A budding career in traditional music blooms in JapanDressed in jeans and a T-shirt, nothing about Lee Ccotbyeol’s appearance suggested she was a prominent player of the haegeum, a traditional Korean fiddle. But much about Ms. Lee, 26, is unconventional, including her decision to relocate to Japan just before the release of her first album in Korea and Japan in 2003 ― quite a gamble for a performer of traditional Korean music. Since then, however, Ms. Lee has wowed audiences throughout that country, and hopes to do the same when she comes home to perform her third album, “Fly, Fly, Fly,” at Seoul’s LG Arts Center on May 24.
Though all of her albums have been released in both Korea and Japan, Ms. Lee’s focus on touring in Japan has come at the expense of promoting herself extensively in her home country.
“I feel uneasy,” Ms. Lee admitted. “I am afraid that the seats might be empty.”
This is not the first time Ms. Lee has faced such doubts. When she first played in Japan, audiences there didn’t really know what to make of her.
“The Japanese knew almost nothing about the Korean fiddle or about me,” Ms. Lee said. “They mistook the Korean fiddle for the erhu, a traditional Chinese instrument.”
An executive from a Japanese recording company first spotted Ms. Lee when she was performing with the Kim Yong-woo Band, which was touring Japan in 2002. Then a sophomore at the Korean National University of Arts, Ms. Lee was wearing jeans and had her leg perched on a monitor; the executive was drawn to her obvious enthusiasm.
“It was passionate music. Even after I practiced it alone, I became breathless. How could I hold back when playing it?” Ms. Lee said.
When the executive told her that he wanted to meld her Korean fiddle sounds with New Age music, Ms. Lee was hesitant. She wasn’t sure it would be wise to stray from her orthodox study of traditional music. After thinking about it for several days, Ms. Lee decided to go to Japan, and in 2003, with the help of pianist Sasaki Isao and composer Masatsuku Shinozaki, she released her first album, “Small Flowers.” Some songs from the album were subsequently used in television commercials.
Living in Japan wasn’t easy. Loneliness was the most difficult thing to deal with, she said, but added that she grew up fast.
“I always performed with musicians who were better than I,” Ms. Lee said. “When I made mistakes, I was scolded. In the beginning, I cried and felt that it sapped my confidence. But where else could I have met teachers like them? I’m a very lucky person.”
After enough all-night practice sessions, Ms. Lee was skilled enough to go on tour with the Kim Yong-woo Band. Yet once again, doubts about her ability pushed Ms. Lee to practice relentlessly: Her schedule became so hectic that she scarcely had time to eat or sleep. Once she was set a task, she couldn’t rest until it was complete.
“When I went to Japan, I told myself I would never say, ‘I can’t do it,’” Ms. Lee said.
For her first album, Ms. Lee’s role was limited to merely playing the Korean fiddle, supported by renowned Japanese musicians. But for her most recent album, she was involved in selecting the music, composition, arrangement, mixing and mastering. Ms. Lee’s input was evident in the inclusion of “Korean Bitter,” which used traditional folk rhythms; children’s song “Seomjipagi”; “Old Days,” by the late Ryu Jae-ha, rearranged in a bossa-nova style, and “Sangju Arirang.”
Despite her success, however, Ms. Lee decided to return to the Korean National University of Arts this year to pursue graduate studies.
“I think tradition needs to be preserved all time. Otherwise it would become a tree without roots,” Ms. Lee said.
Ms. Lee does not generally play songs from her album in the course of her studies, instead practicing sanjo and jeongak, both types of traditional Korean music, everyday. Stressing how important it was to keep on studying if one is to avoid falling into arrogance or complacency, Ms. Lee said she is learning how to play jazz piano.
“I would not be so happy if I hadn’t pursued music. If it weren’t for music, I would have missed out on so many life-changing experiences,” Ms. Lee said.
by Lee Kyong-hee