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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.


Patrick said...

Alex is very talented, and his music is pleasant to listen to. Judging by the production values in the Korean TV show his YouTube video is from, the accordion is more popular in Korea than in the U.S. or Japan (where I was an expat for many years). In the U.S. it is associated with the Depression era through Lawrence Welk; in Japan, with gunka (martial music) and natsumero (sentimental music).

I mean, when is the last time you saw a US program give some attention to a accordion player playing old French tunes? Hardly MTV.

Alex said...

Patrick, thank you for your comment and compliments!
Two major reasons why I get to go public ( including TV ) here in Korea are:
The foreigner element - foreigners still receive special treatment here in Korea. Whether it's because they try to be friendly and polite or just out of curiosity, the fact remains that being a westerner in Korea has many advantages. The second reason lies in the nature of my instrument - it is very rare and unique here. Most people have never seen/heard the accordion live. Whenever I perform I always have people coming to me afterwards and saying, "It was my first time to hear the accordion live, and I never thought accordion can by played like you demonstrated!" All of the above, coupled with the open mind of modern Korean society, opens many doors for me here. And I am so grateful for that!~
Regarding the accordion situation in the US, the fact that there is a monthly Accordion News USA ( says a lot, I think. There are accordion classes offered by a couple of American universities, as well as an annual convention held in Las Vegas and many other events!

I would agree that Japan's accordion situation is pretty similar to Korea's. However, the ROLAND model of midi-accordion is getting more and more popular around the world these days.

Patrick said...

Yes, I saw the beautiful fingering. I can imagine they are impressed.

My daughter played the cello quite well (Julliard, etc.), including in concerts at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, and so on, but she came to realize that in the USA there is a very narrow career path open for a performer of even a fairly mundane classical instrument like the cello. (Many cities do not even have classical music stations anymore.) So, she went into finance, with the thought she could play cello again later in life as a hobby. ... Nothing at all against the accordion, but the mass media US music scene has become dominated by vacuous pop and mean-spirited rap. Fortunately, there is also a strong counter-big label music movement as well -- thanks to the Net -- and lots of different types of music is getting heard, albeit not on the radio or TV, but in live venues (where it SHOULD be heard). So, if you were ever to play in the States, my guess it would not be on TV but in a live house in Brooklyn or San Francisco. Could be fun, even if not lucrative.

ML Awanohara said...

Alex, can I intervene here and ask: is it lucrative to play an instrument like the accordion in Asia--because of it's novelty value, because of the value Asians place on music? To put that question in another way: would it be hard to earn a living as a professional accordionist, even for someone of your experience level, if you moved to Canada, the U.S. or Australia? (You mentioned in your interview that you'd like to go to an English-speaking country next...)

Kevin in USA said...

I am a professional musician living in the American midwest. I play piano, accordion, and guitar and am an accomplished vocalist. I have Alex's CD "Here And There". It is truly wonderful. A great quality recording and wonderful arrangements. The accordion is my favorite instrument. It feels like you are one with it when you play. It vibrates right through you and you feel like you are breathing with it. I have recently been including some songs in my concert performances singing and playing the accordion inspired by watching Alex's youtube videos. The audiences love it. They find it unique and beautiful and tell me afterward that it is so special to hear since you hardly ever do. The accordion is making a resurgence in music in America in Tex-Mex and Cajun music and on the recent Grammy's there was a piano accordion in Bob Dylans band. I think that Alex has the youth, karisma, style, and stage presence to help to promote the accordion in popular music. Alex plays with true musicianship and expression of the song unlike most accordionists who tend to just show off their technical talent and forget to emotionally express the melody. I will always be a fan!

Alex said...

No doubt it would be much harder for me to achieve what I've achieved in Korea if I were in any other country - Russia, Europe or USA. The competition there is much higher, many more people play the accordion, many of them play it very well. But I can only talk theoretically about it, as I haven't really tried to build my career anywhere else but in Korea. I also think that there is an important element of Luck- there are great musicians who couldn't do what they wanted to and have given up - even with supportive circumstances. In my case I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time.
But having met many non-Koreans who have told me very nice things about my performance makes me hope that I could have done something decent even if it wasn't in Korea. I guess you never know until you try it.
And there are some examples of successful accordion careers in the States - people of my generation, such as Stas Venglevski and Victor Prieto. I don't know them personally and can not speak for them, but it seems like they make pretty decent careers.
Patrick, thanks for sharing your thoughts as I find your feedback useful.
I am grateful for the life I am having here, but trying doing it somewhere else ( NOT in Asia ) could help me to prove to myself that I really worth something.

Kevin, thanks a lot for your words and compliments! I am really happy you enjoy listening to my CD!
How would you describe accordion situation in the States?

