Young Musician Falls for 'Tango Accordion'

      August 13, 2011 08:12

      Koh Sang-ji

      As 29-year-old bandoneonist Koh Sang-ji prepares to launch her debut album, many music fans will find themselves introduced to a wooden instrument that is much-loved by Latin America's legion of tango dancers, but is only just becoming known in Asia.

      However Koh, who has already worked with singers Kim Dong-ryul, Lee Juck, and Ga-in, is hoping the sounds of the bandoneon catch on with Korea's dance-mad young population as she moves to release her solo album.

      The exotic instrument, a kind of small concertina, plays a crucial role in tango orchestras in countries like Argentina and Uruguay, but was originally produced in Germany in the 1830s. It is known as a very exacting instrument to master due to its complicated playing method, which makes it hard to generate the same tones on successive touches.

      Koh, who studied how to play the instrument in Argentina, is the only-known Korean master of the bandoneon, which is slowly gaining in popularity here. Now she finds herself receiving more requests to collaborate with other musicians mesmerized by the unique quality of the instrument's sound. Meanwhile, her opportunities to stage solo performances are also blossoming.

      Koh spent her late teens and most of her 20s in love with the bandoneon. She learned of it while in her first year of high school, when she was introduced to tango music and could not shake the memory of the instrument's distinctive sound.

      Six years later in 2005, Koh finally got a hold of a bandoneon, which were and still are extremely rare in Korea. And they are costly, usually selling for between W2.5 million and W10 million (US$1=W1,086). She asked one of her relatives, who lives in Argentina, to buy the instrument for her there.

      Koh picked up the instrument while still a sophomore at the prestigious Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, and it immediately changed her life. She taught herself how to play through hours of laborious practice at her university residence, with her dedication such that she was warned to keep a lid on it by the building's warden.

      Feeling that she had found what she believes is her true vocation, she at last quit her studies to focus on becoming a professional player. She soon began performing in the Hongik University area, famous for its bohemian atmosphere and collection of small dance clubs.

      "Come to think of it, I was nowhere near good enough to be playing in front of other people, but I just wanted to get on the stage so much that I started performing at dance clubs in the Hongik University area," she said.

      Koh decided to fly to Argentina to study the instrument with those who have shown perhaps the greatest passion for it. She subsequently enrolled at the Emilio Balcarce Orchestra School of Tango in Buenos Aires after passing the highly competitive audition process with only four other people.

      Koh, the first Korean to enter the school, got a full scholarship from the city of Buenos Aires and was given opportunities to perform at local festivals. On her life in Argentina, she said, "I was afraid [at first] and had to overcome a tough language barrier. But I was so happy to be able to work with the highly respected maestros everyday."

      While she is not practicing or performing, Koh spends considerable time and energy on promoting Argentina's unique brand of tango. "I will practice harder so that Argentine tango can be known to as many people in Korea as possible through my performances," she said.

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