As we approach summer, the drums of eisaa practice, or bon dance, is beginning to fill the air around recreation centers, and practice halls. The drum beats herald the coming of the obon season, where it is believed the ancestors of our families return home for their once a year visit and mingling with families for three days. Traditionally, 13th-15th of July in the lunar calendar, which will fall on September 1-3 this year.
The eisaa tradition began with nembutchaa, or buddhist chanters going around to the villages and chanting sutras accompanied by hand held drums. This developed into the eisaa we see today. Traditionally, the eisaa groups are made up of single young men and women. The men hit the drums, while women dance. During the tridium of obon, they perform in the village streets, visiting the houses, to entertain the visiting ancestors. The group is accompanied by sanshin players. This tradition has been passed down by the eldersa and advisors of the village, and can be seen mostly in the “nakagami” or central region of Okinawa.
Popularity of Okinawan culture however, has lead to the formation of many groups in Japan and around the world. Some groups, especially within Japan and Okinawa, have become groups for hire, for parties, and celebrations, or stage. Music has also been added which is recorded, or not even Okinawan. Acrobatics and even hula have also crept in, making it a departure from what eisaa really is about.
Eisaa is not for the benefit of the living. In Okinawa, our dedication and love for our ancestors is strong. So strong that we set aside this very important three day memorial during the summer to remember and bring back traditions recognizable to the ancestors. It is a festival and performance to honor the deceased. To take away from this, and have it become an everyday commodity takes away the special place eisaa holds for our culture and ancestors, especially when its done as a business to make money. It kills the excitement that leads up to obon. Hearing the drumming at the beginning of summer adds to one’s own heartbeat in anticipation of the obon season. It brings us back to the good memories of our ancestors, and realization of our connection with them during this time, when we share the same traditions and songs passed down. In Hawaii, practice has begun on Friday evenings in Ka`imuki, at the Kilauea Recreation Center near Kapi`olani Community College. Practice begins at 630pm. The eisaa is lead by the Young Okinawans of Hawai`i. They have looked towards bringing back tradition and learning what their ancestors’ eisaa is all about by bringing in tradtitional eisaa moves and trying to go with all Okinawan music. The hope of tradition continues with groups like this.