One of the destinations on our trip to the Southwest was the Tohono O’Odham Nation, a Native American reservation in southeastern Arizona. My interest in visiting this desolate terrain was piqued because this is where Gu-Achi music originated. And since I’m a member of the Petaluma musical quartet Los Gu’achis, I felt I had to pay a visit to this area since our itinerary was taking us so close.
I wasn’t expecting any spectacular scenery or impressive landmarks. But as we drove down Highway 15 onto the reservation, I recognized some familiar place names, some of them from Gu’achi tunes: Santa Rosa, Ajo, Anegam. We didn’t see any billboards on the reservations, but all of the signs with town names had been tagged.
At the intersection of Highways 15 and 86, we arrived at the Gu-Achi Trading Post. It is basically a convenience store and a gas station on the Gu-Achi District of the reservation. There were some music CDs for sale, but none of them were Gu’achi or Chicken Scratch music. I didn’t bring any copies of the Los Gu’achis CD, or I would have left some there to sell.
We were about to leave the trading post when Paul struck up a conversation with a Native American man who had pulled up in his van with his family to shop and was about to leave. I was walking up to where he and Paul were talking, wearing my Los Gu’achis T-shirt, and Paul mentioned to him that I am in a band that plays music from the reservation.
The man, Mike Benevides, said, “You should have been here last night. We had a wake for my mom and there was lots of music.” As I spoke to Mike, I hummed the music to “Santa Rosa Processional,” a Gu’achi song, and Mike knew the song and hummed along with me. I mentioned the name of the late great Tohono O’Odham fiddler Elliott Johnson and Mike knew of him. He asked me if I knew Ken Keppeler and Jeanie McLerie of the duo Bayou Seco, which has recorded Tohono O’Odham music and other music of the Americas. I said I knew of them, but had not met them. He said he was good friend of theirs, gave me their phone numbers and said to look them up when we visit Silver City, N.M.
We drove on through Sells, Ariz., the main town on the reservation and then east on Highway 86 past Kitt Peak, home of the largest array of telescopes in the world, to the outskirts of Tucson, where we planned to camp for the night.