When did you realize that you wanted to be an accordionist when you grew up? My mother and her twin sister both play the accordion, so it's been part of my life ever since I can remember. When I tried to play myself at age 6, it came naturally. It's the only thing I've ever excelled at. My only doubt was about whether I could make my living as an accordion player. Fortunately, I persisted.
|Piano & button accordions,|
courtesy Wikimedia Commons
What was it about the sound that captured your fancy? Because it has bellows as well as reeds, the accordion can make a sound reminiscent of the human voice. It has breath, it has timbre, it has a soulful tone. The other thing I like is the accordion's versatility. It can play in the highest registers or the lowest, loud or soft. An accordionist can be a soloist or an accompanist. He or she can play any style of music, be it classical, jazz, rock, or folk. I often refer to my instrument as a portable mini-orchestra.
On that note, let's hear you play:
You were born in Uzbekistan, one of the five so-called Stans of Central Asia, which achieved their independence from the Soviet Union when you were around 15 years old. Is it fair to say that experience made you something of a crazy mixed-up kid? I was born in one place, Uzbekistan, but can't live in it, and I can live in in another place, Russia, but it doesn't feel like home. The situation was, and remains, crazy for me, yes.
But you were lucky insofar as Russia provides top-notch musical training. Russia places the accordion is on the same level as violin, requiring 14 years of rigorous training. My mother gave me lessons when I was very small. She enrolled me in music school in Uzbekistan when I was around nine years old. After five years, it was time to go to music college. I went to Kazakhstan for that phase, after which I went to Russia for five years of additional study at the Ural State Conservatory. So, yes, I'm well trained!
Why do you think you found it so challenging to adjust to life in Russia? I first moved to Russia at age 20. The people seemed insensitive and thicker skinned compared to what I was used to, and the country itself was unwelcoming. Even though I'm Russian, I had to wait until I'd graduated from the conservatory before I could obtain citizenship and sponsor my mother and sister to come over. They now live in Yekaterinburg, on the eastern side of the Ural Mountains, but not me. I jumped on a plane the day after graduation.
To go where? I went to Korea. Just before graduating, I'd heard that Lotte World in Seoul, the world's largest indoor theme park — it's in the Guinness Book — was holding auditions. I often played in a duo with one of my fellow students. I asked her if she wanted to try out with me. The first thing she said was: "Where's Seoul?" And now she's married to a Korean with two kids!
Did you know where Seoul was? Yes, but I didn't know how much I would love it there, too. Signing on with Lotte World was an easy way to travel to Korea. Everything was taken care of: our transport, visa, housing...
|SUPER SCARY: An elephant |
in Lotte World
What was your first impression of Seoul? I felt at home there straight away, which is quite remarkable considering I could speak neither English nor Korean when I first arrived.
And now you speak both? I try to.
How did you learn? I taught myself. Think about it. I couldn't attend a language school for English as you had to know Korean, and the same thing for Korean-language schools: I had to know English. As my English improved, I attended the weekly English classes given by the Mormon Church, which I found very helpful. (We always said a short prayer at the end, but they didn't try and convert me.)
|FAMILIAR FOOD: Kimchi |
(courtesy Wikimedia Commons)
Did the Koreans respond well to your music? That's another reason I adjusted so quickly. We musicians speak with our souls, and the audience responds with its heart. Koreans have big hearts. They love live music and feel it very deeply. Also, because Korean society appreciates music, professional musicians receive fair compensation.
|MAJOR MILESTONE: Alex's first CD. Also check out|
his new Web site: www.alexacco.com
Ah, you're what the Japanese call a talento! As you were describing your life in Korea, I was thinking that in addition to your seeing the elephant in terms of new adventures, you've also brought an elephant with you for the Koreans to ogle at, by which I mean your music and your talent. After nine years, has Korea come to appreciate this? I can safely say I've made the accordion more popular in Korea than it was when I first arrived. It helps that I have my own YouTube channel, by my stage name of Alex Acco, with more than 250 videos of my concerts. The Internet has also helped me extend my network throughout Asia. I've been invited to play gigs in Thailand, Japan, Taiwan, China and Indonesia. When I went to Taiwan, I was greeted at the airport by some fans carrying an accordion.
Asians are famously proficient at Western instruments like violin, piano, and flute. But not the accordion. My instrument won't become big in the region until Asian countries decide to support accordion-learning at the level of the state-run music academy.
Are any Asian countries doing that? China is beginning to. A leading music conservatory in Beijing has recruited Russia's top accordion teacher. He reports that the Chinese students have a very good attitude. They follow instructions and are very disciplined.
Will you ever leave Korea? I've been asking myself that question a lot lately. I am 33 years old. I'm not really Russian, but I'm also not Korean. I think that if you live in one place for a while, you should be rewarded with something more than just being able to call the place home. I will always be a foreigner in Korea.
But where would you go, especially as you clearly have no desire to rejoin the Russian herd? I'd prefer an English-speaking country. I've been thinking about Canada but my visa application got turned down twice.
Out of curiosity, what is the accordion scene like in the United States? Actually pretty good. Many people play the piano accordion as well as the squeezebox (the Mexican version). There's an American Accordionists Association (AAA) that organizes annual concerts and events. And my idol in the accordion world is legendary jazz accordionist Art Van Damme. He died a year ago this month, age 89, but was going strong almost to the end.
As a traveler myself, I envy you your musical talent. It gives you an entree wherever you go. Music is an international language. It doesn't require translation. Regardless of where I end up, I can be happy as long as I can play my music and have the chance to share it with others. The accordion has given me great joy every day of my life, and when I have the chance to transmit this feeling to an audience, I am in my element. It doesn't get any better than that.