December 1-8, 2012, Wednesday, December 5, 2012, 08:20 PM Pacific Time
From Minneapolis With Art
Dan Kwong and I are spending a week in Minneapolis as part a circle of 30 artists/directors who are into ensemble creation and making theater with communities….something like what we do. This is a special breed of directors, mostly women and people of color, who are part of a dedicated and growing field of theater makers who give voice to stories we never hear. This creative, collaborative and highly inclusive process is helping us make sense of ourselves and the complex cultural landscape we are a part of. We’re here to share and learn and help build curriculum to create an Institute to further this kind of work. Today, as I heard the stories of these artists who come from as far as Anchorage to New Orleans, New York to LA, I realized it’s not just the story of a changing America I’m hearing. The whole world is in this circle.
October 30, 2012, Wednesday, October 31, 2012, 03:34 PM Pacific Time
Sandy sweeps DC, NYC and me
Just left NY and DC a few days ago. The weather was unseasonably warm. The leaves had not turned orange or fallen to the ground. No chill yet. I took a picture with my friend Bob Lee on the bridge that connects Chinatown to Brooklyn. The great storm has changed this scene and the lives of millions overnight. These catastrophic events are occurring too frequently these days.
Here are some words from Bob Lee, who had to climb 44 flights to his Chinatown apartment that night.
For Lower Manhattan the whole virtual media Matrix has
Dissolved and reality of our empathy/feelings
For those near can be felt without buzz
Of this electronic polis. I recall during Backout
Of Apr 13, 2003 biking in darkness through
Manhattan, couples & small clusters of ppl
Chatting intimately quietly unseen together
That my tiny key light caught glimpses of,
At last a bit of freedom from the virtual systems that
Could no longer stop us from hearing the silent
Rhythms of our being.
Should we not recognize
This unexpected respite in the midst of civic
Turmoil, this chance to live more simply yet
More fully, should not OWS seize on this
Moment, to celebrate it with all those who
Found such accidental moments, alone
Or shared with friends or NYker strangers,
Touched by these, feelings normally alienated
From the city's voracious hum, its just us. We can claim
This moment. Though in the midst of Halloween,
A tender moment, a real space we share,
Perhaps closer to each of us, more real than
April 24, 2012, Tuesday, April 24, 2012, 10:05 PM Pacific Time
Victor Shibata, brother, warrior, healer
On April 17, 2012, we lost a master healer in our community, Victor Shibata. His heart, so open to "serve the people," failed him. He treated people throughout the Los Angeles community, but he also used his healing powers as a chiropractor, herbalist and acupuncturist and energy healing wherever he traveled, from clinics for the Hopis, to Japan, Nepal, Hawaii and more. In the picture above you can see him treating someone in Cuba, when we went to meet Japanese Cubans.
I first met Victor with Warren Furutani in 1970, when they came to convince members of Asian Americans for Action in New York City, which included Chris Iijima , to come to a JACL convention in Chicago. That historic gathering of activists from East and West Coast was where we all realized we were the Asian American Movement. It was there that Chris and I wrote our first song. Victor’s adventurist spirit also started the Manzanar Pilgimage and the Yellow Brotherhood. He was a brother that was always at the forefront. He went on to put his philosophy of ‘serve the people’ into his chiropractic practice and never stopped learning.
This little pain I have in my neck is a reminder of how much I miss him. His elbow in my back and the crack of my neck was his tough love, but it worked! So many will miss your touch, Victor. Warren just told me, “The world was a better place with him in it.” I think there’s still a part of Victor here with all of us.
Friday, November 25, 2011, 11:10 AM Pacific Time
MOTTAINAI IN HILO
From the time I stepped off the plane in Hilo greeted by host, Jan Higashi and a small throng holding a welcome sign...with leis and kisses...I knew it was going to be an extraordinary experience. I was there to help spread MOTTAINAI at their Japanese Culture Day, performing my crazy ghost character, N'Obake, who arises from beneath the landfill to spread the ways of mottainai...and show her music videos! I also came loaded with 300 pairs of B.Y.O Chopstix, which we hoped would be the beginning of the end of wood disposable chopsticks in Hilo.
