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From the Other Side of the Turntable: Connecting to my Ancestors in 78 Rotations per Minute

Aside from the last name and the smile, these 78s were the one thing that I could share with my grandfather - the thing that I knew was ours.

“They’ve got to be in here somewhere.”

My grandma rummaged through her closet, pushing coats here and there. With the shuffle of a shoebox, a small metal bin fastened with ancient-looking leather straps revealed itself in a dark corner.

“There they are,” she confirmed, pointing to the strange contraption. I lifted the bin - oddly heavy, for its size - carried it to the coffee table, and knelt to open it. Inside was a dusty file of small, grooved black discs that I recognized as “78s” records. Unlike full-length albums of the 1950s - 1980s, which are usually a foot in diameter, made of soft, slightly pliable vinyl, the records I had pulled from my grandma’s closet were smaller, hard to the touch, and played at 78 rotations per minute. As I flipped through the discs, I noticed that someone had meticulously taped a typed label bearing my family’s name to each one. It was certainly unusual to encounter my own name on objects that I had never seen before, but as I pulled a disk from the bin, I felt a strange sense of melancholy comfort.

“These were your grandfather’s. Why don’t you take them home?” my grandmother offered gently, pushing the bin towards me with a smile. 

When I turned 16, my parents gifted me a small Crosley turntable from Urban Outfitters. I kept it on my desk and used it to play film soundtrack vinyls while I did my math homework, daydreaming in between every integral that I had composed the soaring melodies and envisioned the beautiful movements of the orchestra. But with this new discovery, the turntable had transcended its status as a mere music player and daydream fuel for a teenage musician; suddenly, it had become a window to the past. 

My grandfather in uniform

When I got home from my grandma’s house that night, I eagerly pulled out a record and placed it on the turntable, setting the switch to 78 rpm. As the needle lowered onto the shellac disc, the record roared to life for the first time in 70 years. Though I was captivated by the radiant harmonies, the big band horns of Artie Shaw’s orchestra were gently obscured by the veil of age and dust that had settled into the grooves. The soft crackle and slightly bent pitch imposed a sense of distance as the record turned, keeping me at two generations’ length from the young man who it belonged to. Surprisingly, I recognized the melody: the song “Stardust,” a jazz standard originally released in 1927 but re-recorded by Artie Shaw in 1941. I was familiar with the song, as I played it regularly on the piano; my grandfather’s younger sister later told me that couples would slow dance to the tune at camp dances.

According to my dad, my grandfather was the DJ for social events while he was incarcerated at Topaz during the war. A friendly and social young man, he was on the dance committee and planned events for the other youth. “He loved music, just like you!” my dad told me. And everyone who knew my grandfather recognized his bright smile, one that seemed to pass down through the generations. 

I wondered if these records were one of the few things that he brought with him from his home in San Francisco’s Japantown during the forced removal, as he and his siblings were put on a train that would take them hundreds of miles away to the arid Utah desert. Perhaps he collected them in camp before leaving to train for the Military Intelligence Service, bravely serving as an interpreter and translator for a country that had turned its back on him and every other person of Japanese ancestry imprisoned during the war. Sadly, none of my relatives are too sure about the details, leaving the story of these records to speculation. 

Aside from the last name and the smile, these 78s were the one thing that I could share with my grandfather - the thing that I knew was ours. I never met him; our paths failed to cross by just a year. But through these records, I came to know a part of him that didn’t come up in stories. He loved Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington. He wrote his name on his belongings and kept them meticulously well-organized. Just like me, he listened to “Stardust.”

The "Stardust" record, complete with a typed name tag over the label

For years after that, I would hear “Stardust” in the most pivotal moments, cropping up unobtrusively in the background of a public place or in my shuffled songs when I needed it most. I still play the old record on my turntable when I’m having a hard day, finding comfort in the trumpet’s tender melody. 

Since then, I’ve tried to use music to work through lingering questions I had about my Japanese American identity, going so far as to compose an album about how I’ve forged a connection with my ancestors through Japanese food and the San Francisco Bay. The leading song on that album, “Hisashiburi,” questions what I would do if I ran into my late great-grandmother at the Tokyo Fish Market on San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley; the same place that I now go to buy oi ocha and packet curry was the spot she frequented for ingredients to her family-famous kuri manju

Perhaps there is a part of me that wrote these songs hoping that the ancestors who inspired them might be listening. And maybe in that somewhere far off, the young man who labeled his records so meticulously is listening to the soft melody of a trumpet from the other side of the turntable. 

“You wander down the lane and far away

Leaving me a song that will not die

Love is now the stardust of yesterday

The music of the years gone by”

- Stardust (lyrics written by Mitchell Parish)

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October 2022
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