YOMITAN, Okinawa Pref. – For two Okinawan women, drumming is the ultimate form of expression and a symbol of the dialogue they believe is essential to achieve world peace.
Chisato and Ayano Arakaki, both in their 30s, came to this realization in the course of composing music for a new production titled “War and Peace.”
The sisters are key members of Zampa Ufujishi Daiko, a troupe of professional “taiko” drummers from the Okinawa village of Yomitan, where U.S. forces landed in April 1945 at the onset of the bloodiest battle in the Pacific during World War II.
This summer, the eight-member ensemble is busy rehearsing a new show to commemorate its 20th anniversary. To mark the milestone it is collaborating with Tamiya Kuriyama, artistic director for the drama division at Tokyo’s New National Theatre.
The show, to be performed in October at Bunkamura Orchard Hall in Tokyo and the Hyogo Performing Arts Center in Hyogo Prefecture, will bring a broad spectrum of vibrant rhythms that channel the sisters’ interpretations of Okinawa’s history.
In addition to “wadaiko” drums from Honshu, the group will play Okinawan and steel drums, incorporating dance steps as well, to represent peace, the outbreak of hostilities and postwar reconstruction.
“I saw Zampa perform for the first time about eight years ago in Osaka and I was totally knocked out by their energy and skills,” Kuriyama, 53, said. “I had an offer to direct their show at that time. But I decided not to as it was perfect as it was.”
But after directing plays with war- and peace-related themes in recent years, Kuriyama thought he was ready to give it a go.
“I started to sense that the Japanese have underestimated the importance of history,” he said.
“As Zampa’s beat had remained in my head for years, I was wondering if I could generate memories of war and peace with their drumming,” he said. “Today, I think there’s no point in saying stuff like ‘Let’s bring about peace in the world.’ We already know that’s important.
“What we should think about more is how to find a way to evoke memories of our past, given that human beings tend to forget,” he said.
Kuriyama gave the sisters a rough idea of what he wanted about a year ago, but it wasn’t easy for them to figure out how to transform this huge subject into rhythms.
“War and peace . . . I didn’t know what to do. We first thought the theme was way too big for us,” Ayano, 33, said.
After looking for inspiration for months, the drummers, who had never given much thought to Okinawa’s turbulent history, gathered up the courage to ask their grandmother about the past.
“Knowing that my grandma is now enjoying life, I was reluctant until the last minute to ask her about her experiences during the war,” Ayano said.
But chatting with her turned out to be rewarding and helped them to decide on the direction to take.
“I knew she suffered many hardships during the war. But she didn’t complain,” Ayano said. “What my grandma has told us instead was the importance of maintaining a positive mind-set and not losing hope, no matter what happens.”
The Battle of Okinawa was the only land battle fought on Japanese soil and witnessed the loss of more than 200,000 lives, mostly civilians. About one out of four Okinawans perished in the fighting or in mass murder-suicides.
In Yomitan, Zampa’s base, about 40 percent, or 1,429 hectares, of the land is still under the U.S. military control.
But the group decided not to have the rhythms just dwell on the horrors of war.
“Rather, we want to express the preciousness of human life, Okinawan people’s inner power, ingenuity and toughness,” Chisato, 35, said.
The two sisters, who are only about 150 cm tall but create thunderous rhythms, said talking with their 90-year-old grandmother reinforced their desire to use their music to celebrate life.
The producer, Mieko Shimojima, and Kuriyama are thrilled at how Zampa’s new beats, which they believe capture universal human emotions, have taken shape through an improvisational drum dialogue.
“By contrast, today’s world is filled with empty and violent rhetoric as people are increasingly expressing themselves in a one-sided way,” Kuriyama said.
“A lack of dialogue is a global trend and suicide terrorism is the most extreme form of unilateral statement,” he said.
Through their grandmother’s stories, the Arakaki sisters have also come to understand that dialogue is necessary to make the world a better place.
“People become insecure when they can’t understand what others are thinking,” Chisato said. “Insecurity leads to wariness, and that can turn into violence.
“Conflict occurs in the absence of dialogue,” she said.
Zampa, named after the majestic cape in Yomitan, has held about 1,000 concerts, including in the United States, Australia and Hong Kong, since it was founded in March 1986 by the sisters’ father, Takejo, 58.
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