Cortez Obon Festival celebrates Japanese culture, community

sghag@modbee.comJuly 5, 2014 

Members of the Ballico Taiko Club had people marching to the beat of a different drum at the Cortez Obon Festival.

In its fourth appearance, Ballico Taiko, a drum group from the Ballico-Cressey Elementary School District, kicked things off Saturday night in the parking lot between Cortez Hall and Cortez Buddhist Church on Cortez Avenue, southeast of Turlock. The annual festival that celebrates Japanese culture in the Ballico-Cortez community included Obon dancing, cultural presentations, music and more. The festival attracted 450 to 500 people, up from 300 last year.

Also being celebrated was the 30th year of Tomodachi Gakko, or Japanese Friendship School, with their red jackets visible in the dancing crowd. The weeklong summer class at Cressey School educates students about Japanese culture.

Marlene Tanioka, who has been singing for five years with festival performers Cortez Karaoke Singers, said she joined to maintain a connection with the Japanese language she spoke as a child.

Longtime singer Suzumi Stewart said the songs are a tribute to their parents, Japanese immigrants.

Surya Kishi Grover, who now lives in the Bay Area, said she has performed in the Cortez festival since she was 3 or 4.

“This is coming home,” she said. “It’s remembering the people that have passed on. Here, I connect with the community. I literally put on different clothes and get into that space.”

Obon, also known as the gathering of joy, is a time to give thanks to ancestors and to come together as a community. It’s also known as the festival of lanterns and, in some communities, features the lighting of personalized memorial lanterns that bear the names of loved ones.

Eight students from the 218-student Ballico School performed three songs, opening with “Procession,” in which they marched and performed. “Jankenpon,” the Japanese word for the rock-paper-scissors game, followed. Concluding was “Yodan Round,” in which students play two drums at the same time.

Taiko, meaning thick drum, is a traditional Japanese style dating back more than 10,000 years. Taiko is primarily recognized as a performing art now, but once was used for celebrating harvests and encouraging soldiers on the battlefield.

“Personally, it’s our only music program,” said Christine Kubo, a fourth-grade teacher who leads Taiko classes at Ballico School. The third- through eighth-grade school has two beginning Taiko classes and the performing group.

“It’s a club, so it’s mostly after school,” she said of the ensemble that has been around for six years. Kubo took the drum club to Disneyland in February, where members performed at the Hollywood Backlot stage in the California Adventure park.

“The kids were so excited,” Kubo said.

The group performed in the 2012 Northern California Girl Scout Centennial in Sacramento, as well. In 2011, she had 22 students perform at the North American Taiko Conference at Stanford University. The group can be seen at community festivals in Stanislaus and Merced counties as well.

Kubo credits the support of Bryan Ballenger, Ballico-Cressey School District superintendent, for the program’s success. She hopes to introduce Taiko into kindergarten through second grades at Cressey School in the fall.

“There’s a lot of enthusiasm,” she said. “They’ve learned to play an instrument and move at the same time at a very young age. You’ve got to see it to appreciate it.”

The drums struck a beat with Dede Heisinger of Turlock, who was at the festival for the first time.

“I love that all the young people are involved,” she said.

The evening also included a Taiko performance by drumming group Stockton Bukkyo Taiko.

Bee reporter Sharon K. Ghag can be reached at sghag@modbee.com.

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