Fifth annual Bon-Odori Dance Festival a celebration of community and culture

An enthusiastic young member of the Vanaver Caravan shines in the ribbon dance at a previous Bon-Odori festival. (photo by Lauren Thomas)

An enthusiastic young member of the Vanaver Caravan shines in the ribbon dance at a previous Bon-Odori festival. (photo by Lauren Thomas)

The annual Bon-Odori New Paltz Dance Festival will return to Hasbrouck Park on Sunday, August 9 from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. The event celebrates Japanese folk traditions along with those of other cultures, with the entire affair underscored by a thoroughly 21st century message of striving for a peaceful world free of nuclear energy.

The fifth annual Bon-Odori New Paltz Dance Festival will include a heart sutra chant and a spirited drumming session performed by the Native American women of Spirit of Thunderheart. Afterward, the stage and lawn at Hasbrouck Park will host a continuous succession of speakers, performers and demonstrations of skill throughout the day. A number of local organizations promoting sustainable living practices and alternative energy will be on hand and vendors will offer a variety of food and beverages. A raffle will be held proffering chances to win a range of items donated by local businesses and residents, including three vinyl copies of the new release “Guitars and Microphones” signed by the artist, founding member of the B-52s, Kate Pierson.

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Live entertainment at the festival will include Assane Badji performing African-style drumming and Stuart Paton will entertain the audience with emphatic and intense Japanese Taiko drumming. The Hanagasa Kai Japanese Folk Dance troupe from New York City presents a varied program of traditional Japanese folk dances passed from generation to generation that are fascinating and appeal to both kids and adults. The festival will draw to a close with a dance by the Vanaver Caravan dance company leading to a Bon-Odori dance on the lawn that all attending are invited to participate in.

The Bon-Odori festivals held in Japan each summer are based on the Buddhist practice of observing Obon, three days in mid-August — July in some regions — when the spirits of one’s ancestors are said to return to this world to visit their families. Lanterns are hung to guide their way home and Obon dances — Bon-Odori — are performed to honor them.

When Youko Yamamoto first created the Bon-Odori Dance Festival in New Paltz five years ago, it was in response to the March 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, which resulted in the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant crisis. Yamamoto, the proprietor of New Paltz’s Gomen-Kudasai Noodle Shop, was motivated by the disaster in Japan to turn her concerns about nuclear energy into an event that would bring the local community together in a culturally inclusive way and promote the use of alternative forms of energy. In expanding the concept of a traditional Bon-Odori Festival, Yamamoto says she was inspired by Livia and Bill Vanaver of the Vanaver Caravan dance company, who demonstrate their commitment to world peace and honoring diverse cultures through their performances.

Yamamoto is herself a musician, with a connection to bluegrass music that began when she was in college in Japan. In the late 1970s and ‘80s, she says, every college there had a bluegrass or American folk song club. (American jazz music has been popular in Japan for years, too, she adds.) Youko grew up studying classical piano and played the guitar, flute and shamisen — a three-stringed, banjo-like instrument — eventually going on to play rock music, bluegrass and big band jazz with various groups in college.

After moving to New York and studying at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, Yamamoto established a successful graphic design business in the city, but after 20 years felt it was time to move on to other things. Having moved up to the Hudson Valley with her husband and young children, Youko turned to another love, cooking, eventually opening the Gomen-Kudasai Noodle Shop where she serves organic, preservative-free food that she refers to as “not just healthy, but healing food.”

But her love for music and the arts and her desire to bring people of different cultures together has never left her. Yamamoto hosts Japanese Movie Night and live music performances in various genres in her restaurant on a regular basis, as well as one-day workshops on calligraphy and flower arranging and sessions of Reiki and yoga combined with lunch afterward. And every Monday afternoon at 3 p.m., Yamamoto hosts her own radio show on WVKR 91.3, “Noodling with Youko,” in which she introduces the Hudson Valley audience to varied forms of Japanese music. On one recent show Youko played Japanese rock music from the 1970s, completely unfamiliar to most Americans and fascinating in its similarities to American rock of that decade.

More information about the Bon-Odori New Paltz Dance Festival is available at www.bonodori.org and on Facebook.

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