The day included all sorts of 'mottainai' ideas, including a recycled art contest, with all generations participating. I had the help of Dennis Taniguchi, Director of the East Hilo Art Cultural, who created a shi-shi, one of those lions that every taiko group uses, from totally recycled materials. This was my pet, 'Kaki'. The youth taiko players from Puna Taiko also helped me make a noisy entrance. People seemed to love our skit and the videos, and they gobbled up the 300 chopstix. But what impressed me most was everyone was so friendly and all was done with real 'aloha spirit.' I also met the Mayor who wants to bring me back to do more shows for the youth of Hilo. Guess N'Obake's gonna rise again!
Later, Sharyn Taniguchi gave me a bracelet with “mottainai” she'd woven into it. It was done in the ancient Hawaiian style of Lauhala, a complicated process done with great care. I read about it in the Hawaiian Airlines magazine on my way home. I realized doing these "Mottainai" visits is something like Lauhala: “It's not just about weaving.....Weaving is about relationships. When you meet people, you weave them into your lives.” That's what I feel about the people and town of Hilo.
Mottainai....Nobuko aka N'Obake
Thursday, October 6, 2011, 12:29 PM Pacific Time
I’ve just spent 2 weeks walking the stones of antiquity in Tuscany, Rome and Paris, celebrating my 25th anniversary with Tarabu. Naturally I was impressed with the power of art. Take Michelangelo’s ‘David’ for instance. Of course, we’ve all seen pictures, but being in the presence of that 18 feet of perfection was something else. Then to learn that when David was finished, he was put in a public park in Florence. It was a time of political upheaval and when the people saw this David, just having thrown the stone that toppled Goliath, it gave them the courage to stand up to their own oppressor. I didn’t realize Michelangelo was a revolutionary too.
More stories of the European tour to come….
Thursday, August 11, 2011, 12:07 PM Pacific Time
Smithsonian Folkways features A Grain of Sand
In 1973, three young activists in New York City recorded A Grain of Sand: Music for the Struggle by Asians in America. Singing of their direct lineage to immigrant workers as well as their affinity with freedom fighters everywhere, Chris Kando Iijima, Nobuko JoAnne Miyamoto, and William “Charlie” Chin recorded the experiences of the first generation to identify with the term and concept Asian American—a pan-ethnic association formulated upon a shared history of discrimination. They sought a connection to their cultural heritage; to claim their historical presence in the United States; to resist their marginalization; and to mobilize solidarity across class, ethnic, racial, and national differences. Music provided a powerful means for expressing their aspiration to reshape a society reeling from a prolonged war, ongoing struggles against racial inequity, and revelations of the Watergate cover-up. As writer and activist Phil Tajitsu Nash would state many decades later, A Grain of Sand was “more than just grooves on a piece of vinyl,” it was “the soundtrack for the political and personal awareness taking place in their lives.” Equal parts political manifesto, collaborative art project, and organizing tool, it is widely recognized as the first album of Asian American music.
Read more here: A Grain of Sand: Music for the Struggle by Asians in America
Tuesday, July 12, 2011, 11:48 AM Pacific Time
From West Side Story to A Grain of Sand
Friday, July 8, was nostalgia-filled day. I shared my music at a luncheon of the JACL National Convention in Hollywood, which reminded me that Chris Iijima and I sang our first song at their convention forty-one summers ago in Chicago. And in the evening I went to the 50th year celebration of West Side Story at the Hollywood Bowl.
Let me start first with the oldest flashback, West Side Story. Seeing it in ‘high definition’ along with the Los Angeles Philharmonic playing live, was quite spectacular. I was sitting among the Sharks and Jets, that once competed, not as gangs, but as artists, wondering during the shoot, if “America” was going to be cooler than “Cool.” Now, watching it together, we clapped for each other’s work, that happened at the beginning of our careers. It was interesting watching our once-young, highly trained bodies…how easy that physicality seemed. But I remember the blisters and visits to the chiropractor, mononucleosis and swollen ankles, tears and near breakdowns. Working for a perfectionist like Jerome Robbins was no picnic. But it was an experience to part of a masterpiece like “West Side Story.”
