KO SANG-JI is one of the few bandoneon musicians in Korea. She is not the first bandoneon player in Korea, but she is undeniably the most well-known. She gained her popularity through her performance at the 2011 *Moo-Han-Do-Jeon* West Coast Highway Music Concert, a concert organized by the most popular variety show in Korea. Despite her popularity, she was evidently humble, choosing her words carefully throughout the interview. But the musician’s story is full of challenges and dynamics nevertheless.
A math genius
Ko was not always a musician. In her teenage days, she was a talented mathematician. “To be precise,” she says, “I only got high scores in math by being good at calculations. I did not have a special talent in mathematics itself.” With her impressive grades, especially in mathematics, she entered Daejeon Science High School, and after three years of tough competition, she eventually was accepted to Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST).
However, university academics were more difficult than she had imagined. Ko says that she is only “a quick learner”, but KAIST requires students to be able to analyze the principles underlying mathematical problems. “It was a nightmare,” Ko says as she recalls the past. Ko also had difficulty in choosing which field to major in. Her first choice of civil engineering was mathematically challenging, and her second choice, industrial design, was against her view that art cannot be graded.
Amid such hardships, it was music that saved her. “Once I saw the performance of the school band in freshmen orientation, I just fell in love with band music.” Right after the concert, she joined a student heavy metal band in KAIST. There she learned the basis of music from her band mates. With her newly-acquired knowledge about chord, rhythm and melody, she learned to analyze music. She also learned to play several instruments, including the piano and the guitar, and also wrote her own arrangements and compositions. Above all, she learned to appreciate music. As lectures became harder to follow, she became more absorbed in music.
Becoming a bandoneon player
In the second semester of her sophomore year, Ko decided to quit college and become a bandoneon player. Although Ko did not know anything about bandoneons until in her freshman year, Ko liked tango music ever since she was young. “I loved tango music because the chords of tango music reminded me of Japanese animation music that thrilled me since I was a child.” One day, she was listening to a piece of tango music, and suddenly noticed a unique sound that she had never heard before. She had to look up which instrument had made the mysterious sound. She discovered that the sound came from the bandoneon, and became a fan of the instrument, and decided to learn the instrument. The instrument was not common in Korea, but Ko luckily acquired one from her aunt living in Argentina. She taught herself to play the instrument. Surprisingly enough, she found learning to play the bandoneon relatively easy. “I just started by pushing the buttons and stretching the body. And I was already playing the bandoneon.”
The decision to leave school was not difficult for Ko. “I was not afraid to leave KAIST. After all, the purpose of university is to help us find our happiness. If I cannot find what I want in the university, it is not strange that I would leave and find a different path.” Ko says “I don’t care much about what will happen in the faraway future. Nobody knows what will happen in the long run, so I set plans only for the near future. Bandoneon was that future.” Soon after leaving college, she began her career as a bandoneom player in restaurants and cafes in *Hongdae* and *Itaewon*.
Meeting her mentor
Then one day, something amazing happened to her. A fan of Komatsu Ryota, a Japanese bandoneon virtuoso renowned worldwide, saw her performance in a restaurant by chance and taped it. The fan sent the video to Komatsu by e-mail, explaining Ko’s passion for the bandoneon. Komatsu sent Ko an e-mail first with words of encouragement. “I was so excited and thrilled. I never expected him to care for someone like me. I felt so honored, and replied him right away, asking if he could accept me as his disciple.” The answer from Komatsu was that he will decide it after he meets her. So she booked an airplane ticket and went to Japan to meet Komatsu. “He saw me, and took me as his disciple right away. When I asked him why, he said that he saw my sincerity towards the bandoneon in my eyes.” Ko, too, was captivated by Komatsu at first sight. “He was nothing like an authoritative musician. He was a humble, pure, and childlike person who loved food and used to analyze ramen seriously. His bandoneon performance was just amazing.”
Initially their lesson took place sporadically because Ko could not afford airline fees. She went to Japan once in three months and stayed for two to three weeks. “Our lessons took place in random places. Whenever he had a performance, I followed him with my bandoneon and we had small lessons in the guest room, hotel room, and the car, among other places, whenever he had free time.”
From Komatsu Ryota’s affectionate lessons, Ko learned the charm of traditional tango music. In 2009, Ko followed Komatsu’s advice and took advantage of the increased yen-won exchange rate to head off to the home country of tango, Argentina, to deepen her knowledge of tango music. She stayed there for nearly two years attending Orquesta Escuela de Tango Emilio Balcarce, a school where tango musicians study for free under the condition of participating in tango performances without pay. “Those were exciting days. My Argentinian friends were all bright and open-minded, and in performances with friends and teachers, I was exposed to various style of tango, which allowed me to broaden my musical perspectives.”
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Now she is back in Korea, playing in big and small concerts, arranging pieces and practicing. To the question asking what her dream is, she humbly answered, “All I want is to improve my bandoneon techniques. I still have a lot to work on.” Ko delivers these last words to the readers; “Do not let others wield you around. Find something that makes you the way you are. Regardless of what it is, religion, family, or books, once you know what you really want and who you really are, you can be free from constrains and find a way that you want.”
<Bandoneon, a devil’s instrument>
At first glance, it looks like a mysterious wrinkled box. But when this box is stretched, it turns into an instrument similar to the accordion. This mysterious box is called the bandoneon, an essential instrument in tango music. The bandoneon expresses the soul of tango music: passion. Sometimes elegant, sometimes violent, the bandoneon sings the melody of both sadness and happiness, two contrasting elements of passion. Its deep, dynamic sound captures the audience at once. It is extremely difficult to play bandoneon, thus given its notorious nickname, the “devil’s instrument.” Like the accordian, the bandoneon makes its sound when the player stretching and pushing its body with two hands. However, the bandoneon has much more buttons compared to the accordion. It plays a total of 71 unique notes. As one can easily imagine, controlling every button is very difficult. Because of its complicity and restricted usage on genre, bandoneon players are very scarce worldwide, and even scarcer in Korea.