SAN JOSE CHIDORI BAND: Playing the classics and dancing for the ancestors

IN TUNE WITH THE PAST — San Jose Chidori Band recently celebrated their 61st anniversary. courtesy of the San Jose Chidori Band

IN TUNE WITH THE PAST — San Jose Chidori Band recently celebrated their 61st anniversary.
courtesy of the San Jose Chidori Band

SAN JOSE — In 1953, community leaders in San Jose’s Japantown came together to discuss the ethnic enclave’s needs. During a period when Japanese-language performance arts was scarce, the community realized there was a need for entertainment for its Issei. The San Jose Chidori Band was formed in response and has since performed a mix of Japanese classics, pop and instrumentals for the Nikkei community in and around San Jose, and performing at a select number of annual Obon festivals.

According to a self-published retrospective written by Melina Takahashi, longtime band-member and band accountant, “several community leaders including Kanjiro Shiraki, Mitsuzo Daita, Jitsuo Yamamoto, Hideiki Okida and Harry Yonemura felt that ‘we needed something for the Issei people,’” she wrote, quoting one of the founding members Masayo Arii.

Arii, who has since retired from singing enka in the band, sang for 54 years with the group and refers to the band members as “kids.” She said she was recruited by Daita, because he knew her from the Gila River, Ariz. concentration camp, where she had sang in the mandolin band.

Playing for the Issei
“(The Issei) were hard working people, they work 10 to 12 hours a day and they didn’t have anything to entertain them, so (the founders) got people who sang and did plays in the camps to form a band — all amateurs,” she told the Nichi Bei Weekly.

Takahashi wrote in 1996 that the Chidori Band first performed on Memorial Day, 1954 at Okida Hall in San Jose’s Japantown to about 300 people, and the music they played brought smiles to the Issei faces.

“Old timers enjoyed it,” said Arii speaking of the Issei, but she noted that Nisei have since become their fans as well. “Older Nisei, they weren’t interested when they were younger, but, as they got older, they start enjoying the Japanese songs their parents were listening to.”

“We organized as a community service organization,” Arii said. Their annual show used to be held over two nights at the Okida Hall, with the band playing Japanese music and screening movies for the Japanese-speaking Nikkei. “The Issei people would back us with those two nights of donations so we’d come back to thank them in the spring with a free show.”

According to Band Director Michael Yoshihara, the group recently finished their 61st anniversary concert, the annual fundraiser for their band. He said the annual fundraiser continues to help the band pay for hall fees, equipment maintenance and travel expenses. “We have been very fortunate to have performed with some very accomplished local community artists — all who have dedicated their time to help our organization,” he said.

According to Arii, the band never expected to continue for more than 60 years. It began acquiring records from Japan, as the band leaders transcribed the music by ear to perform. No one had formal training, but the band slowly improved over the years.

“I don’t mean to brag, but after 60 years, we’re getting pretty good now,” she said. “I wish I could sing now, because they all sound so good.”

Playing for Obon
Outside of playing Japanese music in concert, the band also plays live music for Bon Odori in the region.

According to Takahashi, the band started playing at Obon festivals in the 1960s. The band first started playing for San Jose Buddhist Church Betsuin’s Obon, Arii said.

“Little by little, more churches asked us to do live music,” Arii explained. “Some people say it’s harder to dance to a live band than a record, but some people like it.” The band’s popularity shows, as it spends a good five weeks during the summer traveling to perform at Obon festivals.

The band plays for San Jose, Alameda, Southern Alameda County, Oakland and Mountain View Buddhist temples, Yoshihira said. It has also played, in recent years, at Placer County, Lodi, Fresno, San Francisco and Marin County’s Buddhist temples’ Obon. “We hope to be able to travel a little more due to recent success at our past concerts being able to help subsidize our budget,” said Yoshihara.

Arii said the band doesn’t charge the churches any fees to play. “Since we started as a service organization, we leave payment up to each church,” she said.

Duane Takahashi, the band’s music director, said churches typically request that they play the same tunes over the years — “Shinshu Ondo” “Tanko Bushi” and “Obon No Uta” are favorites. “For the San Jose Obon, we will play ‘Shiawase Samba’ in collaboration with the San Jose Taiko. For the Mountain View Obon, we will play the traditional version of ‘Tanko Bushi,’ then segue into a jazzier, instrumental version called ‘Tanko Boogie,’ which is an original arrangement. For the San Jose and Southern Alameda Obons, we will play our original song, ‘Chidori Band Ondo,’ a song about us and our indebtedness to our community.”

Takahashi said he penned the music to ‘Chidori Band Ondo’ in 2001 with Reiko So, who wrote the lyrics. ‘Tanko Boogie’ was also an original piece by Takahashi, written in 2008. “(The ‘Tanko Boogie’) was originally conceived as just a performance piece, but some dancers were brave enough to try to dance to it, with the same steps used for dancing to the original ‘Tanko Bushi,’” he said. “The tempo is faster than ‘Tanko Bushi,’ so it can take people by surprise.”

The Chidori Band continues to be a fixture for Japanese Americans in the Bay Area, and whether at San Jose’s Nikkei Matsuri or Obon, the band continues to provide live music in Japanese. “We make a conscious effort to always acknowledge the older styles of Japanese popular music, while moving forward by playing some songs that are currently popular,” said Yoshihara. “Generally, our older vocalists are more comfortable singing in the enka style, while our younger singers gravitate towards the newer Japanese pop songs.” Either way, the Chidori Band continues to be a fixture of Japanese music and dance for Bay Area Nikkei functions.

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