to by media, he said.
“We’re stuck on the same old stories about Indian people,” he said. The film “really shows that we are progressive, we adapt well and we have taken things that have been given to us and we use them in our own communities. It also shows that we’re not, you know, just stuck in the past. We’re innovative and we’re growing. We’re creating these new traditions.”