By Vivian Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
Morning rainfalls and cold weather couldn’t keep people away from the 39th annual Bumbershoot Music and Arts Festival at Seattle Center this past Labor Day weekend, which was held on Sept. 5 through Sept. 7. The festival drew thousands of people over the course of three days, all whom poured onto the grounds for local and national music, arts, and comedy acts.
One of the main headlining performing arts acts this year was COBU, a Japanese dance performance group from New York City.
In English, COBU means to dance like drumming, drum like dancing. This serves as the ensemble’s motto and performance mantra. Conceived as a live rhythm performing arts group in 2000, the group was founded by its current artistic director and choreographer, Yako Miyamoto.
“COBU combines elements of traditional Japanese taiko drumming with rhythmic tap dancing,” explains Miyamoto. “[Our] signature style and sound juxtaposes the traditional with the modern. [It] makes us one of the most unique and original groups around.”
Miyamoto has long been involved with the arts. She began her Japanese taiko drum studies in Tokyo when she was eight years old. Miyamoto later majored in chemistry at Keio University in Tokyo, where she spent much of her time performing as a hip-hop dancer, musical actress, and percussionist. She also obtained a black belt in the Shaolin Martial Arts.
In 1999, Miyamoto moved to New York City. Inspired by the urban lifestyle, she used the city’s sounds and lifestyle as well as her own traditional Japanese culture to create the foundation for COBU. “I wanted to express the pulse of both cultures,” says Miyamoto.
Building off of her own experiences as well as that of her peers, Miyamoto noted that COBU is heavily influenced by the perspective of Japanese girls living in America. She explained that many of these young girls are fascinated with their newfound, fast-paced American life, but many of them still hold dear their traditional Japanese culture.
Hoping to integrate these aspects into her work, much of the fashion, music, and dancing in COBU performances is influenced by the performers’ own lives. From “I [heart] NY” t-shirts to kimonos of varying lengths, to taiko drums and traditional stringed instruments, to funky hip-hop and tap dancing, this energetic, all-female ensemble offers viewers an insight into two completely different cultures meshed into one.
“Traditional and modern — Japanese culture and American culture — they are so different but both are cool,” says Miyamoto. “I want to express [youthfulness] by combining both [cultures] together.”
COBU previously completed an East Coast tour which included performances in cities such as Boston, Chicago, Florida, and Washington, D.C.
Bumbershoot marked COBU’s West Coast debut. In addition to performing in the United States, COBU has also performed in Europe and Asia, with many performances being done in COBU’s homeland, Japan.
“It is very different,” notes Miyamoto on the cultural differences of performing for two different countries. “Each country has its own style and sense of values … and I accept all of them [because they] teach me a lot of things.”
“Bumbershoot has a long history,” she continued. “But it [feels] new. I was so pleased to perform there,” says Miyamoto.
“I was so pleased to meet a [new] audience. Audiences teach me a lot of things …We can [convey] a meaning to the people who came to the Bumbershoot Festival.”
COBU was not the only Asian American artist or group performing at Bumbershoot this year. This year also brought in the likes of the popular hip-hop group, Black Eyed Peas, featuring Filipino American singer Allan Pineda Lindo, who is better known by his stage name “apl.de.ap.”
Another featured artist included Charlene Yi, an Asian American of mixed nationalities. Yi is a rising stand-up comedian best known for her roles in the comedy films “Knocked Up” and “Paper Heart.”
As Asian Americans continue to carve their way into the national arts scene, Miyamoto remained prideful of what COBU has been able to contribute with their work.
“[Though] I am proud of my Japanese background and Japanese traditional culture, I love the modern, hip-hop culture that I am living in now. I want Asian people to feel the pulse of the combined cultures [through] rhythms, [while] still [maintaining] tradition.” ♦
Vivian Nguyen can be reached at email@example.com.