Friday, February 7, 2014

Eisa: Drums for the Dead

Hi~~~~Ya! Hiiiiii~~~~~~EE~~~YA! 
(Sounds similar to the dubbed versions of old Bruce Lee films may help you imagine today's topic more vividly)

Life is full of many goodbyes; some are tragic, most are casual and a few are exceptional. How exceptional? Imagine powerful reverberations of beating drums, majestic flags flying high, exotic dance and myth-laden song all to wish ancestors a safe trip back to the afterlife. If you ever make a trip to Okinawa chances are you'll come across a unique musical performance known as Eisa (エイサー). It's a performance rooted in local myth, Buddhist beliefs and unbridled awesomeness. So what the hell is Eisa you ask? Don't fret I'm here to teach you! First, check out the [unfortunately poor quality] videos below!

No one can say for certain when and where Eisa actually came from. Although there are many believable stories, finding evidence of its origin has proven to be rather difficult. What is known is that it began as a Buddhist prayer dance on the final day of Obon. Obon is an annual celebration welcoming ancestors back to the world of the living for three days. Activities usually include a family reunion, cleaning of the ancestors graves and the burning of uchi-kabi (yellow cloth-like paper meant to serve as money in the afterlife) in front of the household altar. Different regions of Japan celebrate Obon at different times and the activities can vary from region to region. In Okinawa Obon (also known as Kyu-bon) is celebrated in the 7th month and 15th day of the lunar calendar. Groups of local youths called "Michi-Junee" would dance through the streets to say good bye to their ancestors and wish for the health and prosperity of the community. As the tradition has evolved it has become an essential cultural asset for Okinawa and its people.

Eisa Music can also be accompanied by Karate performances

Eisa is a multi-layered performance. Each performance consists of 5 specific roles and roughly 20-30 performers. The drummers (Teeku-uchi), flag people (Hata-gashiri), dancers (Tii-udui), music & song people (Jikata-Jiutee) and the jokers/buffoons (Sanaja, Chondaraa, Chooginaa, or Sanraa). Each Role is assigned a specific task during the performance and their role often reflects their experience as an Eisa performer.

The drummers.

The drummers are typically arranged by their size: The larger the drum, the harder you bang, the closer you are to the front

 These are the folks who get to bang in public all day and still receive praise for it. Traditionally these positions were filled by men only, but now women are accepted as well. The drum section uses 3 different drums all emitting a different sound that adds to the overall affect of Eisa. The drums, much like a fast-food menu, come in Large (a barrel type drum) called Odaiko, a medium size called shimedaiko and small the paarankuu.

Bad quality photo but you can still see the paarankuu drums

The Flag People

Everyone needs someone to throw their flag up from time to time; Eisa is no different. These folks hold up flags of varying size with the name of their Eisa group on it. Some flags are elaborate works of art weighing hundreds of pounds. These flags can also be very dangerous in the wind due to their hefty weight and top heavy nature.  During the Eisa performance the flag people lift the flag in conjunction with the rhythm of the drum beats.


This role has traditionally been used to express the beauty of the feminine kind through hand movements. The women in this part of the production usually dawn traditional garb and wear these god awful wooden sandals that should be designated dangerous relics of a past age. They also move in unison with the music and add an enjoyable touch of the better-kind to a performance predominantly dominated by men.

Music and Song

These folks usually inhabit a stage and play the Sanshin (a three stringed instrument similar to a banjo) and have historically sung traditional Okinawan songs. Originally they would recite Buddhist prayers though as time has continued its pace into the future more contemporary themes have entered into the songs they sing.

The Jokers/Buffoons 

For me these fine folks are the most interesting aspects of Eisa to watch. With their wigs/bad ass hats and face paint you can't help to notice their presence as they lurk through the mob of Eisa performers. Their role is to help keep the drummers in line, replace lost drumsticks (it's hard to keep a hold on them when you're banging one out), and dance to make the performance a bit more humorous.

Modern Eisa has a much different place in society than its origin. Contemporary Eisa has become more athletic, females can also be drummers, and there are now Eisa clubs rather than ragtag groups of young locals. Now, another difference is the choice in songs to perform. Popular club songs as well as "Oki-pop" are now performed adding a special something to connect with the younger generations of people. The biggest event takes place on the 1st Sunday of August on Kokusai-Dori in Naha City. The event is called the "10,000 Eisa Dancers Parade" and is a good opportunity to sample the many styles of Eisa now in existence.  For more information on Eisa or Eisa events in Okinawa check out the following link:

So now... What do you think? Is Eisa your style? Do you know of any Eisa like performances in your area of the world? Leave a comment and let the sharing commence!

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