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Music without Borders: Waila, Mariachi, and Tejano Music

Mariachis perform in venues throughout Arizona. This large, formal genre creates vivacious for dancing or just enjoying-all without the aid of drums. In more relaxed settings, listen to boleros playing a traditional Mariachi ballad, or one of the many hybrids termed “Chicano music.” Many variations of traditional Mexican music have been honed in Arizona. In fact, Tucson native Lalo Guerrera is considered the “Father of Chicano Music.” 

Or, lift your feet to the waila music played by the Tohono O’odham Indians. This folk tradition that began with the arrival of missionaries in the 1700s fuses norteña music with distinctive instruments (including the saxophone and the accordion) to create dance tunes so contagious that the style is known as “Chicken Scratch” for the habit of flinging up the heels while cutting a rug. Discover more about the evolution of these unique musical styles below.


Album covers from early waila recordings are displayed at the “I Am Arizona Music” exhibition at the Musical Instrument Museum.

Waila is the traditional social dance music of the Tohono O'odham (Desert People). Drawn from the Mexican norteña tradition, though strictly instrumental, waila musicians play polkas, Schottisches and mazurkas in bands that typically include saxophones and/or accordions, bajo sexto or electric guitar, electric bass and drums.

Waila music originated with the Spanish missions built throughout southern Arizona and northern Sonora. Father Kino arrived as a missionary to the Sinaloa y Sonora region of what it now southern Arizona and northern Sonora, Mexico, in 1687. Within ten years, he had founded a string of missions (including Tumacacori and San Xavier del Bac) to convert the Pima and Tohono O’odham Indian tribes to Christianity. As the fellowship grew, the Franciscans introduced western instruments to play during church ceremonies. The music quickly expanded outside Christian worship to entertainment.

The O’odham people celebrate the land and honor its changes with ceremonies that last from dusk to dawn. Tohono O’odham musicians began to create dance music based on norteños, the regional folk tunes of northern Mexico with typically upbeat rhythms that resemble the polka.

The current style of waila is about one hundred years old. This art form is in constant evolution. Early musicians played the fiddle. Many Tohono O’odham attended boarding school with military-style marching bands, and brought brass instruments home to add to waila bands. The saxophone became a favorite choice, and remains a waila band staple. Button accordians, brought from Eastern Europe, swept the Southwest during the years of American settlement to add a reedy punch to both waila and Tejano music. The genre embraced electric instruments and drum kits when they became available.

The repoitoire expanded, too. Not only norteños but traditional Tejano songs, polkas, Schottisches, mazurkas and cumbias now resonate throughout a Tohono O’odham celebration. The dances that accompany these pieces have one thing in common: they all move counterclockwise. The first two recordings of waila (originally released in 1972) are available from Arizona-based record label Canyon Records.

Experience waila for yourself on a weekend in late May at the annual Waila Festival in Tucson. Since its inception in 1989, the event has grown every year, and now fills the Bear Down field at the University of Arizona. Dance to original rhythms and eat traditional food of the Tohono O’odham people at this outstanding heritage celebration.

Hear the upbeat rhythms of waila music while Tucson Waila Festival co-founder Angelo Joaquin Jr. explains its origins and history.


One of the foremost mariachi groups in America, Mariachi Cobre from Tucson likely exposes more people to the sound of mariachi than any other group in the world through its post as house band in the Mexico pavilion at Disney's Epcot Center in Orlando, Florida.

Tucson's Mariachi Los Changuitos Feos (The Ugly Little Monkeys) was the first youth mariachi in America. It has continued since its formation to tour nationally and internationally, charging for its performances and using the monies raised to send its members to college. In 2014 the group celebrates its 50th anniversary.

You haven’t really experienced Arizona until you’ve heard the intricate string and horn harmonies of a mariachi. A mariachi (referring to a band or a musician, not a type of music) is a popular form of entertainment in the Southwest and Mexico, and an important form of cultural expression.

Originating in Jalisco during Mexico’s colonial period, mariachi is a folk-derived musical tradition that has grown and changed with the Mexican national identity. Historical events over the past 200 years have shaped the evolution of the look and sound of a mariachi, from the instruments played to the trademark spangled charro outfits with wide brimmed hats, cropped jackets, and pointed boots derived from Mexican cowboy attire.

The five-stringed vihuela is a common mariachi instrument.

Over the years, mariachis have experimented with brass, wind, and string pieces, often playing regional folk songs. Today’s mariachi has at least five musicians who play brass and string instruments, generally including the violin, trumpet, classical guitar, vihuela (a high-pitched, five-string guitar), a guitarrón (a large acoustic bass), and sometimes a harp. Though styles have changed, mariachis still play traditional tunes, including ranchera style songs from western Mexico, sentimental boleros and baladas, and upbeat pasos and polka-inspired norteñas from northern Mexico.

The original mariachis were street musicians who played folk songs, but many of today’s performance ensembles are highly trained, talented virtuosos who sing and play several instruments. High end groups perform at concerts and festivals, while smaller bands are often found at restaurants or as performers at weddings or other events. Today mariachi is an appreciated and sought-after art form. Groups such as the Mariachi Cobre from Tucson has recorded and toured internationally with the Boston Pops, has appeared with numerous symphony orchestras throughout the United States and is one of the most sought after performing and teaching ensembles at mariachis conferences throughout the United States and Mexico. Founding members Randy Carrillo, Steve Carrillo and Mack Ruis were early members of America's first youth mariachi—Mariachi Los Changuitos Feos (the Ugly Little Monkeys) of Tucson, Arizona.

Nowhere in the world is this art form more celebrated than at the Tucson International Mariachi Conference. When the conference started in 1982 the mariachi tradition was waning even in its national birthplace of Mexico. The workshop-style conference has helped to revive and strengthen the folk arts of mariachi and folklorico dance worldwide. It remains the largest mariachi conference in the world.

Mariache Cobre performance at the Tucson International Mariachi Conference.  Musicians: Israel Molina, Hector Gama, Steve Carrillo, Mack Ruiz, and Omar Olivas.



Though Tejano music, or Tex-Mex music, originated among the Mexican-American populations of Texas, this form of folk music can be heard in Arizona and throughout the Southwest. Tejano is distinguished by the addition of the accordion to the string and horn instruments. Vocals are can add emphasis but are not necessary. Tejano music somewhat resembles waila music of the Tohono O’odham in its folk-based instrumentation, and is related to Cajun music in its accordion-based rhythms. However, this tradition, like Mariachi, is rooted in Mexican folk songs, specifically the norteños sung in northern Mexico. Popular musicians based in the Tejano tradition include Selena and Tucson’s own Calexico.