So, how do you follow a “West Side Story?” I remember asking myself that very question in 1961. Finally liberated from the limits of typecasting by ‘passing for Puerto Rican’, it sent me on a journey. Singing on the soundtrack made me realize I had a voice. I started taking singing lessons. I embarked on an acting career that made me realize I didn’t want to just act. I wanted to live my own story.
Fast forward ten years. I was at the JACL National Convention in Chicago where young Asian American activists from East and West Coasts came together for the first time. It was forty-one summers ago that we learned that we were all doing serve the people programs, health and youth programs, and we were all engaged in stopping the Vietnam War. That hot and sticky Chicago summer, we visited the office of the Black Panther Party and they greeted us like brothers and sisters. We joined Native Americans who pitched a teepee in front of Wrigley’s Field to protest for better housing and they told us the story of Warriors of the Rainbow. There would be 5000 years of evil, followed by 5000 years of good and that change would come when Warriors all the colors of the rainbow would come together. Forty-one summers ago, we realized we were a Movement.
Late in the night, after the conversations and partying were over, Chris brought out his guitar. Somehow we spontaneously wrote our first song. The next day we sang, in our jeans, army jackets with bountiful hair, standing before the community and elders of the JACL, wanting them to take a stand against the Vietnam War. When we sang, it was one of those aha! moments. Wow….this is our song…we never had our own song. That moment forty-one summers ago started Chris and me on a journey, which I’m still on today…using music and culture to create social change.
End of nostalgia….
June 21, 2011, Tuesday, June 21, 2011, 03:06 PM Pacific Time
My New Friend, Walker
On June 10, 2011, I had Hip Replacement Surgery, common for dancers of a certain age. This has taken me from 33 years of Great Leap to a few weeks of ‘little steps”…a slow, quiet time with its challenges of healing, a time I’m actually relishing. My intention was to keep this time private, with no pressures, but the stillness has actually spawned a little creativity. So many people have expressed concern with emails, food, shopping, phone calls, advice and companionship. So I decided to share some of my experiences through these little poems. I’m not promising a regular schedule, just whenever I feel it. So, enjoy my ‘little steps.’
I Have A New Friend, Walker
My brother brought him by the hospital
The day after my Hip Replacement Surgery
(I’m much hipper now)
Since then Walker has become my constant companion
He’s the first thing I look for when I get out of bed
He gets me to a chair to eat my meals
He slowly glides me to the bathroom
He even walked me into my first shower at the hospital
And my husband isn’t even jealous!
Walker doesn’t look like someone
I’d ordinarily have a relationship with
But Walker has really grown on me
I appreciate his stability
His sympathetic shoulders
His quiet faithfulness
And his wheels!
There’s nothing quite like
Walking with my new friend, Walker
Wednesday, April 6, 2011, 02:41 PM Pacific Time
What does DJ Phatrick, Geologic, Nobuko, Kiwi and Grace Lee Boggs have in common?
ANSWER: We were all at the exciting and expanding, Out of the Margins, AA Conference in Ann Arbor, March 25-27. We performed for Grace and a packed house of enthusiastic Asian Americans from Michigan and coast to coast. And, we got to sit at the feet of amazing political guru, Grace Boggs, to absorb her experience and wisdom. Anyone who wants to make a better world has got to read her book, THE NEXT AMERICAN REVOLUTION: sustainable activism for the twenty-first century. She and Scott Kurushige packed he 95 years experience and expansive thinking into a concise 200 pages. Read it and let me know what you think. It started me writing my next song: “What Time Is It On The Clock Of The World.”
