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  • Writer's pictureRhythmatist

Okinawan Eisa Drumming

Okinawan Eisa is more of a dance style using drums as a prop than drums for drums' sake.  Eisa is traditionally performed after the Obon holiday during which families celebrate their ancestors.  Eisa was a kind of Shamanic sendoff for spirits who visit this world during the Obon season.  There is no dark or sad meaning to Eisa.  On the contrary the perfomers don brightly colored costumes and the music is cheery, accompanied by joyous shouts and whistles.  The dancers carry small frame drums or large barrel drums making gestures and leaps in four directions and beating their drums along to the accompanying singing or sanshin. The musical scale of Okinawan folk music is major and creates a very uplifting and yearning mood.  The beats of Eisa are not complex or polyrhythmic but simply emphasize downbeats of the songs.  As dozens of drummers strike the barrel drums in unison, the beats strongly resound in the listeners' chests.  So while the tunes of Eisa are very light and sing-songy, the rhythm engages the body deeply in a way that folk music usually does not.

In the original Eisa dance, men play the paranku (small frame drum) while doing an alternating angular dance in rows.  These dancers shout calls of "ei ya sa sa "  answered by "ah ii ah."    These dancers are accompanied by jester-like men with painted faces who do the characteristic whistling and interact with the crowd.

Modern Eisa is based more on folk songs of Okinawa and is more athletic, incorporating kicks and lunges while hefting the barrel drums and paranku high in the air.

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