Kym Hamer said...

Listening to the youtube clip (and watching as well), I was really moved by the music - it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up -really haunting and beautiful!

Alex, you say musicians have soul and the audience has true!

ML and Alex, both of you, thanks for sharing this...

Alexander Hribar said...

I first met Alexander in august 2009. I watched his video on youtube when he played Besame mubho (Link: and I was much than impresed. He's the best musician I have ever heard. I really really hope that I will meet him someday in personal. I wish Alex, Anna, Garan and Andrey many good moments when you will play as Coamorous quartet.

Alex you're my soul mate, my idol. We have the same taste in music, we dress the same and much more.

Again have a nice day!

ML Awanohara said...

I'm so glad you appreciated Alex's music. I felt similarly moved when I heard him play live in Jakarta even though I'm far from being an accordion aficionado (now there's a mouthful!). I think Kevin is right: he is one of those rare musicians who becomes one with his instrument.

ML Awanohara said...

Thanks for your touching honesty in responding to Patrick and me about the difficulty of moving your career elsewhere. Having listened to many expats despair of having given up serious careers to move around the world (see my interview w/ Véronique Martin-Place) and having been one of them myself, it was extremely refreshing to hear someone say that moving to another country had MADE his career.

Does that happen more often with artists, I wonder? Since the work doesn't involve climbing a corporate ladder and is the kind of work that's portable (quite literally in your case).

I was also very struck by something you said in response to Patrick:
"I am grateful for the life I am having here, but trying doing it somewhere else (NOT in Asia) could help me to prove to myself that I really worth something."

You know, I think a lot of us feel that after we've been abroad for a while. Not that we lose our moorings exactly, but it's a bit of an unreal world we occupy. It's even more true when you're a Caucasian living in Asia and attracting so much attention simply for your skin, hair and eye colors. (l can say that from firsthand experience. Like you, I'm a strawberry blonde!)

In fact, you may have put your finger on one of the key reasons why Patrick and I repatriated--he to go to business school, and I to try my luck at having a career of some sort (in communications, as it turned out).

I shouldn't speak for Patrick, but I got tired of being a "pet" in Japanese offices! (I came up with that analogy while still in Japan, and to this day it conjures up a precise picture of the feelings I had then.)

Patrick E. said...

ML, you can speak for me if you want. After all, I was your boss and you were a very nice pet. :-)

When I taught in Japan, I felt at first I was being adulated because I was a paleface, but later I came to realize Japanese treat all teachers with respect, earned or otherwise. So, I worked very hard to be worthy of my students' respect, and for the most part received it. (I also realized how many of the other faculty -- Japanese all of them -- at the university were slacking. They had the students' automatic respect, not mine.)

I changed careers and went into advertising. In this space, I was deployed by the Japanese firm for my strategic novelty value at first. Yes, the tame gaijin who even speaks mostly intelligible "language" -- aka, Japanese. Perhaps that did give me better access than other newbies in the Game. But only initially. To move into full professional recognition required achievement. Winning major clients and industry awards finally made me "almost" on par with Japanese execs.

This seems to be analguous to Alex' situation. He might have gotten access to the network and the promoters because he was a three-legged, blue-haired ET, but ultimately in Korea, I am sure, his longevity is based on talent and achievement.

That said, even with talent established beyond a reasonable doubt in the East, there remain two hurdles to climbing a similar hill in the West.1) Cultural differences, and 2) terminal myopia among hiring managers.

Re 1) Americans who venture to Kyoto to learn to play the "shakuhachi" (reed flute) should not expect to get a gig on the Tonight Show in NYC. Nada about their talent; Americans by and large are not really into Japanese flute. Likewise, the Missouri State Fair pig calling champion should not reasonably expect a happy relocation in Saudi Arabia or Mumbai. Fair enough.

Item 2) is the most irksome. I returned to the States presuming I had a great resume. But recruiters and hiring managers saw only one thing: Japan. "I won the equivalent of the Cleo." "But that was in Japan." "I founded two companies and made them both profitable." "True, but that was in Japan." "I had a securities license." "I see that, but it was a Japanese securities license, no?" "...What are you telling me?" "I am telling you to return to Japan."

I cannot speak for Russia, of course, but in this country, even in polyglot New York, non-Western experience is relegated to the categories of "furrin" and "not relevent."

Of course, one can make one's way to these shores from anywhere, but recognizing the barriers and having "a plan" helps a lot. In Alex' case, perhaps getting a Korean sponsor like Lotte or Hyundai and traveling around as a good will ambassador, making relationships along the way, might be step one.

Random thoughts as I try to avoid stepping in elephant pie....

Alex said...

Kym, thank you, I'm glad you enjoyed the video. There are more on my new website !
Alexander, I appreciate your support!

