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Thursday, February 24, 2011

After 9 Years, Expat Accordionist Squeezes into Asia's Music Scene


This Uzbek-born Russian has seen the "elephant" twice — first in his native Russia and now in Korea. Meanwhile, he has introduced Koreans and other Asians to another bellower: the accordion.

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
This may not be true in Russia, but when people hear the word "accordionist" in the West, they tend to picture a wandering minstrel accompanied by a monkey who passes around a tin cup. Part of what I do is educating people that the accordion isn't just polka and the kind of folk music a busker might play. There are two basic types: the button accordion and the piano accordion. The former has its origins in Russian folk music, while the latter was patented in Vienna in 1829. I chose to learn the piano accordion because that is what my mother and aunt played, and I fell in love with the sound.

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
When you got to Lotte World, did you see any elephants? As a matter of fact, I saw one right away in the Jungle Safari. It was huge, with a moving head, and was making some rather scary trumpeting noises.

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.)

(courtesy Wikimedia Commons)
Why do you think you took to Korean life so quickly? One reason is the weather. The area near the Ural Mountains where I lived with my mother and sister goes down to -40 °C in the winter. Seoul is much milder and has four distinct seasons. And because of my background, I was already familiar with Korean food. There's an ethnic Korean community in Uzbekistan. When they were forcibly relocated to the region from the Soviet Far East under Stalin, they brought their kimchi with them. Russian call it chimcha.

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:
You've been living in Korea for nearly a decade. Is the grass still greener? My nine years in Seoul have gone by in a flash. For the past seven years, I've been building my career as an independent musician. I've played stadiums, concert halls, dive bars and jim-jill-bangs [Korean bathhouses]. Normally I play solo, but I also have a tango quartet, Coamorous. And sometimes I play in a Russian folk band with balalaikas. I made my first CD, Here & There, a few months ago: it features my own arrangements of world-famous pop songs and some Russian hits. I also teach, mostly to private students. One more regular activity of mine is acting on Korean TV: I'm on a weekly "true or false" show.

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.

WHITE RED ELEPHANT: Alex's treasured Hyundai
One more question that I've asked of all of the blog's interviewees. Have you collected any of what I call Treasured White Elephants, which you'll take with you when you eventually leave Korea? Well, I don't regard it as a white elephant since it helps me earn a living, but I do have a precious Hyundai accordion, which will accompany me wherever I go next.

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.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Of Eliot, Elephants, and Expat Mascots

Valentine's Day is upon us. But before gushing about my beloved el-e-phant and all it means to me, I want to talk El-i-ot, as in George: another extraordinary creature with a prominent schnoz. She is coming to mean a lot to me, too.

Somehow I missed out on the works of George Eliot (the nom de plume of Mary Anne Evans, later Marian Evans) when I was a student.

As an expat in England, I lived in fear that someone would someday expose this lacuna. I tried to make up for it by faithfully watching all the episodes of the BBC adaptations of Middlemarch and The Mill on the Floss.

But I still didn't pick up the books.

Years later, I am back in the United States and, Kindle in hand, have decided there can be no more excuses, especially as Eliot's oeuvre can be downloaded for free. While I have yet to tackle Middlemarch, I'm now halfway through The Mill on the Floss.

And I've already made some significant discoveries.

For all these years, I've missed out on Maggie Tulliver — a lively and free-spirited child, as smart as a whip, said to be based on Eliot herself. As the daughter of the man who owns the mill on the River Floss, Maggie is the novel's protagonist.

I've also missed out on an exchange that could have enhanced my understanding of why people travel.

