Each week, Petaluma quartet gives free performances for seniors

Members of a Petaluma quartet get paid to play Mexican and southwestern dance music at festivals, gallery openings and restaurants across Sonoma County.

But the four accomplished musicians in Los Gu'achis, an instrumental group, get the most satisfaction from free performances they put on every week at two Petaluma senior centers.

Seeing elderly people cast aside walkers and start dancing as the music moves them or wave their arms while seated in wheelchairs brings a profound sense of joy, fiddle player Barbara Arhon said.

She and her band play from 11 a.m. to noon Wednesdays at the Petaluma People Services Center on Howard Street and noon to 1 p.m. Fridays at the Petaluma Senior Cafe on Novak Street in Lucchesi Park.

"It's pretty amazing," said Arhon, a Petaluma music teacher. "We all have a good time."

Pat Vachini, activities director at the Howard Street facility, said her 20 or so seniors look forward to the weekly sessions. Even those with memory problems seem to recall the tunes.

"My seniors just love them," Vachini said. "They are magic. You look around the room and every single one of them is tapping their feet."

Craig Mason, who runs the lunch program at Novak Street, said band members engage his seniors with charming personalities and a party atmosphere.

"It's not every day you have a group of musicians who can motivate seniors in their 80s and 90s to get up and dance," Mason said. "They are an enlivening group."

Arhon and guitarist Chris Samson, a retired newspaperman, formed the group about five years ago. Artist Steve Della Maggiora joins them on accordion and guitar, and registered nurse Tracy Bigelow Grifman plays stand-up bass fiddle.

The band gets its name from a trading post in southeastern Arizona on what was then the Papago Indian Reservation, where a unique type of music was discovered by ethnomusicologists in the 1920s. It was preserved on wax cylinders.

The tribe, now called the Tohono O'odham, developed a distinct sound that originally was influenced by Spanish missionaries. but also drew on songs from Germans and Swedes headed west during the Gold Rush.

Some of the music resembles polkas or mazurkas. There are no lyrics.

Arhon learned about the style at an annual music camp she attends in Port Townsend, Wash., called American Fiddle Tunes. Each year, the camp introduces a new genre, but she was so inspired by the southwestern music that she decided to form a band around it.

"We just love our music so much," Arhon said. "We think it's important to share it."

Arhon already had been volunteering her musical talents at the Howard Street facility when the band agreed to do weekly performances there.

The free shows fill a gap left when a previous musical program was cut because of funding. The performances have been going on about a year now.

Samson, former managing editor of the Petaluma Argus-Courier and singer-songwriter in his own right, took a trip to Tohono O'odham Nation earlier this year.

He got to see some places mentioned in the songs and spoke to locals about their music.

The experience helped him re-create the music for seniors back home in Petaluma.

"They seem to really enjoy the music," Samson said. "Those who are able to get up and dance."

(You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com.)

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