October 15 -17, Tuesday, October 19, 2010, 04:05 PM Pacific Time
Open letter to Jon Jang and the Asian American Music Festival
What a joy to see you Jon, elder master musician, with these fine young bloods, like pianist Gary Fukushima and a second generation Asian American musician, Miles Senzaki. Our music has traveled a long and expansive road since this ol’ troubador went on the road in the 70s.
I only saw the one program you played of the 3-day Asian American Music Festival, but I was fully satisfied…and inspired. You told us you didn’t sing, but you sure made that piano sing for you…so moving, so powerful, so full of our history and musical lineage, including Monk and Ellington…even Rodgers and Hammerstein.
I loved when you sat in the audience and listened to the young Pan Asian Arkestra play your orchestral suite, weaving in their own improvisations. And the sisters on taiko and saxophone. Yes! We’ve come a long way baby.
And thank you, Jon, for thinking that we should collaborate some day. The next morning I actually woke up hearing the music. Yes….someday, insha’Allah, we may. So to you, Jon and all the beautiful music makers of the festival, and Jake Shimabukuro, our shooting star…deep thanks. I’m proud of you all and my soul is full.
Keep the music flowing!
September 6, 2010, Tuesday, September 7, 2010, 07:09 PM Pacific Time
This is what 102 looks like
for my mother-in-law, Mamie Kirkland. I just returned from Buffalo celebrating her birthday. Now, Mamie wouldn’t be caught barefoot walking, in or outdoors – but her sturdy legs once walked the streets of Buffalo, as an Avon Lady (which she still does from her house). Her 4 foot 9 inch frame bore 9 children and raised 7, my husband being the only boy. Her sparkling eyes have seen history unfold, from the KKK chasing her father and family out of Mississippi, to the race riots in St. Louis, to the industrial rise and fall of Buffalo. But Mamie keeps walking, and she flies to LA yearly to stay with us for winters.
Mamie walks a little slower these days, making sure of what’s beneath her feet. She doesn’t need a phone book or a computer. Her family’s phone numbers are stored in her hard driving mind. And she remembers what she had for dinner and with whom, a year ago! My theory is that she is always focused and fully present, not like us multi-tasking morons. When asked her secret of longevity, she points upward, but she also offers earthly advice. “Slow down, don’t rush your life…live your life.” Thanks, I’m going to try, Mamie.
Thursday, July 8, 2010, 03:21 AM Pacific Time
"I Dream a Garden" at the US Social Forum
Here is an article written by 95 year old Detroit activist/philosopher Grace Lee Boggs, who is a longtime and dear friend and mentor to Great Leap.
LIVING FOR CHANGE
By Grace Lee Boggs
“I Dream a Garden”
Come into the circle - - circle of life
Come into the dream of a paradise
What was once a ruin can be reborn
Just like the sun after a storm.
With our hands - - with our hearts
With this land – we can make a new start.
Everything we need is beneath our feet
There’s a new way to live –
with our roots planted so deep
Every step is a blessing
Every song is a prayer
Every seed is a healing
That the world will share
In the early evening of June 25, 2010, the fifth day of the 2nd United States Social Forum, a generationally and ethnically very diverse group of USSF activists sang “I Dream a Garden” and danced the Harvest Dance, combining Native American, African American and Asian American steps, on the lawn of Genesis Lutheran Church,
Genesis Church is on the corner of Mack and E. Grand Blvd, a few hundred feet north of the Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership. We danced there because Gerald Hairston, the Gardening Angel who sparked the urban agricultural movement in Detroit, was a member of Genesis, he was also a member of the class of 1964, the last graduating class of Eastern High School which occupied this corner before it was renamed King High School and moved a few miles southeast to Lafayette and Mt. Elliot.
“I Dream a Garden” was written and choreographed by Nobuko Miyamoto, an Asian American community artist who as a child was interned during World War II even though she was a Sansei whose ancestors had lived in this country for three generations.
Nobuko danced on Broadway, in the original Flower Drum Song, in 1959 and in films such as The King and I (1955) and West Side Story (1961).
