Where else can you see a welcome dance by Squaxin tribal members, a greeting from Mayor Cheryl Selby, a brilliant performance by visiting Japanese musicians, and last but not least, an all-out dance party led by Griffin Schools principal Greg Woods?

Olympia Pet EmergencyOnly in Olympia, my friends.

Jennifer Marin, a Griffin School teacher and music specialist, invited me to a special performance by an all-girls high school band from Kumamoto, Japan. Marin had just returned from visiting the Tamana All Girls High School band as a guest member of a cultural exchange group from Graham Kapowski High School in Puyallup. During her stay, she spent hours watching the rehearsals of the Tamana students. She visited the Shinto Shrine and a Japanese castle. Wowed by the events she experienced in a different culture, Marin wondered how she could bring just some of the excitement displayed by the Tamana All Girls High School band back to her students at Griffin School.

Little did she know, but the pieces of the plan were already in place—all it took was the common love of music to bring everyone together.

Jennifer Marin
Jennifer Marin, band teacher, encourages her students to learn to play with heart. Photo credit: Lesley D Klenk

A focus on the continuity of instruction is one of the values of Griffin School. A subject that is taught in one grade at the school is modified for other grades concurrently. Across the school, students share the same learning experience, creating a sense of community and intellectual spark. So, when Marin discovered a Japanese play called “Momotaro” that had a compelling message, interesting musical arrangements, and contemporary cultural significance, she knew it was perfect for budding young musicians and thinkers. She contacted Miho Takekawa, a professional percussionist and professor at Pacific Lutheran University (PLU) for ways to make the play authentic for her students. Takekawa, intrigued by the Griffin students’ interest in the story and the music, contacted her friend and mentor, Tomio Yamamoto, a gifted and nationally revered lecturer at the Osaka School of Music and a co-principal of Kobe International Junior and Senior High School of in Japan and relayed the story.

Yamamoto paid a visit to Griffin School in 2016 while on a cultural and music exchange visit hosted by PLU. He taught band classes, watched a performance of “Momotaro” and spoke of the importance of music as a vehicle for creating friendships. The prize-winning conductor humbly accepted a ceremonial necklace and drum from students in the Squaxin tribe. An elderly gray-haired man, Yamamoto speaks softly. During his visit, the Griffin students learned to lean in to hear him speak. When he left Washington to return to Japan, the students wondered if they would ever see their friend again.

Tamana Girls
Tamana band members plan to spend three weeks in the US and finish their tour at a Glenn Miller festival in Clarinda, Iowa. Photo credit: Lesley Klenk

After Marin returned to Olympia a few months ago from her trip to Japan, Paul Bain, band director at Graham Kapowsin High School, broached the idea of hosting the Tamana All Girls High School Band at Griffin School for a concert during their visit to Washington State. Marin accepted. Having the Japanese gold-medal winning band at Griffin School was a coup, but there was more. Yamamoto would be returning too.

So, on the concert morning at Griffin School, the Tamana All Girls High School band rehearsed in the gymnasium while the 7th grade band members peeked in through the windows. When they had met Yamamoto two years ago, they were in their first year of band. They were much better now. They nervously unfolded their music stands and ran back and forth to the music room to fetch instruments, sheet music and clattering percussion instruments. When the doors opened, they climbed the bleachers quietly. The rest of the school children swirled into the gym to watch the concert, but for the 7th grade band members, they were busy scanning the crowd. Where was Tomio Yamamoto?

Squaxin Tribe Dancers
Squaxin tribe members, some of them Griffin students, honored Tomio Yamamoto with a celebration blanket on his return to Olympia. Photo credit: Lesley D Klenk

Members of the Squaxin tribe opened the concert with a welcoming song and dance. The drum boomed and the shells on the girls’ dresses rattled with each step. The dancers proceeded directly to the front row of the bleachers and shook out a colorful ceremonial blanket. They wrapped it around a small man. Yamamoto rose to his feet and clasped it around himself. Turning, he waved to the 7th grade band.

That’s when the craziness broke out.

The Tamana All Girls High School band launched into a swinging jazz tune and then swooped into highlights from “Beauty and the Beast.” The girls, dressed alike in demure navy blue skirts and light blue shirts with black ties, followed their director’s lead and delivered solo after solo. They paused just long enough to rise to their feet. Waving their hands, they called the 7th grade band members to join them on the floor. Lugging chairs, sheet music and instruments, the young musicians wiggled into the sections of the band where they played. The Tamana young women and the Griffin 7th grade band played “Furusato,” a Japanese folk song, together.

A Japanese friendship dance ended the Tamana All Girls High School Band concert. Photo credit: Lesley Klenk

At the close of the song, the Tamana girls carefully laid their instruments down and steered the 7th grade band members to the front of the gym. They held hands out to students sitting on the floor and pulled them to their feet. Confused, the Griffin students looked a little worried. Principal Greg Woods bounced out to the floor. Crinkly paper hats emblazoned with panda bear faces were passed up and down the rows. Someone struck up the music, and the Tamana girls taught the Griffin crowd and guests a Japanese friendship dance. In the midst of it all, Yamamoto, wrapped snuggly in his blanket, waved and did the dance from the bleachers.

“At its most basic level, a cultural exchange is a lot of generous people, a lot of work and a lot of love,” Marin said.

I can attest it is also a lot of fun.

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