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<i> Bon odori </i> at the Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple in Los Angeles, 2014. Photo by Sojin Kim

Bon odori at the Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple in Los Angeles, 2014. Photo by Sojin Kim

  • Just Dance: Connecting Life, Death, Traditions, and Communities in L.A.

    No doubt about it, Los Angeles is a place infamous for its fractures—pulled apart across an expansive geography by forces of nature and disparities in its social and political economy. But located out at the western edge of the continent, facing the Pacific, and just a short drive to the U.S.-Mexico border, Los Angeles is also a place where historical and more recent interactions and adjacencies among diverse populations give rise to opportunities for new translations, creative transformations, cultural realignments, and community building. A recent collaboration guided by a group of L.A.-based artists reflects what people can literally make of these circumstances—both deliberately and as a matter of course.

    Quetzal—led by Quetzal Flores and Martha Gonzalez—and singer/artist Nobuko Miyamoto are birds of a similar feather—which is one reason they performed together in a tribute to Pete Seeger at the 2014 Folklife Festival’s Ralph Rinzler Memorial Concert, along with a lineup of other musicians dedicated to social justice. While they are invested in the local, they also reach across borders of all configurations, including regional and national ones, to explore cultural connections and the relationship between art and activism.

    In the circle we dance
    No beginning, no ending
    In the circle we dance
    I am you, you are the other me
    Bam butsu no tsunagari
    Bam butsu

    This summer, exactly one week after their performance at the Rinzler Concert in D.C., Quetzal and Miyamoto regrouped at the Senshin Buddhist Temple in South Los Angeles. Joined by fellow artists and friends playing Mexican and Japanese instruments—jaranas and shamisen, taiko and tarima, they accompanied the dancers at the temple’s obon festival with their new composition, “Bam Butsu no Tsunagari.”

    Obon is a summer Buddhist festival tradition in which participants remember and honor their deceased relatives and friends. It originates from a Buddhist sutra about a monk who dances for joy after he comes to better understand the teachings of the Buddha and in doing so releases his mother from her suffering in the realm of hungry ghosts. In the United States, obon typically includes a memorial service and an outdoor festival.

    The festival culminates with bon odori, a dance for everyone, from seasoned folk dancers to the random visitor who walks in off the street, from elderly couples to their hipster teenage grandkids. The idea is to just dance without ego or concern for appearance, remembering the ancestors, appreciating past and present relationships, enjoying the moment, and acknowledging the impermanence of life.

    George Abe accompanies the dancers at the Higashi Honganji obon.
    George Abe accompanies the dancers at the Higashi Honganji obon.
    Photo by Sojin Kim

    Japanese American communities continue the practice with a mix of exuberance and reflection. Obon dance and music include historical repertoire, contemporary reinterpretations, pop songs, and new creations. The musical accompaniment may be performed live, but more commonly people dance to recorded music while a single live drummer strikes out the rhythms for each song from a raised, decorated platform in the center of the dancing.

    Bam butsu no tsunagari translates into English as “all things connected.” It was created through a project—a “musical dialogue”—called FandangObon, which explores the shared dimensions of Japanese bon odori and the community practice of fandango celebrations from which the musical genre of son jarocho was born. Son jarocho was created from the intersection of Spanish, indigenous, and African cultures in southern Veracruz. For over a decade, members of Quetzal have traveled to Mexico to collaborate with son jarocho musicians and dancers.

    Carácter ceremonial
    El fandango rompe el orden
    Celebración especial
    En donde las almas borden
    Con sus ritmos, melodías
    Que al día de hoy celebramos
    Ancestral sabiduría
    Con la cual nos abrazamos

    Ceremonial character
    Fandango breaks with “order”
    A special celebration
    Where souls intertwine
    With its rhythms and melodies
    From which we celebrate today
    Ancestral knowledge
    Which we used to embrace

    Miyamoto and her arts organization Great Leap, Inc. initiated the FandangObon project after attending a fandango with Quetzal. She was immediately struck by the similarities between fandango gatherings and bon odori, both in form and spirit. People are positioned around a raised platform, the tarima, upon which someone strikes out rhythm with his or her feet. Everyone is encouraged to participate.

    “Fandango, like bon odori, is a transgenerational participatory music and dance practice,” Martha Gonzalez notes. “Convivencia, or the profound act of being present to each other, is the central aesthetic principle.”

