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Connie: Jazz lives and Kagura Festivals

June 16, 2011

Saturday was our band’s jazz live. It was the first one we did in a public venue. We performed in a small, rather popular cafe on campus called Mermaid Cafe in front of friends and people who just wanted their morning coffee.

The acoustics in the cafe were awful, and I missed a few notes (I’m sure we all did), but people enjoyed it! One of my friends who had run off before I got a chance to talk to him even sent me a private message on facebook saying how good we did. 

It was a bit funny to me that the three foreigners in the band were the ones who act as emcees. I know I rambled a bit and said a few weird things, but I think if we appear in a live again I’ll do better. As for music, my favorite two songs we performed were Tokyo Telephone, a cover of a Merry song, and On Green Dolphin Street. Bluesy lyrics and quick tempo changes make the world a better place.

After our live, my host father picked me up and along with one current graduate student who had stayed with him as a host-daughter in the past, we made the venture from middle-of-nowhere Saijo to even more middle-of-nowhere Shobara up in the mountains. The snow had long since melted, and though the weather forecast had promised rain, the clouds broke up.

My host father owns a rather large RV, and as it turns out he’d volunteered to take a group from Shobara up to Shimane-ken, the prefecture north of Hiroshima, to see a kagura festival at the same place I’d tried on the costumes before. It took roughly two hours to get from Shobara-shi to Shimane-ken going up and down mountainous roads. When we arrived at the school there were more people than I’d expected there to be. There were also makeup- and costume-less young kagura actors squatting on the steps of the school, smoking like high school punks. These weren’t the sort of people I’d imagined acting in such a graceful traditional dance, to be sure.

What had at one time been the school’s gymnasium was transformed into a stage with mats set out in front of it for a rather large audience. Food vendors were packed in the corners with rather delicious bentos. When we received the program I was surprised to see that it would be going until midnight. Actually, the atmosphere of the place was rather charming. I don’t know if there’s anything really like it in America. While such an ancient and beautiful art is going on onstage, people are conversing (though not obnoxiously), drinking, eating, rather like a large picnic. At one point my host father’s friend told me that in the olden days these sorts of festivals would continue until sunrise. To me that seems like a really cool thing, but I suppose in this modern life it’s not very practical.

The performances themselves were stunning. All the actors are men, no matter what kind of character they play. All of them are incredibly graceful, somehow managing to move smoothly in the costumes I could barely hold up. The smoking punks were suddenly transformed into something entirely different. Not only that, but the crowded room we were in was incredibly hot, not to mention the costumes – at one point I went backstage to take a picture with a few of the actors and I encountered one coming offstage, absolutely drenched in sweat. Not only is their grace impressive, but so is their perseverance. In these kind of conditions, the actors do plays that last roughly 20 minutes each, along with musicians who beat drums relentlessly the entire time.

My favorite costume. I always paid attention when these guys were on.

This particular actor was my favorite. Everything he did was beautiful.

The Japanese spoken during these performances is an ancient form of the current language. I suppose it could be equated to hearing Shakespeare’s English, though possibly less decipherable – my host father said there aren’t any Japanese people who really understand it. The program we’d been given had a summary of what each play was about, each of which I did my best to read through despite my lacking knowledge of kanji. The stories are old Japanese legends, including exactly the kinds of characters you would imagine in such legends: princesses, priests, young warriors, demons, dragons.

I’ve taken away from that night something of an interest in kagura. When I expressed that, one of my friends back in Saijo informed me that in July there is another kagura performance near here. I’m considering going to that one as well. I wonder if it will be the same kind of atmosphere?

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