TUCSON — Gertie Lopez’s life has been dedicated to sharing, performing and educating people about waila music.
“Waila music is the most popular social dance music of the Tohono O’odham and all of our sister tribes,” she said. “It’s uplifting and upbeat music. We want people to feel happy when they hear it.”
Through her band, Gertie and the T.O. Boyz, Lopez, an accordion player, performs old-school waila for large and small audiences across the state and country.
Lopez grew up on the Tohono O’odham Nation near Casa Grande. She graduated from Casa Grande Union High School in 1977 and moved to Tucson soon after.
She’s been dancing to waila music, and performing it, since childhood.
“Waila has changed a little bit over the decades, but not much,” she said. “I like to play mainly the old-style waila music.”
The word “waila” means “dance” to the Tohono O’odham and the musical style has roots in German polka and Mexican norteno. Waila often includes characteristics of polkas, chotes, also called “two-steps,” cumbias, mazurka and kwalya, a type of square dance.
Lopez learned to play waila music from her father, who was a musician in both a waila and mariachi band.
“My dad taught us all how to play the guitar,” she said. “One day, when I was maybe 10 or 12, he brought home an accordion and left it out to see which one of us kids would pick it up first. My brother and I both picked it up and my father taught us how to play.”
Following her father’s footsteps, she started a waila band with her brothers and played music throughout her teen years.
“I’ve been performing all my life,” she said.
As an adult, she spent years performing with other bands — including a stint playing accordion for a rock band — but in 2003, she formed her own band, Gertie and the T.O. Boyz. The T.O. is short for Tohono O’odham and the band includes an accordion, played by Lopez, and a saxophone, violin, bass, bajo sexto and drums, played by the “boyz.”
The group has performed all over the state at various events and at out-of-state festivals in California, New York, Minnesota and other places.
Over the years, the band has won several awards and Lopez has taken home several “best accordion player” awards from various festivals and competitions.
Last year, Gertie and the T.O. Boyz were the winners of the 2020 San Lucy Virtual Battle of the Bands competition.
In 2010, Gertie and the T.O. Boyz were nominated for a Native American Music Award in the waila category and received an award in 2011 at the fourth annual LULAC Latino Arts awards banquet.
In 2017, Lopez received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the “Cultural Sounds of Tucson” event.
Lopez said she is an ambassador for waila music and aims to share it with as many people and cultures as possible.
“I might not play exactly like the old times, but we do our best to play like they did,” she said.
She teaches music in the Tohono O’odham community and said she enjoys passing the music on to the next generation.
“I’m always so proud and honored to play this music for people and I’m proud of being Tohono O’odham,” she said. “I’m happy to be a part of this older generation that’s preserving the culture.”
Lopez said waila is part of who she is. Music often helps her overcome difficult times and she hopes her performances do the same for her audiences.
“I’ve had a lot of tragedy in my life and waila is always what keeps me going,” she said. “Sometimes, when I play at a funeral or a memorial, it can be hard. But my father always told me that we play waila music to make people feel better.”
When she has an accordion in her hands, Lopez often thinks of her ancestors and what waila music meant to them.
“My music is my prayer,” she said. “When I’m playing, it’s a celebration and a prayer for our family and our culture. I’m thankful to my mom and dad — Ida and Augustine — for supporting me and sharing this part of our culture with me. Every waila band in this area is good. And everyone has their own style. We just want to play the music that makes people feel good.”