Looking Back: The Powell Street Festival

– 30 Years and still going strong

by Terry Watada

Editor’s note: While Terry is on his summer hiatus, we decided to look back on his nearly thirty years of writing about and for the Japanese Canadian community and by extension the Asian Canadian community. We will be reprinting some his columns until his return.

I must admit I had some feelings of trepidation as I made my way to the 30th annual Powell Street Festival in Vancouver on the August 5th weekend. For one, I was to direct a reading of my untried new play Obon: The Festival of the Dead and with actors I had never met. Two, I hadn’t been to the festival in the last two years, thus spoiling my nearly unblemished record since the beginning in 1977. And three, underneath it all, I worried that the festival just wouldn’t elicit the same feelings I had in the early days.

It turned out my fears were for nothing. The two days were sunny and temperate with a nearly overflowing crowd of people. Ideal conditions for a successful festival. I met Raymond Nakamura, a friend from Toronto, right off the bat. He had his smart-as-a-whip two or three-year-old daughter with him. We talked about old times and new. That’s one of the great things about the festival: the ability to attract Japanese Canadians of all walks. It always had that and continues to have, as I happily found.

Since 1979, the PSF has included taiko as a mainstage attraction. Its inclusion has grown to become the major attraction. For fans, the 30th festival did not disappoint. Five groups performed this year: Katari Taiko, Sawagi Taiko, Chibi Taiko, and special guests Mu Taiko, a group from Minneapolis, Minnesota. A taiko collaboration to close the festival was a highlight. They played at varying levels of competence but thrilled audiences nonetheless. There was even a preview. The night before an “all-star group” of women taikoists performed for the Pride Festival at the Roundhouse Theatre.

In my first appearance at the festival back in 1977, I performed my songs backed by good buddy Martin Kobayakawa, and I recall feeling I was presenting something new, something unconsidered in the Japanese-Canadian and Canadian consciousness. Well, the current generation of musicians must’ve felt the same. Nish Raawks (Derek Nishikawa), LOUD, Kamea Lessoway, Dharmakasa and Bryan Yamami of TaikoProject based in LA presented their brands of music (from hip hop to classical to Asian fusion to other) to great effect. Though most of my crowd didn’t fully appreciate the implications of their performances, we did appreciate their exuberance and skill.

Standouts for me at the festival were Bunkaza, a leading Japanese theatre company brought in by impresario Yoshi Yoshihara of Vancouver and Tokyo, and Assaulted Fish, a sketch comedy troupe based in Vancouver but starting to make waves in the United States. Bunkaza endeavors to preserve the shamisen music of the Meiji and Taisho eras by recreating the traveling troupes at the time – all women and all blind. Their performance was fascinating and melodic with three-part-harmonies in voice and excellent playing as well. Assaulted Fish appeared for the third time at the festival and consists of a pan-Asian membership. Their comedy is cross-cultural without being preachy or Asian-specific, just plain smart and funny actually. With sketches like a spoof of Brokeback Mountain, they won the 2003 and 2005 Sketchoff People’s Choice awards and will continue to find success in the future.

The festival didn’t ignore the literary. Hiromi Goto and Kyo Maclear read from their work, and my play went off well. I was particularly impressed with the quality of acting. Raugi Yu, Maki Yi and Yumi Ogawa (a member of Assaulted Fish actually), fresh from majoring in theatre at university, carried off their assignments with great aplomb.

The festival of course is so much more than these performances. There’s the food, the martial arts, the sumo tournament, the odori and contemporary dance, the omikoshi, the children’s programs and crafts. One has to just go and experience it all.

For me and my contemporaries, there was Kokuho Rose Revisited, a group of “progressive” folksingers who had appeared at the first festival all those years ago. They had reformed to bring back the spirit, at least for their two performances (mainstage at the festival and at the Tonari Gumi coffeehouse the week before). And they didn’t disappoint with Sean Gunn and John Greenaway providing the solid rhythm for the harmonies of Linda Hoffman and Joyce Chong, highlighted during a stirring version of “Free the Land”, a counter-culture, third world, Marxist take on the revolution by 1970s Asian-American epoch makers Chris Iijima and Joanne (Nobuko) Miyamoto.

The word “alternative” is worn like a badge by the festival organizers and displayed proudly. Outside the festival, they’ve taken on various alternative projects like the Lost and Found Exhibition, the Powell Ground Baseball Game (on the Monday after the festival) and a special presentation of My Husband is a Spaceman by Frank Chickens member Kazuko Hohki (at the Stanley Theatre on August 10). Frank Chickens, a satirical Asian-British duo, first appeared at the festival fifteen years ago.

The first PSF was a festival of trial and error. There were many disagreements about content, about participants. Construction was arduous and nearly Herculean. The worries were many. But throughout it all, the Sansei involved as well as the Ijusha held faith that all would work out and it did, despite the fact that the only record available for after-hours parties was Boz Scaggs’ Silk Degrees, which was played over and over again. No one actually believed the PSF could last ten years let alone thirty. But last it has and it promises to go on for many more years striving to find the best in Asian-Canadian art and culture.

September 2006

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