In 1978 she founded Great Leap as an Asian-American arts organization. Today Great Leap is a thriving, multicultural performing arts group that gives voice to the experience of contemporary Asian-Americans as well as African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans and other groups. Great Leap’s multicultural performances reach tens of thousands of children and youths in the public schools in southern California and the U.S.A
In 1992, responding to tensions between Los Angeles’s African-American and Asian-American communities, Nobuko Miyamoto took what she had learned with Great Leap to shape a healing multicultural touring show that includes Latinos and African-Americans and is called “A Slice of Rice, Frijoles, and Greens.” Great Leap ’s theme song and ongoing residency program, “To All Relations,” brings together people from diverse backgrounds to explore and tell their own stories, thereby creating an alternative narrative for the world’s future. “I believe there is no better way than the arts to open the cultural, racial, and economic chasms which abound,” she says. “We have a powerful, creative tool to educate, entertain, and transform our world.”
Ten years ago I invited Nobuko to Detroit where she worked with Detroit Summer youth and was inspired by Gerald Hairston’s Gardening Angels dreams. After Gerald’s death in 2001, she wrote and choreographed “I Dream a Garden” and we performed it on the Genesis lawn in 2002.
This year Renee Wallace and Jeannine Hatcher of Genesis HOPE invited Nobuko and landscape architect Ashley Kyber, who was also a friend of Gerald’s, to return to Detroit during the 2nd USSF to re-create “I Dream a Garden” because they believe Gerald’s Gardening Angels legacy can expand and enrich community organizing on the east side of Detroit.
My USSF Conversation with Immanuel Wallerstein can be read at
For photos, go to Great Leap's Facebook page.
Thursday, June 17, 2010, 11:59 AM Pacific Time
I Dream A Garden
I'm on my way to Detroit....barefoot flying. I will be there for the US Social Forum, a gathering of activists from around the country. They say 10,000 to 15,000 will be there. For me its a revisit to a journeys I taken to Detroit in 2001- 2, when Grace Lee Boggs invited me to create some kind of art project around the urban gardeners. After many visits and much learning on how visionary activists were trying to recreate their city, from the ground up, I created an earth healing dance. I wrote a song "I Dream A Garden", which a gospel choir sang, and I led a giant circle dance in the garden of Genesis Church, with hundreds of participants.
I'm thrilled to again be invited back to Detroit, to remount the song/dance with a community that wants to do it every year. This makes me so happy. It's like the song/dances for Buddhist tradition of Obon, which we do yearly to remember our ancestors. Now Detroit will have one, and in the future perhaps many more, to help re-spirit and remember those visionaries like Grace Lee Boggs and Gerald Hairston, and so many more who have planted seeds of hope for that city.
"I Dream A Garden" will be done on Friday nite, June 25...if you're around, join us!
Tuesday, June 8, 2010, 01:01 AM Pacific Time
Why I'm Barefoot Walking
These days a lot of young people are seeing Tad Nakamura’s film “A Song For Ourselves” about my music partner Chris Iijima. They’ve ‘discovered’ the album, A Grain of Sand, by these ‘troubadours’ of the Asian American movement, Chris, Charlie Chin and me. Yes, I’m a dinosaur, a relic of the 70s and the movement where we found our voice, our song. It put me on a path as an artist, tangled my life with mentors and martyrs, propelled me to tell our stories on stage with a host of artists, traveled me across cultural borders, and birthed Great Leap… thirty-two years of making art and community…talk about sustainability.
Now, another dynamic and challenging moment with catastrophic possibilities is upon us. What new songs are waiting to sing? How do I link my experiences with the creative potential out there…our young people. Great Leap’s young and tech-savy staff had an answer: “Nobuko, do A BLOG!”
Okay, okay! So, why barefoot? Well, most of my work as artist has been in the trenches of communities – on the ground, under funded, under the radar. Yet magical things happen, people are changed, I am changed. This kind of work might be compared to ‘Barefoot Doctors’ who served in China’s rural communities. But for me, ‘barefoot’ speaks to a spiritual principle.
