In Salinas, you have a big Obon Festival. A summer festival of remembrance of one’s ancestors and history, it is celebrated by Japanese Americans and their friends and relatives, along with thousands of visitors.
Last Saturday, I was very excited to go to my first Obon in Portland.
It was very hot when I walked the six blocks to Cesar Chavez Blvd. to catch the number 75 south to Powell Street, then got off and walked six blocks back to the Buddhist Temple. The Japanese style ceramics of Jim Johnstone, the glass art of Kurumi Conley, and the Bonsai of Lucy Davenport were offered by the artists, along with cotton candy and shave ice and games for kids.
I saw a tiny glass dish I wanted to by for Auntie Bridgett, but didn’t want to carry it all day. I told the young lady (who, seconds earlier, was speaking fluent Japanese to an older gentleman) that I would come back for it.
The heat was rising off the asphalt parking lot as I walked to a welcome piece of shade with some benches. A small crowd were claiming their spots as a jazz band began to assemble under its own puddle of shade. Bright red lettering on black music stands read The Minidoka Swing Band. There was barbed wire in their logo. I was puzzled.
And why did the name Minidoka sound familiar? As soon as the band started up, I realized it.
Andy Streich, the vocalist, began singing original lyrics to a very upbeat song that sounded like “Rock Around the Clock”, and they went like this:
“Back in 1942 we were in a fix,
The government issued Order nine oh sixty six
We had to be gone from the western shore,
They smashed our windows and looted our stores
We lost all our possessions and we lost our homes,
They shipped us out to Minidoka where the buffalo roam.”
It continued for three more verses, telling of conditions at the Minidoka Internment Camp in Idaho, and how the Japanese American prisoners used popular American music to keep everyone’s spirits up by forming a swing band and playing for dances.
“When the music starts, and the people sway,
You can hear the Minidoka Swing Band from miles away…”
As Andy continued singing, the story emerged. Some of the members of the band are descendants of survivors of the Minidoka Internment Camp.
Obon is a time to remember ancestors. This is how they were doing it.
I listened with joy to the rest of the set, loving all the familiar tunes that allowed me to celebrate my own parents, who were also fans of Summertime, String of Pearls, and Tuxedo Junction. Everyone applauded, lost for a moment in the music and the past.
I had a light supper of chicken, rice, and a Japanese pickle, then explored the small shop in the basement which sold inexpensive toys and lovely, expensive kimonos.
By the time I had eaten, the band stands had been cleared away, getting the parking lot ready for the dancing in two hours. I found Todd Ouchida, who played trumpet, visiting with friends under the tent. He allowed me to take his photo so I could remember the people and the logo of the band.
Japanese Taiko drumming and Bon Odori dancing would be happening later, but I was suffering from the heat and really needed to get home.
I bought the lovely piece of glass art and headed back down the hot street, grateful for the air conditioned bus all the way home, wishing I had been able to stay, or maybe gone later to see the drumming and dancing. Maybe next year.