ML and Patrick, everything you have said is very true. The only and the biggest difference in our cases is that when you left Japan it was your own native country where you came back to. With me, not wanting to go back to Russia it doesn't really matter where I move to next ( IF i move ) - it will be totally new planet for me to conquer. Spoken english language would definitely make the move easier. However when I perform you don't have to struggle understanding my accent, hehe.
Thinking of all cons and pros, I feel I'd give it a try. People have hearts no matter where they live - Korea, Russia, USA or Africa. And my accordion has a magic way to touch those hearts.
If anything - I can always come back to Korea.
Korea will always be mine. At least I hope so ! :-)

Patrick E. said...

Very true. Though when I arrived in Manhattan after 15 years in Japan and university in Hawaii before that, it did not "feel" like my "native country." I was the 'stranger in a strange land.'

Another difference between us, I suspect, is that I had three children in tow and so had to focus on my ability to make money. I was expected to be "practical" and "responsible". (Evil words, but a fair trade for enjoying a lovely family.) If you are free to move where you wish and can take the attitude of, "it is all part of life's adventure," then by all means, go elephant hunting! I shall join you in spirit.

My personal recommendation: Argentina. The majority of the population are transplanted Italians who love to sit in the cafes all night and enjoy talking with good friends and vino. I can imagine they would take to your music. The country is spectacular, the people wonderful, and the ladies.... Well, I will summarize them with, "quite charming in the traditional Spanish way."

ML Awanohara said...

@ Patrick
I think Alex has to make money, too, as he helps to support his mother and sister (still in Russia). One thing I was impressed by is that despite being an artist who loves nothing more than doing his music, he has worked hard to figure out the business side of the equation. Deciding to go freelance wasn't easy, even in Korea, where they value music and pay musicians reasonably well. It has taken him a good five years to "make" it.

But you are right he is freer to work out where he wants to go next.

Argentina? What do you think of Patrick's suggestion? You didn't mention South America at all in our conversations. But I suspect you would learn Spanish easily, given your facility for languages. What is the accordion scene like in that part of the world--is it all squeezebox?

windy setiadi said...

i'm so grateful that i discovered you on youtube right after i bought my accordion (besides the fact that you're always on the top of all the songs i searched for). you've been such an amazing inspiration, the reason why i still play accordion. i can't thank you more for everything that i have learnt throughout my accordion journey. although i really do understand your comfort with what you're doing now, i'd sincerely suggest that you should move on to the next step because you've got so much ahead of you.

Daniel R. said...

That was a beautiful video. Growing up in Miami and listening to music from Latin America, the accordion wasn't such a foreign or disregarded instrument in my house. We listened to the Mexican norteña and the Colombian "cumbia," both genres that rely on accordions. With regard to the latter genre, Wiki says "According to legend, the accordion was added after a German cargo ship carrying the instruments sank as a load of accordions washed ashore on the northwest coast of Colombia." I couldn't imagine those musical styles being so popular if the accordion wasn't integrated into the rhythm.

My elementary school also had us learn the melodica, which is a different altogether, but can sound quite similar to the accordion.

Alex said...

I believe there are people play who the piano accordion in Argentina, however another relative of the accordion is more popular there. It's called Bandoneon - the instrument of Astor Piazzolla - father of new tango.I never thought of moving there myself. I guess I could consider it so I should find out more about the country first.

Windy, thank you for your sweet comment )

Daniel, thank you for your comment.

Kevin in USA said...

I would describe the sitution with the accordion in America quite simply. It is an open book for anyone with vision to rise to the fore front in a field that has not yet been tapped. Americans are getting older. The majority are at 60 and going up from there. These people have the time and the money to attend accordion festivals and once hearing this infectious music they want to buy CDs and downloads and come to you next concert. I think it is on the artists to put their noses to the grinsdtone and really come up with trendy stuff, Blow their minds with the neverending variety of old music that is out there, but also include new pieces. That's what it will take. A young new set of fresh faces re-introducing americans to an instrument they one adored. I, myself, would like to be a part of that revolution. I am old enough to be taken seriously yet young enough to inspire audiences and musicians alike. I write my own music and would like an army of accordionists to help me introduce i9t to the world. Someone like Alex Acco has everthing it would take to be at the forefront of such a movement. He has the good looks, style, and talent to capture a following. He just needs good singers around him to catch the eye and heart of the audience. Yes, I believe that the accordion can be and is on the verge of a new birth in the popular music culture in america if only one has the courage to ride the first wave of the adventure. Ride on sweet prince Alex. You can be our knight in shining armour. Never stop fighting the good fight and playing your wonderful music. If it is from the heart, and yours obviously is, then noone will be able to resist it's sweet tones.

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