On the island of O'ahu, bon dance clubs, made up of musicians and dancers, are invited to perform at different Buddhist temples during the bon dance season on Friday and Saturday nights from around 7:00 or 8:00 p.m. until as late as midnight. On the other islands, musicians are organized more informally, often associated with a particular temple, Buddhist sect, or geographical area. The temple usually decides on the format for the evening's event, including the order of pieces played. Club members meet on special occasions aside from performances and rehearsals during the bon dance season. Also, they occasionally play at non-temple events, including social gatherings and official state functions.
Each bon dance club specializes in the music and/or dance repertoires from one of Japan's prefectures. The two main repertoires include Fukushima ondo (ondo means "folk song") from Fukushima Prefecture, and Iwakuni ondo, from Yamaguchi Prefecture. The two repertoires differ in musical accompaniment, subject matter of the lyrics, and the music itself. Most people would identify the Fukushima ondo as the "fast songs," and the Iwakuni ondo as the "slow songs." Bon dance events often consist of two "sets," or divisions separated by an intermission. The first set begins with Fukushima ondo and ends with Iwakuni ondo. The second set reverses the order. In performance, live playing alternates with commercial tape recordings, and sometimes drummers accompany the recordings.
The Fukushima style includes one or more ondotori (singers), hayashi callers (hayashi are vocal interjections), fue (bamboo flute), one or more kodaiko (small drums), ōdaiko (large drums), and sometimes kane (hand-held metal gongs). The dances include folk dances brought by Japanese immigrants, ondo dances introduced since the 1930s, and min'yō (folk music/dances) popular since the 1960s. The singers alternate verses; each singer usually sings about five verses, and each verse lasts about one minute. Hayashi occur between verses as filler and to connect the verses between singers. Hayashi singers encourage the dancers and create a lively atmosphere.
The Iwakuni dances in Hawai'i use only vocalists and drummers. The Iwakuni ensemble includes one or more ondotori, hayashi callers, and ōdaiko player. The ōdaiko is prepared before a performance by spraying sake on the head of the drum. Singers stand on the yagura, a ten- to twenty-foot tower that serves as the central focus of the dance. They may hold an umbrella, possibly used to direct the vocal part down from the yagura to the dancers, and a fan, which may have the text written on it. The dancer-drummers dance in a smaller circle just below the singers. The twirling of the sticks and the movement of the feet are all highly stylized. The drum pattern is the same for each verse, but melody and verse length varies.
Fukushima ondo texts describe lighter subjects such as the pleasures of love, dance, the bounty of the harvest, or the virtues of a particular place. In the Fukushima style, the singers aren't necessarily telling a story, but each singer contributes his or her own verses that may or may not relate to the other verses. Subject matter of the songs may relate specifically to Japanese experiences in Hawai'i and are fitted to standard tunes such as "Fukushima Ondo."