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Jazz pianist takes the plunge

Friday, March 24, 2006

SEOUL (Reuters): It's not every day that a jazz-inspired pianist has to make a life or death decision about his art, and it is not every day a gifted musician flees North Korea. Kim Cheol-woong, 31, was a North Korean prodigy who was trained in classical music and destined to play the patriotic and martial tunes that hymn Pyongyang's leaders. While studying overseas, Kim heard jazz piano for the first time and was fascinated. He returned home knowing this was the music he wanted to play, but that he would have to flee the strictly regimented state to realise his dream. One night in 2001, he made the perilous trip across the Tumen River into China and reached Yanbian, an autonomous Chinese prefecture where many ethnic Koreans live. He went on to South Korea two years later but still he will not talk about how he crossed the Tumen or of his attempts to leave China for the South.

Kim now teaches music at a university in Seoul, and dreams of playing at New York's Carnegie Hall. As an artist, he thought he would die a slow death in North Korea. ''We musicians were only a means and a tool to maintain the regime,'' Kim said during a piano rehearsal. Many North Koreans who flee the country seek asylum from hunger and oppression, but Kim's father was a high-ranking military official and lavishly provided for his family. This allowed Kim to learn the piano at an elite university in Pyongyang.

But access to most foreign music is banned. For the typical North Korean, cultural expression through music, movies and the performing arts is restricted to extolling the virtues of its leader Kim Jong-il, his late father Kim Il-sung and their communist policies. ''All other types of music are all lumped into one genre they called 'jazz', which is considered barbaric because it has no melody,'' Kim said. ''It is the worst, spoiled culture of capitalism,'' he said he was taught.

North Korean state TV often shows masses dancing to military music and schoolgirls playing patriotic tunes on accordions. A recent state news report said some recent popular tunes included songs such as ''A girl innovator dashing like a steed'' and ''Song of coast artillery women''. People can be imprisoned for listening to South Korean music, and playing rock and roll can be considered a crime.

Kim said his university education in Pyongyang was based on classical music composed before the 19th century, access to which was given only to university students. It was later, during extended studies at a Russian university, that he was captivated by the music being played at a cafe in Moscow, music he was strictly forbidden to listen to or perform in the North. ''I heard Richard Clayderman's 'A Comme Amour' and was fascinated by it. This made me want to escape North Korea,'' Kim said. Kim has since turned his attention to classical piano pieces by composers such as Chopin, Tchaikovsky and Liszt.

Clayderman, with his soft renditions of pop tunes, is occasionally derided for composing kitsch, but Kim said the first time he heard one of his recordings, it was an epiphany. ''I was shaking and entranced. I felt as if I was falling into the music. It was because I had such a strong notion that all jazz music was not good. He is still my favourite even though I have encountered many other genres,'' he said.

On his return to Pyongyang in 1999, Kim worked for the North Korean orchestra. He was playing a Clayderman piece on the piano during practice one day when a security official caught him and Kim was forced to write a 10-page apology. ''There are famous and honourable musicians in North Korea but the origin of the creativity is aimed at supporting the government's policies and Kim Il-sung. Their music is very good but the words are all weird,'' he added. In China, to survive, he worked 12 hours a day loading wood at a factory where his smooth hands became thick and hard.

After seven months, Kim found a chance to play the piano after finding the instrument at a nearby church. But he realised that to win musical freedom, he needed to go to South Korea and, after two failed attempts, finally arrived there in spring 2003. To support himself in Seoul, he performed at bars and worked as a piano tutor. He also founded an arts organisation for North Korean defectors. Since Kim is familiar with music from both Koreas, he hopes his work can help in a small way towards unifying the two Koreas, which are technically still at war half a century after the 1950-53 Korean War ended in an inconclusive truce.

''A piano can play an important part in moving many people with one melody as opposed to thousands of words,'' he said

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