Courtesy The Dunktionary
I refer to the scene toward the start of the novel when Maggie pesters her father's head miller, Luke, to tell her whether he's read any books apart from the Bible. He confirms he hasn't, so she offers to lend him one of her picture books, called Pug's Tour of Europe:
...that would tell you all about the different sorts of people in the world, and if you didn't understand the reading, the pictures would help you; they show the looks and ways of the people, and what they do. There are the Dutchmen, very fat, and smoking, you know, and one sitting on a barrel.
When Luke owns up to having a low opinion of Dutchmen, Maggie says: "But they're our fellow-creatures, Luke; we ought to know about our fellow-creatures."
Animated Nature, by William Bingley
(available from Google Books)
Seeing that Luke has not been swayed by her appeal, Maggie wonders if he might like to take a glance at Animated Nature instead:
...that's not Dutchmen, you know, but elephants and kangaroos, and the civet-cat, and the sunfish, and a bird sitting on its tail — I forget its name. There are countries full of those creatures, instead of horses and cows, you know. Shouldn't you like to know about them, Luke?
To which Luke responds that he "can't do wi' knowin' so many things besides my work" as that's what "brings folks to the gallows."

Now, I have to hand it to Maggie. For a youth who has spent her short life in the provincial St. Ogg's, she really knows her onions. She understands the basic reasons why people might venture to other places: to see and get to know their fellow-creatures.

Plus can I hear Eliot gently mocking us by insinuating that we sometimes conflate our fellow humans with strange animals? ...

Hang on a second, a kid is tugging on my arm. Goodness, it's the insatiably curious Maggie. She says she has a question for me:
Why an elephant, ML? Why not a kangaroo or a civet-cat, which are also featured in Animated Nature?

I'm not used to interacting with fictional characters, but what the heck, makes a change from talking to myself:
Maggie, you have a point.

Like the elephant, the civet is native to Africa and Asia, two continents that remain inscrutable to many of us Westerners.

And the first Europeans who saw kangaroos did not know what to make of a creature that has a head like a deer but without the antlers, and that stands on two legs like a human but hops around like frog. They could come up with only one word for it: "astonishing."

Wait, there's another voice cutting in. No way: it's GEORGE!!! She's saying she has a question for me, too:
As you know from making it halfway through The Mill on the Floss, Maggie has a strange and twisted relationship with her doll. Could it be that you, too, have an elephant toy or figurine to which you have a preternatural attachment? Perhaps you keep it hidden in your attic ...

ML's elephant collection
Ahem, George, I haven't got an attic, but I suppose you might mean metaphorically?

I don't mind telling you that I've collected a number of elephant objects, but only since the launch of this Web log last year. I find one or two of them colorful or cute, but that hardly qualifies as an elephant fixation.

Besides, I've met people who are far more elephant besotted than I am: VĂ©ronique Martin-Place or Beth Lang, for instance.

And then there's Ona Filloy, a New Zealander who lives in a Victorian house in Brisbane. She and I have exchanged several messages about her elephant curios: a magnificent ebony-and-ivory elephant head and lamp ...

Oh, wait. George is looking impatient. She wants to ask another question:
Then why, perchance, did you settle upon the elephant as your mascot for experiencing life in other parts of the world?

Hmmm... For such a formidable intellect, I find her a bit nosy (hahaha). Still, let's see if I can impress her:
George, I thought you'd never ask!

I could give lots of reasons, but here are three you should find compelling:

1) By reviving the expression "seeing the elephant," I'm hoping to put the trials and tribulations of the modern-day traveler in perspective.

You see, today we have the luxury of traveling in vehicles that fly even faster than birds. But even though this makes life so much easier, we are constantly grumbling about it.

We forget that our counterparts in your century, who came up with the expression "seeing the elephant," had it so much worse.

I'll give you two quick examples:

1. Emigrants who set out for California. Perhaps there are some 21st-century adventurers who would prefer to dine with the Donner party than have Christmas dinner in an airport because of flight delays, but I haven't encountered them yet. The Donner party is, of course, just one among many who trekked some 2,000 miles across continent in the mid-1800s in hopes of seeing the elephant. But they are distinguished for their botched attempt at taking a "shortcut" to California, only to get trapped in the frozen wilderness of the Sierra Nevada. (No, you don't want to know what they ate!)

