Introductory Guides to Historical Recordings

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#Note: Users can listen to sound recordings introduced in this text at the National Diet Library or
Historical Recordings Collection (Rekion) partner libraries.

Listening to “The Days of Xylophones”



 The xylophone is an instrument everyone has touched at least once. Yet, even specialists in percussion instruments do not know much about its past.

 When the Toyama Military Academy military band was sent to the Japan–British Exhibition in 1910, it brought back a xylophone from Europe as a souvenir, and thus began the history of the xylophone in the Japanese classical musical world. In the Taisho era, there was the trio of xylophone players Sotaro Komori, Shonan Kamei (image 1), and Yoshio Hoshide who were called “The Three Virtuosos of the Xylophone”. Other notable performers included Takio Niki, who was affiliated with the “Hatano Orchestra” and was later highly successful as a music arranger. The xylophone seems to have been quite popular in Japan in the 1920s, and orchestras that incorporated the xylophone as an instrument in their ensembles used names such as “xylophone orchestra” and “xylophone harmonic”, among others. Records of the time were mixed with recordings made by specialists of the xylophone and those with enough musical knowledge to provide added color to the melody. One could call these the early days of the xylophone.

 Before and after the 1930s, performers playing with xylophones made by America's top xylophone maker, J.C. Deagan Inc. (Chicago), began to increase. After that there were other performers such as Yoichi Hiraoka who was active in the United States and was called the “world’s foremost xylophonist” at the head of the list, Hiraoka's lifelong rival Eiichi Asabuki, and Sadao Iwai, who made headlines as child prodigy (image 2), and the geiko (or geisha) performance troupe “Kawai Dance”, among other performers. In addition to the records of Asabuki, Iwai, the Kawai Dance Troupe, and Hiraoka, who went to America in 1930, recordings remain of Hideko Watanabe, one of a number of performers who achieved fame as a xylophonist beauty. Yoichi Hiraoka returned to Japan from America in 1942. He would become quite active with live performances and phonograph recording. In contrast, Eiichi Asabuki would form a Hawaiian band, and give performances with not only the xylophone but with the vibraphone and the steel guitar, as well.

 The xylophone would continue to remain popular after the war, but in 1950 “The All Nippon Lacour Musical Evangelistic Crusade” came to Japan, led by its marimba performer and Methodist Church pastor, Lawrence L. Lacour (image 3). Beginning with the use of the marimba for proselytization with music, the tastes of the era shifted from the xylophone to the marimba.

 At the Historical Recordings Collection (hereafter, “Rekion”) website, users can listen to original recordings of the xylophone from its dawn in Japan through its golden age all the way to its transition to the marimba.

 For more specifics about the life of the master of the xylophone, Yoichi Hiraoka, and the age in which he lived, and for details about the differences between the xylophone and the marimba, please consult this author’s book (Japanese only), “Mokkin deizu: Hiraoka Yoichi ‘ten'i muho no ongaku jinsei’” (Xylophone Days: Yoichi Hiraoka - ‘The Musical Life of a Spontaneous Genius’) (Kodansha 2013).

Images provided by Mutsumi Tsuuzaki.
English version released on March 30, 2020.

Shona Kamei

Image 1. Shonan Kamei, dressed in formal crested kimono and hakama, playing the xylophone in the naval military band. He is playing a European-style xylophone keyboard arranged lengthwise.
“Orient Records July New Record Catalog” (Orient Records, 1922)

Sadao Iwai

Image 2. Sadao Iwai playing a Deagan xylophone at age 13. While it was hoped that he would become the “second Hiraoka”, he died young at the age of 37.
“Asahi Graph” Vol. 15, No. 14 (Asahi Shinbunsha, 1930)

The All Nippon Lacour Musical Evangelistic Crusade

Image 3. Program for the All Nippon Lacour Musical Evangelistic Crusade. The troupe is led by pastor and marimba player, Lawrence L. Lacour. Mrs. Mildred Lacour at the harp also played marimba along with her husband.
“The All Nippon Lacour Musical Evangelistic Crusade - Program and Commentary” (The Kirisuto Shimbun, circa 1950)


○The Dawn of the Xylophone in Japan - James Dun “Omocha no Kisha” (Toy Train) (Nipponophone, released May 1928) et al.


Deagan Super Lite-Wate Xylophone No.834

Image 4. Photo by: Tadaaki Nakagawa
Deagan Super Lite-Wate Xylophone No.834 (J.C. Deagan Inc., U.S.A., circa 1920)
This is the same model of instrument Yoichi Hiraoka performed with for his debut recital in 1928. In the Japan of the 1920s, pipe-less tabletop xylophones and types of xylophones played while seated were mainstream.

 Unfortunately, while Rekion does not have original recordings of professional performances from the dawn of the xylophone in Japan in its collection, users can still listen to simple and charming performances of the time.

