Nobuko Miyamoto’s creations add to SoCal Bon Odori

Nobuko Miyamoto (C) at the Fandango Obon 2014 event. photo by Mike Murase

Nobuko Miyamoto (C) at the Fandango Obon 2014 event. photo by Mike Murase

LOS ANGELES — Nobuko Miyamoto, singer, dancer and songwriter, has left a significant imprint on the local Obon celebration scene: Several of her songs will be performed by dancers this summer at Bon Odori throughout Southern California.

Miyamoto, who danced and acted in the Oscar-winning film “West Side Story” and such Broadway hits as “The King and I” and “Flower Drum Song,” left Broadway and movies to participate in the Asian American Movement of the 1960s and ‘70s, frustrated by the limitations for Asian entertainers.

In the turbulent 1960s, she met New York Nisei activist Yuri Kochiyama, who brought her into the Asian American Movement. “There, I met Chris Iijima, an activist and a great songwriter, and we started making music together,” Miyamoto recalled. “It started me on my path as a community artist … I learned so much in New York in the movement, but I was looking for a way to be part of the community I came from in L.A.”

When Miyamoto returned to Los Angeles in 1973, the Rev. Masao Kodani invited her to teach dance at Senshin Buddhist Temple. “He saw the temple as a dojo, a place to learn Buddhism.”

To fill the lack of creative productions reflecting Asian American cultures, Miyamoto founded Great Leap in 1978 and serves as artistic director of this nonprofit arts organization that promotes deeper understanding between diverse cultures in the U.S.

“Teaching dance to community members, I began combining it with my songwriting,” she said. “Eventually, I was able to help create a voice for the Asian American community.”

In the mid-1980s Kodani asked her to write an Obon song in English, she recounted. “I didn’t know much about Japanese music, but he gave me tapes of Obon and asked me to listen to them. He just trusted me to start writing.”

Her first Bon Odori song was “Yuiyo,” followed by “Tampopo” (“Dandelion”), that she said was based on the idea that “Japanese Americans were the unwanted weed that flew across the ocean, and the fact that we have survived and we come together every Obon to dance.”
Miyamoto’s Bon Odori compositions also include “Mottainai” and “Bambutsu no Tsunagari.”

“Mottainai” was inspired by what Kodani had been talking about, she explained. “The idea of ‘mottainai’ to Sansei like me is a way of communicating and connecting to cultural wisdom … which right now has taken on a new meaning with the environmental situation we’re in. I wanted to get people to not only hear the words,  but to also do the movements which make you think of how you collect things and throw things away and remembering what Grandma used to say.”

“Bambutsu no Tsunagari” is based on the Mexican “Fandango,” Miyamoto continued. “In that collaboration with Quetzal, a Mexican American group, there is the playing of guitar music around a square, with dancers in the middle stomping out the rhythm. In Bon Odori we have the taiko (drum) pounding the rhythm and shamisen (stringed instrument) playing the music … That’s how we put this together for Bambutsu, partly in English, Japanese and Spanish. This piece has been adopted by the Obon community in a fantastic way. Last year, they danced to this piece in the 18 temples.”

She is now working on “Sembazuru,” to be premiered Aug. 1 at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center for Hiroshima-Nagasaki week. “It’s a dance for children and young people, inspired by the story of atomic bomb victim Sadako, who started making a thousand cranes for peace,” Miyamoto said. “It’s for all children growing up in harm’s way, from Honduras, the West Bank, Iraq and Afghanistan, etc.”

This work has allowed her the freedom to follow her creative urges coupled with her beliefs in social change, Miyamoto said. “It’s been a path that has presented more challenges to grow as an artist than I would ever have in show business.”

And working and being part of communities, she added, “has been an endless source of joy and creative ideas. It has given me and sense of place and purpose.”

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