Bringing Obon to Motown
by Jenni "Emiko" Kuida

It’s summer, which means it’s obon season! For the last several years I have enjoyed going to different obons at Buddhist temples throughout Southern California. Last summer, I traveled to Cuba with members of Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress as part of a group of 18 Japanese Americans that went to share obon with Cuban Japanese.

This year, I am helping to bring obon to Detroit, the birthplace of Motown, for a community Harvest Celebration. In the last two years, I have traveled to Detroit four times. The first time my partner, Tony Osumi, and I went at the invitation of Grace Lee Boggs, 87-year old community activist in Detroit, who we met at UCLA in 1998.

We went to Detroit to help design a mural with Detroit Summer, a youth program that is helping to re-build Detroit through murals and urban gardening. The next few trips to Detroit have been connected with my work at Great Leap, a multicultural performing arts organization.

On my first trip, I was fortunate to meet Gerald Hairston, a master gardener, who helped to create over 150 organic gardens in Detroit. As a Detroit Summer volunteer, he took us to Mrs. Clarke’s garden in Detroit to till the soil and plant seedlings. Mrs. Clarke’s garden occupies an empty lot next door to her house.

Most of Detroit’s gardens are neighborhood gardens, planted on just a few of Detroit’s 60,000 abandoned lots. One of the community gardens is at Genesis Lutheran Church, which is on the site of Gerald’s former alma mater, Eastern High School.

Sadly, Gerald passed away last year. As a tribute to Gerald, Nobuko Miyamoto, the Artistic Director of Great Leap, was inspired to write the song, "I Dream a Garden." She also choreographed an obon dance for the Harvest Celebration we will be doing in August. The modern day circle dance is based on Japanese odori movements and incorporates African, Latin and Native American rhythms. Some of the lyrics are:
Nobuko, Grace, Ashley, Jenni

    Come into the circle, circle of life,
    Come into the dream of a paradise,
    What was once a ruin can be reborn,
    Just like the sun appearing after a storm.

    With your hands, with your heart,
    With this land, we can make a new start.

    Every step is a blessing
    Every song a prayer,
    Every seed is a healing,
    That the world will share…
    I… dream a garden.

I just spent the last week immersed in Detroit with Nobuko. We spent time with musicians, adult and teen choirs from Genesis Church, and taught the dance to youth from Detroit Summer and folks from Council of Asian Pacific Americans in Detroit. Nobuko worked with youth from Matrix Theatre Company who are creating a hip-hop version of the dance and a rap version of the music.

Some of the dance movements will be recognizable to Japanese Americans. The opening movement has dancers come towards the center of the circle with their arms stretching upwards, similar to the opening movement in "Tampopo Ondo." Another of the dance steps is the same as the "dig, dig" movement in the Tanko Bushi. Nobuko explains this movement to Motown Detroiters as the "Temptations" dance step. They immediately make their own connections.

We also spent the week working with landscape architect Ashley Kyber, and about 20 youth volunteers to create a sculpture garden called "Gerald’s Griot Garden." In African tradition, a griot is a living book, a collector of memories of the people, telling the tales that help the tribe know itself. The tales can take a lyrical form. As the Senegalese musician and singer Baba Maal put it, "a griot listens and talks to the people and tells what is going on in society, both the good and bad."

Created in memory of Gerald, the garden is a spiral pattern with seating areas made of recycled, reused and "found" items such as gravel, broken auto glass, tree stumps and branches, twine and old tires. Completed in four days, the garden is breathtaking. On the evening that the garden was finished, Nobuko, Ashley, Grace and I sat in "Gerald’s Griot Garden" sharing stories and planning for our upcoming Harvest Celebration.

In a few weeks, Nobuko will return to Detroit to continue teaching the dance to community groups, such as children from CAMP Detroit and Association of Chinese Americans. She will also work with artists who will perform stories about Gerald in the Griot Garden.

As we bless the land in preparation for the Harvest Celebration/Obon on August 3rd which will take place at Genesis Church, I invite Rafu readers to come to Detroit to learn the dance and see what it’s all about. Let’s go! Ikimashoo!

Jennifer "Emiko" Kuida is the Managing Director of Great Leap. For info about the Harvest Celebration, see our website: This project is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts. ©2002.

Originally published in The Rafu Shimpo, July 17, 2002.

Updated: 5/22/03

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