Print of an original painting: "Antietam,"
by Thure de Thulstrup, courtesy The Old Print Shop
2. Young men who fought in the U.S. Civil War. The expression "seeing the elephant" has a secondary meaning of seeing battle for the first time. If today's soldiers could time-travel onto the battlefield of Antietam, the scene of the most brutal hand-to-hand combat in U.S. history, don't you think they'd appreciate their unmanned aerial vehicles even more?

2) The elephant, with its massive size and theatricality, is the perfect symbol for why most of us travel.

As Maggie intimates when she offers Luke her picture books, most of us go abroad because we yearn to see great sights and to be entertained.

As the largest land animal, the elephant is symbolic of that yearning.
It represents the kind of fear-laced excitement most of us will never experience unless we seek it out, which, for most of us unimaginative types, entails venturing to points unknown.

Today we no longer approve of training elephants for circuses. But the same qualities that made the elephant such a successful performer for Astley's Royal Amphitheatre in Lambeth — intelligence, personality, and a certain quirkiness — are also on display in the wild.

Audrey Delsink, who has observed many an African elephant, has a favorite story she likes to tell about a proud elephant bull. She and several others were sitting in a land rover [a kind of horseless carriage] watching as Charles (that's what they called him) tried, but failed, to push over a large tree. Charles looked up, saw them laughing at him, and walked over and pushed a smaller tree right down on top of their car! Delsink claims he then sauntered off with a toss of his head and a self-satisfied swagger.

Notably, the only other animal on Maggie's list that can hold a candle to the elephant in these respects is the ocean sunfish, which with an average adult weight of 2,200 pounds, is the world's largest known bony fish.

But as I think as you can see from watching this little movie (yes, we now have moving pictures!), its antics are less than enthralling:

3) The elephant is super trendy nowadays.

George, welcome to the era where actors, actresses, musicians, sportspeople and other popular entertainers are the new Greek gods. We call them celebrities ("celebs" for short).

Right now among the celebs, elephants are all the rage. Here are some recent examples:

1. Elephants keep turning up at celebrity nuptials. At the end of last year, a celebrity couple included an elephant with an elaborate headdress in their wedding celebration in Los Angeles (the closest thing we have to a Mt. Olympus, which isn't very close since it's terribly flat).

Said couple weren't the first — another pair tied the knot with elephants and camels a few months before them; nor will they be the last.

A celebrity super couple — think of them as our Aphrodite and Ares — are rumored to be planning a Hindu-style wedding to take place this year in Jodhpur, India. Will the groom ride in on an elephant? Ladbrokes in London is offering 10-1 odds.

Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox
2. An elephant is reputed to have bonded very closely with a celebrity heart-throb. A young deity with the face and reputation of Eros says he accepted the lead role in a movie called Water for Elephants because he fell head over heels with his co-star: a 9,000-lb. elephant named Tai.

George, I know you are thinking: so what? There's no reason we mortals should feel compelled to mimic these gods and their frivolities. (This blog even has its own label for that: Dumbo Culture.)

But George, hear me out. You Victorians took for granted your ivory cutlery handles, musical instruments, billiard balls, and other items. Little did you know the toll it was taking on the elephant population. Allow me to share a chilling statistic: in 1831, ivory consumption in Great Britain amounted to the deaths of nearly 4,000 elephants.

George, the sad truth is that as a result of the fashion for ivory, the elephant population is now at risk.

But several celebs are doing their best to change that. One or two of them have recently adopted elephants in support of their conservation.

But I digress. My real reason for applauding the celebs and their predilection for the pachyderm is a matter of self-preservation: I'm hoping to get a celebrity endorsement for this blog.

On that note, and without further ado, I offer my valentine to the elephant. (Yes, George, we still celebrate Valentine's Day, despite dropping the "saint.")
So, George, what do you think of my reasoning? ... Yoo-hoo, George, ayt? ... George, please come back! Was it something I said: about the ivory, about your proboscis? I promise to get cracking on Middlemarch to atone ...

Question: So now it's your turn! Do you think the mascot for expats, rex-pats, and repats should be:
a) an elephant
b) another creature ____________
c) a range of creatures, as in Maggie's book.
Extra credit: Name the bird in Maggie's book that "sits on its tail."