They make the hills aliveAt the foot of Mount Jiri a man and a boy are playing music. The man is strumming a guitar and the boy is playing an ocarina, a small, ancient wind instrument made from shells, wood or earthen materials. The man is Han Chi-yeong, 47, and the boy is his son Tae-ju, Tae-ju, 15. Mr. Han lives for music, and his son shares the same passion.
One of the highlights of Mr. Han's life was winning the top prize at an amateur competition held by the television network MBC in 1982.
"Winning the competition was like a dream come true," Mr. Han says. "I wasn't even thinking of getting a job. I just kept going to the broadcasting station and daydreaming about getting a break." Getting recognized for his music was the exception, not the norm, though. And without any real money to promote his songs, it was hard for Mr. Han to move up in the music world.
In 1986, he met his wife-to-be, Kim Kyung-eh, now 46, who encouraged him from the start to devote himself to his music. The two married the same year, and for four years they lived in Seoul waiting for a call from a broadcasting station that never came. Mr. Han managed to cut an album in 1990, which he was able to produce after walking into a recording agency and practically begging the people there to give him a chance. Although the producer thought the album had the potential for success, it wasn't marketed and was a nonseller.
The Han family decided to pack its bags and leave Seoul. They wandered around the peninsula for a while before settling down in Sudong, a small village in South Jeolla province, in 1992. They lived there for six years. This period was especially significant for Tae-ju, as he really started to learn the ocarina, which he received as a birthday present when he was 7. The fact that hardly anyone in Korea played this instrument meant Tae-ju had to teach himself to play it. In 1998, the family moved again, to its current home near Mount Jiri.
Mr. Han remembers how he first discovered that his son had a love for music as strong as he himself had. One day, when he had to leave the house with his wife, he left his son with a tape of nursery rhymes. When he came back after four hours his son hadn't moved an inch, was still listening to the tape, and tears were running down his cheeks.
"When I asked him why he was crying he said that one of the songs was really sad," Mr. Han says. "He has a very keen sense for musical tones."
The only musical instruction that Tae-ju really got was from his father. His fathers didn't use conventional teaching methods. If Tae-ju wanted to express the sounds of the wind blowing through pine trees, his father would tell him to go out and listen to that sound for himself. When he did not know how to express a cloud atop a mountain, his father took him on a climb, to get the right feeling for it. Nature itself became a teacher and inspiration for the young Tae-ju. "A musician has to become one with the subject that he aspires to express," Mr. Han says. "What better way to learn than to go out there and feel what it's like?"
Tae-ju does not go to school anymore. He refused to go when he was 11, and his parents accepted his decision and agreed to teach him Chinese characters and English at home. The young musician got interested in English as he tried to sing pop songs. His favorites are by the groups Pink Floyd and Queen. "I like their rhythms but I also want to know the meaning of the lyrics," Tae-ju says. While boys his age are in classrooms, Tae-ju and his father are often out hiking. They sit down any place that fits their mood and tunes that complement the scenery.
Money is still an issue for the Han family. Fortunately, the house they live in is being lent to them by a patron of the arts. What income they get is from CDs that Mr. Han has cut more recently. Still, they are ready to move whenever they feel the need, based on the principle that freedom is the most important thing in life.
"For us, possessions and putting down roots aren't important," Mr. Han says. "We'll go anyplace where we can get inspiration.".
In August, Tae-ju produced his first album, and the first collection of ocarina songs played by a Korean. All 10 songs were written by Tae-ju. Since then, he has been asked to play at places in Seoul, mostly by culture and nature organizations.
Both father and son say they will continue honing their music skills with the help of Mother Nature. For them every stone and every blade of grass gives meaning.
"The essence of music is to reach people's hearts," Mr. Han says. "We do that by creating music that is as close as can be to nature."
by Koo Doo-hoon