Once I was climbing a mountain in Taos, New Mexico. I had to borrow my friend Meibao’s hiking shoes, even though they were a half size too small. Before I was halfway up the mountain my feet were screaming. A voice inside said, “Take off the shoes.” What? How will I get to the top? “Take off the shoes! Your feet were made for this.” Reluctantly I surrendered and somehow reached the top of the mountain and back down again…barefoot. I looked at my ‘once were dancer’s’ feet…unwounded, dusty, strong and free. Yes…they were made for this.
The belief it takes in oneself and the universe to undertake what seems crazy or impossible…like climbing a mountain barefoot, making the world better through art, or whatever your gifts might be, is what I’m talking about. I’m a grandma now, but I’m not rocking chair ready! More songs are coming, and mother earth is calling us to change how we live. So if you’re up for a journey, kick off your shoes and come along with me…Barefoot Walking.
Basement Workshop Reunion, New York City, Friday, October 9, 2009, 11:23 PM Pacific Time
“I am a yellow pearl
You are a yellow pearl
We are the yellow pearl
And we are half the world…we are half the world…”
It began with a handful of songs and a circle of activists and artists in the dark bowels of a New York Chinatown cellar we called BASEMENT WORKSHOP. It was the place that YELLOW PEARL was birthed, a collection of poems, graphics, and songs, stacked in a yellow box the size of a record album (33rpm) that would disintegrate over time. (now a collector’s item) That box contained the fury and joy of a young generation finding its voice for the first time. We were defining ourselves…we were Asian American…and we were a movement. Part of the fun of making YP and being in the movement was there were no roadmaps or recipes, we were creating as we went along. And we were definitely thinking outside that box, the system that had discriminated against us, labeled and kept us minorities. So when we sang, “we are half the world, we are half the world” back in the day, it was a declaration of liberation!
Now, almost 40 years later, Charlie Chin and I have returned to New York City, to sing for a reunion of Basement Workshop. It was held in the lofty digs of the Asian Pacific American Institute at NYU. Time has elevated our status. We’re surrounded by familiar faces, the other ‘yellow pearls’, who now are gray hairs, like us, but still look very cool. They’re gathered with some of their children and even Charlie’s feisty mother, staff and students who have this center because of the amazing community work that’s been done over the last 40 years in NYC and beyond…beginng in that dingy BASEMENT WORKSHOP.
“and I see us growing stronger
building something new, building something new
and I knew, I knew there was something different about me today….”
After our music set, APA Institute’s director Jack Tchen, brought up some of the folks whose revolutionary ripples flowed up from that ‘basement’. Fay Chiang poet, and spiritual mother of Project Reach, which serves a mix of communities in the lower Eastside; Rocky Chin, board member of Asian American Theater Alliance; Bob Hsiang and Corky Lee celebrated photographers whose images document our movement; Henry Chang reading from his beautifully written Chinatown mystery novels; Larry Hama, creator of GI Joe comics (yes, his graphics are in YP), remembering Alex Chin, our Chinese American Otis Redding, who created the iconic emblem of Yellow Pearl; Tomie Arai, artist who’s artwork peppers NY including at the new Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA), designed by Maya Lin; and Takashi Yanagida and Liz Young whose work ripples to the west coast and even internationally.
Jack Tchen wants to collect and document what has been done for the next generations to see what they are connected to. We can’t give them a recipe or a road map. Their challenges are different than ours were. But we ‘yellow pearls’ planted our seed as an anchor for those who continue to venture out side their box.
A next generation musician Taiyo Na, played with us that day. He’s a spoken word artist who wields a guitar and soulful singing voice. I always miss Chris, who was traditionally on my left and Charlie on my right. But now I hear Taiyo. Together we sang one of Chris’ songs, “War of the Flea.” I was amazed how it stands up through these 40 years with this youngblood’s voice. It made me know our ideas of community and social change, would continue to be sung in new ways through new voices, for a new day.
“Song of the night, war of the flea
Deep inside the jungle you will find me…”