• Great Aletsch Glacier, 2018 (©Mihály Györik)
  • (©Tamagawa Alphorn Club)
  • (©Tamagawa Alphorn Club)

Tamagawa Alphorn Club

Kanto | Atsugi City

From the Bernese Alps to the Japanese Alps, the sound of alphorn is a universal language.

Swiss melodies at Mount Oyama

(©Tamagawa Alphorn Club)

Next time you take a walk in Kanagawa Prefecture, pay close attention, and you might hear the “voice of angels”! Believe it or not, but the region hosts one of Japan’s biggest clubs dedicated to Swiss music: the Tamagawa Alphorn Club (TAC). Formed in 1989 in the periphery of Atsugi by a group of Japanese Swiss folk music enthusiasts and led by President Shigetoshi Nakagawa, the Club is honoring the spirit of the Swiss Alps in Japan through the sonorities of a long, conical tube whose origins date back to hundreds of years ago.

Born in the heart of Switzerland

Musicians in the Swiss Alps, circa 1900

The alphorn was first documented in Switzerland in the mid-16th century, when it was used by shepherds to call the cows into the barn and help them relax during milking time. Later, the instrument eventually became an essential tool for communication between herdsmen across valleys and for religious gatherings. In the early 19th century, having since fallen out of fashion, the musical potential of the alphorn was rediscovered by talented players in the Bernese Alps, giving a new impetus to the instrument’s popularity and turning it into one of Switzerland’s greatest symbols.

President Shigetoshi Nakagawa is a skilful alphorn craftsman (©Mihály Györik)

(©Tamagawa Alphorn Club)

Whether made from crooked pines trunks (traditional method) or from modern materials, the walls of an alphorn take approximately 70 hours of gouging until they are 4 to 7 millimeters wide. They are then held together with rings, and a small wooden stand is used to stabilize the instrument, which is then wrapped in wicker. The mouthpiece, a contemporary addition, is added for a better control of the blowing and the tones.

A worldwide and nationwide alphorn movement

2009: playing the schwyzerörgeli in Winteregg, Switzerland (©Tamagawa Alphorn Club)

Members of the TAC are known for their dedication: they carve their own alphorns, frequently perform at Switzerland-related events in full alpine outfits, master all kinds of other Swiss instruments (e.g. büchel, hexenscheit, schwyzerörgeli), study Swiss culture and traditions, and regularly travel to Switzerland for cultural exchanges with the Swiss Yodeling Association. Their most notable performances include appearances at the 2005 Aichi World Expo, at the Alphorn International Festival in Nendaz (Switzerland), at benefit concert for those affected by the 2011 Japan Earthquake, and at countless other events in Japan, Switzerland, Korea and China. The TAC is so famous that Swiss director Misha Györik even produced a 52 minutes-long documentary about them for the Radiotelevisione svizzera in 2017.

2017: shooting of the documentary "Banzai Switzerland" with Mihály Györik (©Tamagawa Alphorn Club)

However, it should be noted that there are also alphorn players in other areas of Japan! Since 2005, the ALL-JAPAN Handmade Alphorn Association (AHAHA) serves as a central structure for 20 clubs and small gatherings nationwide, with close to 200 members spanning from Hokkaido to Kyushu. Players can thus easily communicate concerts information, exchange alphorn crafting methods, and collaborate for local festivals. The Association also published the “Alphorn Making Handbook”, a booklet that describes the various ways one can craft this alpine instrument.

In 2019, dozens of Japanese alphorn players will be invited to perform a commemorative concert in the framework of the “Partners for Humanitarian Action”, a program of the Embassy of Switzerland in Japan which celebrates the two countries' humanitarian action and cooperation. However, the TAC being a close partner of the Embassy on the road to the Tokyo 2021 Olympic and Paralympic Games, you may also expect to hear the “voice of angels” in your region!

2009: Improvised concert in the Jungfrau Railway (©Tamagawa Alphorn Club)