 James Dun, who plays the xylophone on “Omocha no Kisha” (Toy Train) and who is primarily a pianist, was the second son of Edwin Dun, who also worked as the U.S. envoy to Japan during the Meiji period. Michiko Dun, on the piano, was a vocalist and the wife of James Dun. She would later open a conservatory and guide younger generations. James easily embellishes the melody with the xylophone, effectively interposing double-stops and glissandi like a child is playing it. The xylophonist, Yoichi Hiraoka, took beginning piano lessons from James as a child, but was suddenly dismissed on the grounds that his "hands were too small", only to later achieve success when he took up the xylophone. In this source recording, listeners can hear the wonderful tones of the xylophone, which leaves a very distant image from the overly strict music teacher in the above episode. It is almost as if sounds almost as if his wife, Michiko, invited him to casually play along in the recording. He seems to be playing a simple tabletop xylophone with wooden mallets (image 4).

○ “Kawai Dance” Challenge - Kawai dansu shojodan (Kawai Dance Girl Troupe) “Leichte Kavallerie” (Light Cavalry) (Victor, December 1930) et al.

 The “Kawai dansu shojodan” (Kawai Dance Girl Troupe) was a geiko (or geisha) dance troupe founded in Osaka Nanchi Soemon-cho in 1922 as “Kawai Dance” by Koshichiro Kawai, the owner of a geisha teahouse. In its heyday it totaled 27 members and adopted the very latest artistic techniques from outside Japan. In “Light Cavalry”, Kikuya, a skillful tap dancer herself, (who was around 18 years-old at the time) played the xylophone. Kikuya strikes the bars with effortless lightness. In America, this song was already a xylophone standard. The forerunner of the xylophone, George Hamilton Green, signed a contract with the Edison Company in 1916, and promotional material for the record describes the musical piece as follows: “The ‘Light Cavalry Overture’ is one of the most brilliant pieces of its kind, and has long been a favorite with xylophone players. No matter how many xylophone records you may have, this will prove among the best of them all.” Because there are moments where it is somewhat difficult to figure out the musical score's 6/8 time, Kikuya may well have used this record as a reference when she practiced. In Setsuya Hashizume's “Modan shinsaibashi korekushon: Metoroporisu no jidai to kioku” (A Modern Shinsaibashi Collection: The Age and Memory of the Metropolis) (Kokushokankokai, Inc. 2005, p.246), there is a photograph of Sekiko of Kawai Dance wearing daring Russian ballet-style clothing and facing the xylophone. This photo may be evidence that the instrument used in this very recording may have been a genuine Deagan xylophone, a rarity in Japan at that time.

○Virtuoso of the Xylophone, Yoichi Hiraoka - Yoichi Hiraoka “Rhapsodie Roumaine No. 1” (Victor) et al.

Yoichi Hiraoka

Image 5. Yoichi Hiraoka (circa 1950s)
From the “Kita Kyushu Rouon C.M. August Monthly Meeting” program

 The performing life of Yoichi Hiraoka (image 5) (1907-1981) can be divided into three playing styles.

  • ●First Phase: “Hiraoka’s debut (1928) through his travel to the U.S. (1930)”
    Hiraoka studied the xylophone by himself and played in his own style.
  • ●Second Phase: “Hiraoka’s travel to the U.S. (1930) to his return to Japan (1960)”
    Hiraoka had the fundamentals of music drummed into him by American accompanists Vladimir Brenner and Leo Rosato, and he learned how to read sheet music and perform from musical scores.
  • ●Third Phase: “1960s to Hiraoka’s later years”
    Uneven fluctuations and undulations similar to the “notes inégales” (unequal notes) in the baroque and classical music eras emerge in Hiraoka’s performances, which would become his signature style. He actively added a wide range of music including popular songs to his repertoire.

 All of the original recordings of Hiraoka collected by Rekion can be said to be from the period in which Hiraoka presented himself as an orthodox classical performer. Hiraoka also minimizing that breadth, gracefully incorporated music with a high freedom of expression.

 Here, let me introduce “Rhapsodie Roumaine No. 1”.

 Yoichi Hiraoka taught himself the xylophone on his own and made his musical debut in 1928 while still a student in the Faculty of Economics at Keio University. The following year he recorded ten records with Polydor. In 1930, he traveled to the U.S. by himself with the proceeds from the recordings. He signed an exclusive artist contract with NBC and became popular for his live xylophone performances on the radio every morning for ten years and nine months (image 6) (image 7). Though he was forced to return home to Japan when war with the U.S. broke out, he was touted as the, “superhuman miracle who forced all of America to grovel before him, “earning him performances at many venues. This piece has also been performed under the title “Yoichi Hiraoka's First Solo Recital Since Repatriation” (Hibiya Public Hall, December 20, 1942). It was arranged in 1940 by Hiraoka's accompanist in the U.S., Leo Rosato (image 8) (image 9).

Yoichi Hiraoka

Image 6. Photo: Submitted by David Harvey
Yoichi Hiraoka working under exclusive contract for NBC, one of the big three networks in America. Taken at NBC Studios.