    The composition of “Bam Butsu No Tsunagari” unfolded as a conversation, rather than as an attempt at musical fusion. Miyamoto started it off with stanzas in English, consulting with Reverend Mas Kodani of Senshin Buddhist Temple. Quetzal subsequently created theirs in Spanish. And César Castro, a master musician and luthier from Veracruz, added the final lyrics.

    Bon odori at the Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple in Los Angeles featuring “Bam Butsu No Tsunagari,” recorded by Quetzal Flores and mixed by Alberto López. Musicians: Nancy Sekizawa, vocals; Martha Gonzalez, vocals, tarima; César Castro, vocals, guitarra de son, jarana, leona; Sean Miura, shamisen; Danny Yamamoto, taiko; George Abe, flute; Quetzal Flores, jarana; Nobuko Miyamoto, vocals; Carla Vega, vocals.

    The result is a piece that does not forcefully combine the different cultural streams but instead juxtaposes them, with distinct son jarocho and bon odori phrasing. The final effect is a shifting soundscape, the musical version of what one might hear while driving with the window down along the stretch of First Street running from Little Tokyo to East L.A.

    Miyamoto and Quetzal shaped the collaboration for “Bam Butsu No Tsunagari to extend beyond them, organizing workshops in several Los Angeles neighborhoods to encourage the exchange of stories, music, and dance. Multiple musicians have contributed, with different combinations performing it live each time. For the movements, Miyamoto worked with a local dance leader, Elaine Fukumoto, but steps and gestures were suggested by many others during a series of workshops. “Bam Butsu” was first presented and danced publicly in November 2013 in observance of Día de los Muertos, a traditional Mexican observance that, like obon, honors the dead.

    Empecemos a remediar
    Con los ancestros del son
    Que es tiempo de celebrar
    La vida en FandangObon

    Many more people are dancing “Bam Butsu” this summer since it was formally included in the bon odori lineup for temples of the Buddhist Churches of America Southern District Federation, stretching from Phoenix, Arizona, to San Luis Obispo on California’s central coast.

    In the circle we dance
    To remember the dead
    In the circle we dance
    Oneness is moving

    Historically, obon falls on a single day in mid-July or mid-August. In Southern California, with its large concentration of Japanese American Buddhists, obon spans a full season with festivals scheduled at a different temple every weekend through August.

    Miyamoto and Quetzal have performed “Bam Butsu” live at two of these festivals. And the fact that the majority of people are dancing it this summer to a recording reinforces the role of the community writ large in sustaining and keeping traditions meaningful. Each weekend, new participants are learning “Bam Butsu” on the spot, experienced dancers are honing their moves, and by summer’s end some 10,000 people will have danced it with different displays of flair and degrees of proficiency.

    Reverend Mas Kodani (front, center) of Senshin Buddhist Temple provided inspiration and advice for the FandangObon project. He is pictured here with some of the musicians who have performed and recorded the song (clockwise from bottom): Nancy Sekizawa, Danny Yamamoto, Sean Miura, Carla Vega, George Abe, Nobuko Miyamoto, and Martha Gonzalez.
    Photo courtesy of Nobuko Miyamoto

    Somos la fe y esperanza
    Somos nuevo amanecer
    Y la energía que alcanza
    Dará vida a un nuevo ser

    We are faith, we are hope
    We are the dawning
    And the energy that we reach
    Will give life to new beings

    “It cannot remain alive and vibrant if people cannot come sono mama just as they are, join the circle, and dance,” Reverend Kodani explains. “It is not meant to be watched. It is meant to be danced—and therefore no professional dancer or singer can preserve it in its purity. Its purity is in being done by anyone and everyone.”

    And so, each weekend, upon the asphalt of temple parking lots across Southern California, lined up in concentric circles and trying to stay within the lanes spray painted on the ground, the dancers move more or less in time with the music.

    They may or may not understand all the lyrics. It may be the first or fifth time that they’ve danced “Bam Butsu No Tsunagari” or any of the other dances. Swaying their arms and stepping to the beat of the taiko, keeping the circles in motion, they reinforce the connections between the past and present, among the people participating, and to a sense of place—all this by just dancing.

    Sojin Kim is a curator at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.

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