So You Think You Can Drum?
Story by Brian Ross
photo by Jana Morgan
Thirty years ago, Okinawa was reeling from an almost catastrophic problem. Many island youths were being attacked on the roads, victims of motorcycle gang violence. Parents and political leaders needed to act. They needed to get their kids excited about an activity that would keep them off the streets, preferably one that taught them to respect and appreciate their island culture.
Most traditional cultural activities for Okinawa’s youth, like eisa drumming and folk dancing, had long ago been replaced by rock music. But within the problem lay also the solution. In 1982 a new form of eisa was developed, one that combined Okinawan dance and karate moves with rock and hip-hop music. Ryukyukoku Matsuri Daiko was born.
Twenty-seven years later, sensei Akemi Martin is directing about twenty performers, ages 6 to 40, through a rehearsal in Salt Lake District Park. They pound their bachi (drum sticks) on small one- and two-sided drums—paranku and shime daiko respectively. Even while playing the larger odaiko drums, they move with the elegance of ballet, the energy of karate and the ease of those who aren’t afraid to practice.
To the uninitiated, RMD looks the wild child of its ancestor, Japanese taiko. But Martin is quick to point out the differences. “Japanese taiko is stationary. They use big, heavy drums, and they don’t drum to music. They make their own music.”
The kinetic, colorful and contemporary RMD form is growing fast, and its appeal is widespread. Today there are chapters on Oahu, Maui, Kauai and the Big Island as well as in Japan, Okinawa and on the Mainland. “We want to present Okinawan culture to the world and build cross-cultural friendships,” Martin says. “You don’t have to be Okinawan to join us. We welcome everyone!” RMD performs at various events throughout the year, most notably during the Okinawan Festival, held each Labor Day weekend, in Kapiolani Park.
Fifteen-year-old Leia Shinsato and her two teenage siblings have performed with RMD Hawaii for nine years. What motivates her to keep going?
“When I first started I was very shy. But RMD teaches us to express ourselves, to become leaders. Besides, I used to sing these songs with my grandfather in his car. I didn’t know I could dance to them and that they had so much meaning. I think that’s cool!”