Records, liner notes, and sheet music of Yoichi Hiraoka

Image 7. Photo: Tadaaki Nakagawa
Records, liner notes, and sheet music of Yoichi Hiraoka sold in America.
DECCA presents: A Xylophone Recital of Classical Music played by Hiraoka(Decca,1940)
Celebrated Artist Series Xylophone Album (Edward B. Marks Music Corporation、1941)

Yoichi Hiraoka Album

Image 8. Photo: Tadaaki Nakagawa
Record and concert program sold during World War Two
“Yoichi Hiraoka Album” (Victor, 1943)
The “Rhapsodie Roumaine No. 1” is described as follows: “This record presents the brilliant solo performance of Yoichi Hiraoka, master of the xylophone, against the backdrop of exhilarating and graceful orchestral music performed by the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra under the direction of conductor Hideo Saito. Behold the tonal beauty of clear, transparent, pleasant orchestral music, and the nimble movement of the xylophone's dulcet trills! You are sure to absolutely adore this record.”
Hiraoka Yoichi mokkin dokusokai - kicho daiikkai chiho happyo
(Yoichi Hiraoka Xylophone Solo Recital - First Local Performance Since Repatriating) (Sponsor: Yoshie Fujiwara Opera, Chuoza, 1943)

Sheet music and xylophone mallets

Image 9. Photo: Tadaaki Nakagawa
Sheet music and xylophone mallets Yoichi Hiraoka brought back and used on the U.S.-Japan repatriation ship during the war.
The upper left shows the piano accompaniment to “Rhapsodie Roumaine No. 1” with arranger Leo Rosato's signature. The lower right shows “Estrellita” which Hiraoka played for the encore in his debut recital in New York to propose to Shizuko, his love at the time.

○Young Nobleman of the Xylophone, Eiichi Asabuki, et al.

 Eiichi Asabuki

Image 10. The young Asabuki Eiichi at his home in Takanawa (circa 1927).
Asabuki Eiichi sensei kaisoroku” (Reminiscences of Our Teacher, Asabuki Eiichi) (Japan Xylophone Association, 1994)

 Eiichi Asabuki (Image 10) was born in 1909. He was the eldest son of Tsunekichi Asabuki, an industrialist who founded the Chiyoda Corporation, a general trading company for information systems and industrial facilities, and served as president of Mitsukoshi and the Asahi Mutual Life Insurance Company. His younger sister, Tomiko Asabuki, is known as the translator of Françoise Sagan’s novel, Bonjour Tristesse (Kanashimi yo Konnichi wa). He developed an affection for music from his childhood and received an orthodox musical education which included composition. From this performance, one can hear the high-quality music steeped in and exuding the excellence of his musical education. Japanese language searches on Rekion for “Eiichi Asabuki” (朝吹 英一) return hits for 21 source recordings including those not only for the xylophone, but also for those in which he participated as a vibraphone player, composer, and arranger in the Hawaiian band “Kalua Kamaainas” (during the war the name was changed to “Nankai Gakuyu” or “Musical Friends from the South Seas”). His bright and bouncy music conjures an image of young people having good, clean fun (image 11). Asabuki listened to xylophone performances on imported records and became so enchanted with the sound that he began learning the xylophone. On Rekion, users can also listen to the source recordings of worldwide xylophone pioneer George Hamilton Green, who was active in America at the time. His clear technique is refreshing to listen to (image 12).

Kagero moete

Image 11. Music score “Kagero moete” (Burning Heat Haze) (Shinko Music Publishing Co., Ltd.,1941)
The complete scores for all ten songs in Kalua Kamaainas’ repertoire were released under the title “Nankai Gakuyu aikyokufu” (Beloved Musical Scores of Nankai Gakuyu). The price listed is 20 sen (1 sen = 1/100 yen).

George Hamilton Green’s Xylophone Solos

Image 12. “George Hamilton Green’s Xylophone Solos” (Sam Fox Pub. Co.)
A collection of works for xylophone composed by George Hamilton Green, the leading xylophonist in the United States.

○The Advent of the Marimba - Yusuke Oyake “Amefuriotsuki, hanayome ningyo” (Rainfall Moon, Bridal Doll) (Victor, March 1954) et al.

 As opposed to the soloistic tones the xylophone produces, the soft tones of the marimba blend in well with other instruments. It is fascinating to listen to and compare the two instruments. In the three source recordings introduced here, the marimba is played by Yusuke Oyake, who worked as an instructor at Tokyo University of the Arts, Department of Percussion Instruments. He is playing in an ensemble with Masao Yoshida, principle flutist of the NHK Symphony Orchestra and former instructor of the flute at Tokyo University of the Arts, along with Yoshie Abe, who studied in Paris, on the harp. The arrangements by Yasushi Akutagawa and Nobuo Iida, which highlight the particular characteristics of each instrument, bear a listen.

(Mutsumi TSUUZAKI, Xylophonist)

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