Hot to trot: At 28, he's moved into middle ageLook at Lawrence Cho's resume and you wouldn't know the youthful Korean-Canadian is pursuing a career in music. But Mr. Cho, 28, will tell you, "Music is my life." His style of music, however, evokes laughter at first, for he sings trot music, a style native to Korea and liked mostly by the older generations, people at least in their 40s. Mr. Cho is in this sense an aberration -- and he's proud to be so.
Born in Gongju, South Chungcheong province, Mr. Cho moved to Vancouver, Canada, at 12. He soon found he had a knack for languages, and went on to major in Japanese and Chinese at the University of British Columbia. After he earned a master's degree in Japanese at the UBC, he got a job for SwissAir's retail arm, Nuance Global Traders. Nobody expected him to quit this career path.
In April, Mr. Cho took a vacation and came to Seoul, just for pleasure. He had belonged to an online club of trot music fans and met up with them. They told him about a singing contest in May that was commemorateing the legendary trot singer Bae Ho. Mr. Cho entered, and with talent and luck won the grand prize. "That was the moment I realized I had the potential to be a professional trot musician," he said, "I realized that it was the right time to pursue what I really wanted to do." He wrote a letter of resignation via e-mail to his company. "Everyone wondered if I was out of my mind, but I knew exactly what I was doing," Mr. Cho said. Trot music is characterized by raw rhythms, crude lyrics and resonant, vibrating vocals, and is favored by the middle-aged. Mr. Cho aims at making his vocals delicate, but with strong vibrations, which he says defines true trot music. Most trot songs are about love, but the lyrics are crude, as heard in Mr. Cho's song "You're Really Bad."
The prize-winning performance at the competition got him a sponsor and composers. His ambitious self-titled debut album came out last summer, with the first cut "Liar," a reproach over a fickle, cruel lover. Since his childhood, Mr. Cho said he had adored trot, for his parents played the songs in Vancouver to sooth homesickness. The very first album that he bought with his own pocket money was, no wonder, a trot album from the trot chanteuse Ju Hyun-mi, whom he calls his "great mentor."
Trot is also called "traditional" or "adult pop," or even the pejorative "ppongjjak," which describes the rhythm and beat peculiar to the genre. In style, trot is similar to the Japanese enka.
The word trot itself, Mr. Cho said, comes from the French and American dance genre the fox-trot. In China, it's called minga -- the Chinese characters of the word mean "songs of the masses." In Taiwan it's called noga, which means "songs of the elders."
As the names indicate, trot music isn't exactly cutting-edge. But Mr. Cho likes it that way. "The true attraction of trot music is its coarseness -- it may sound childish at first but in the long run it speaks directly and easily to everyone's heart," he said. His ambitions have compelled him to record songs in Chinese and Japanese, as well as Korean. "It was to attract some Chinese coming for the World Cup," he said. Despite his ambition, though, his album has not been so sought-after. But he says that does not discourage him in the least.
"My parents urge me to come back to Vancouver now that I have achieved my dream, with the album being a good souvenir," he said. "But the thing is, I'm not doing this just for fun. I'm ready to risk my whole life to become a real pro."
by Chun Su-jin