Q&A: Eisa Drum Festival on Saturday

Eisa Drum Photo

This Saturday, the Eisa Drum Festival returns for its fourth year. The celebration of Okinawan music, dance and culture has grown larger and more diverse since 2010, and I wanted to get a behind-the-scenes view of its evolution. Lead organizer Shari Tamashiro is a friend as well as the “cybrarian” at Kapiolani Community College, which is hosting the festival, and she was gracious enough to participate in an email interview.

Q&A with Shari Tamashiro

Q. How much larger or different is this fourth event compared to the first?

In terms of audience, it has been growing in size each year. Hard to estimate numbers, but based on food sales, we think we had 2,500 to 3,000 people last year.

In terms of the program, it has been evolving. From year one to year four, we evolved from Hawaii-only to a festival that has developed strong ties between Hawaii and Okinawa.

The first eisa festival was all local Hawaii performers: three Okinawan eisa groups, Kenny Endo’s taiko, and Okinawan lions. Year two we brought in Daiichi Hirata from Okinawa who brought in a crazy level of energy and excitement because he’s so incredibly talented. Year three we brought in Daiichi Hirata and members of REQUIOS, the 2012 and 2013 Worldwide Eisa Festival champions and probably the best eisa drummers in the world. For year four we are bringing in Daiichi Hirata and 20 members of Kajimaai, the 2011 Worldwide Eisa festival champs.

Of course, the heart of the festival remains the local Hawaii performers.

Q: I’m definitely always awed by the energy and size of the festival for such a tight-knit community. When you dreamed up the festival, did you think it would be as dazzling as it turned out to be?

Absolutely not! But I should have. The Hawaii Okinawan community (and all the Okinawan-at-Heart people!) are really overwhelming in how much they support these kinds of events.

Q. What was your inspiration for the festival? Other similar festivals in other communities? Or just an ambitious dream to pull the community together for a big party?

I went to Brazil in 2008 for the centennial celebration of Okinawan immigration to Argentina and Brazil. The closing for their Okinawan Festival had over 100 eisa drummers all drumming together. The floor literally shook from the power of the drums, which created a living beat that just resonated with me. The entire area was awash with such incredible joy and energy! It was magical and I could not stop smiling from ear to ear. I remember thinking, “Why don’t we do this kind of thing in Hawaii?”

Hawaii has individual eisa groups but they all perform separately. I had never seen them drumming together before.

So the inspiration for eisa festival was to try and bring that incredible energy and joy I felt in Brazil to Hawaii and let the community in Hawaii experience that magic by bringing together all the different drum groups. The rule for all of our festivals is that everyone who participates must come together for the finale number. It’s a reminder that we are one community.

You’re mixing traditional and contemporary styles, as well as different groups beyond Okinawa. How do you envision broadening the diversity and inclusiveness further?

My favorite performance from the second festival was the “Chant of Island Peoples,” which brought together Hawaiian and Okinawan chanting and drumming. I love when Nawa’a and Daiichi start drumming together. Hawaii and Okinawa have so much in common that I’d like to explore that connection further.

This year, I invited Halla Huhm, a Korean music and dance studio. They are going to showcase Korean drumming and will join us in the finale number. I like forging connections through drums!

This event is not just for the Hawaii Okinawan community but for anyone who wants to learn more about Okinawan culture. We make an effort to explain what people are seeing so they have a better understanding (and appreciation). There is a story and meaning behind the Shishimai or Okinawan Lion Dance. Our MCs will explain it so people don’t just see a hairy creature up there. Things like that!

Okinawans have a saying, “Ichariba Chode” which means Once we meet, we are family. Anyone can be Okinawan at Heart if they share the values and have an interest. So anyone is welcome to become a part of the Hawaii Okinawan community! Doesn’t matter if you have the blood or speak the language. I really like that about the Hawaii Okinawans.

Q. What else have you got in the works?

I have this really awesome plan based on the original paranku brigade we put together at the first festival (which you and your family took part in!). I can’t give details yet, but it’s going to be a really fun project that regular folks can participate in. If people want to learn more, I will of course let you know, but they can also sign up for my mailing list (subscribe at www.pigsfromthesea.com) to get notices.

Mahalo to Shari for taking the time to share some of the story behind this wonderful festival. Here are the details:

About the Eisa Drum Festival

What: The 4th Eisa Drum Festival
When: Saturday, May 17, 2014
Where: Kapi’olani Community College Great Lawn

Food sales begin at 4:30 pm. Program runs from 6 pm to 9 pm. The event is free and open to the public. Alcohol is strictly prohibited. Bring a lawn chair and enjoy an evening under the stars!

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