Bang The Drum Loudly
The tradition is Okinawan, but a local drum-dance club mixes in modern elements too. For all you Gloria Estefan fans getting ready to feel the conga beat later this month, there is a different kind of rhythmic force you may want to check out beforehand. Ryukyukoku Matsuri Daiko Hawaii combines traditional Okinawan dance and music with contemporary Okinawan and Japanese
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For all you Gloria Estefan fans getting ready to feel the conga beat later this month, there is a different kind of rhythmic force you may want to check out beforehand.
Ryukyukoku Matsuri Daiko Hawaii combines traditional Okinawan dance and music with contemporary Okinawan and Japanese music, karate and Eisa taiko drumming. The result: A high-impact performance filled with plenty of motion, color and energy sure to have audience members on their feet.
And its appeal has proven to be cross-cultural. What first began in 1982 as a way for Okinawan youths to reconnect with their cultural roots has caught on with people outside of the southern Japan prefecture.
“It has been so successful and popular that RMD now includes chapters around the world, including the United States, South America and mainland Japan,” explains members Melissa Ching and Jonathan Loomis. “Some members first joined the club because they were looking for a way to connect with their Okinawan heritage, but they have found belonging to the club to involve much more. We are more than just performers in the same club. Our members and their families are friends, even like family, providing support and encouragement.”
RMD Hawaii was founded by Sensei Akemi Martin after her first encounter with Eisa matsuri taiko when she was living in Okinawa. Martin started a separate chapter on an American military base to offer the families stationed there a unique opportunity to become acquainted with the local culture. After moving to Hawaii in 1996, she established the Hawaii chapter of the worldwide organization in Honolulu.
Hawaii’s melting-pot attitude proved the perfect climate for the club to flourish. In addition to the Oahu branch in Pearl City, there are others on Kauai, Maui and the Big Island.
“We have many members who do not have any Okinawan background but have embraced the spirit of Eisa taiko and have turned out to be Okinawan at heart,” laughs Ching.
Ching is the head instructor of RMD Hawaii, and Loomis, who also is her husband, is an assistant instructor. Together they help the rest of the RMD Hawaii team teach students not only how to drum and dance, but also how to respect each other.
“The tradition of Eisa or any Okinawan artform is the discipline the individual student develops through practice as well as basic principles of mutual respect for one another in learning as a group,” says RMD Hawaii vice president Lori Shinsato. “In the Okinawan culture, respect of teacher and student and the teamwork between student and student is important. This helps the individual mature in dancing, helping pass on what you have learned and teach others.”
But this isn’t your mother’s taiko performance.
According to Ching and Loomis, Eisa is the Okinawan equivalent to the Japanese Obon season. Traditional Eisa taiko is performed during the summertime to honor ancestors who have passed away. The performances usually involve live music performed by a group of musicians playing folk songs on the sanshin (shamisen). Other types of taiko more familiar in Hawaii do not involve music at all but instead rely on the pounding drums themselves. The ones you’ll see from RMD Hawaii, on the other hand, employ recorded music ranging from traditional court music to country folk songs, even modern rock/pop music.
Shinsato is quick to clarify that while the songs are not the American modern rock songs one might initially expect, they do use beats from acts well-known in Okinawa such as the groups Begin, Pasha Club and Rinken Band and singer Hidekatsu.
“These songs are very upbeat and lively, which attracts many of the young and young-at-heart performers and audiences,” she says.
RMD Hawaii’s dynamic performances would not be complete without the live-action drumming, dancing and martial arts moves. The name Ryukyukoku Matsuri Daiko does translate into Ryukyu Kingdom Festival Drums, after all.
All dances are choreographed in Okinawa by RMD leaders and instructors and are called Sosaku taiko, meaning a type of modern adaptation of the original Eisa taiko dance. The songs and dances are tightly connected, as the moves are developed from the meanings of the songs. And since the songs often talk about everyday experiences, it is easy to understand why the dances are meant to be shared with a crowd.
“RMD choreography is intended to be performed in a stage-like setting,” Ching describes. “Drummers perform in a variety of lineups - only very rarely the traditional bon dance circle - and the choreography is much more complex and dynamic.”
“The unique beauty of Okinawan Eisa taiko is dancing while hitting the drum. By dancing and carrying the drum, the performer becomes part of the drum and music,” adds Shinsato, whose 14-year-old daughter, Leia, performs with the group.
This type of coordination requires a dedication to practice. Performers first learn the Odaiko, a big red drum carried over the drummer’s left side by a purple sash, which is the “heartbeat” of the performance. The size of each drum-mer’s Odaiko is relative to her height and weight, so as younger performers grow, they “graduate” on to larger drums.
The two other drums used by RMD Hawaii are the Shime-daiko, a two-sided hand-held drum, and the Paranku, the smallest of the three implements that lends itself well to gentle, graceful choreography.
“Each performer carries their own drum, which is typically played with only one bachi (drumstick),” explains Ching, pointing out that using only one bachi rather than two is just one more way Okinawan Eisa taiko differs from other types of taiko.“All of our members play one or more forms of taiko. Some members are selected by our sensei to practice and perform other types of choreography, including karate, ogi (fan), hata (flag), bo (staff) and hula.”
According to the instructors, RMD upholds a philosophy that anyone can be a teacher - even a young student can help an older, more experienced member improve. This has in turn created a support network where everyone can feel respected and encouraged.
“When you enter the dojo, you leave the rest of your day behind you and focus only on practicing taiko. It can be a great way to release the stress and tension of day to day life,” says Loomis, identifying many students as wallflowers upon first entering the club, only to mature into more self-confidence and better self-esteem.
“As they see their hard work result in success, they grow more confident about performing and in life in general.”
Seconds Shinsato: “Students make many new friends, and we have become one taiko family. They enjoy the different songs and their traditional meaning along with the lively choreography. This inspires many of the students to continue and learn more.”
The instructors and performers of RMD welcome people of all ages and backgrounds to join them at one of the beginner classes: from 7:45 to 8:45 p.m. Tuesdays at Halawa District Park and from 6:45 to 7:45 p.m. Wednesdays at Salt Lake District Park. No previous experience, musical talent or athletic ability is required. What you do need, however, is a positive attitude and a willingness to try something new.
“As with many performing arts, it is easy to learn at first, but diligence and determination are required to improve and perfect your skills,” Ching admits before adding, “There is a lot of joy in simply learning and playing taiko.”
So, do you feel like enjoying some Eisa taiko drumbeats? Ryukyukoku Matsuri Daiko Hawaii gives a live performance next Sunday, Jan. 11, at the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii’s annual New Year’s Ohana Festival. The event runs from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at both the center (2454 S. Beretania St.) and across the street at Moiliili Field. Call 945-7633 or visit http://www.jcch.com for further details.
RMD Hawaii performers can be found at a bevy of parties and community functions throughout the year.
To see a complete schedule of the nonprofit’s classes or upcoming events for 2009, including ones at the Honolulu Festival March 13-15 and during the Children’s Day Festival in May, visit http://www.rmdhawaii.org.
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