Exclusive Interview with Youngjun Choi of Oriental Express


Oriental Express, Seoul: Korean traditional instruments + Jazz!

There are many ways available for you if you want to be a musician. Some of them are autodidact, the other pursue formal educations either in music schools or by having private in-home or in-studio music lessons for example from  the institution provided by http://takelessons.com/ among others. Having a formal education will definitely give benefit  in order to establish strong basic skill that will be needed in building up the career.

I had the good fortune to witness some of South Korean’s cultural dynamism this week when I saw the fusion band Oriental Express (http://orientalexpress.org) perform live in Seoul. Youngjun Choi – pianist, composer and founder of Oriental Express – joins us in this exclusive interview where he shares his musical vision and journey, the story of the band, their albums, and his goals as a career musician and humanitarian in this day and age.

What was the vision behind founding of your music group, and the name of your group?
I was a band leader for the TV shows back in the 90s. I played smooth jazz and fusion jazz for the show. I sort of met a wall of real jazz as a Korean. Then I decided to go to Berklee College of Music which is famous for jazz. Commuting every day to the school, it was easy to come across street musicians playing on buckets and even scrap metals. Their sound was really touching for me: African Americans really know how to drum!

But I realised it is also odd that some Koreans do not care for their traditional music that much. People just move faster and faster with the times and somehow too Westernised. So after the initial shock, I started to study Korean rhythm. After I finished my Master’s for Computer Music, I had a chance to develop Korean software synthesizer for traditional music from a government fund. The demo music for the software synthesiser with sequencer program was “Oriental Express” which we gave to the name of a track in the first album. Good software needs a good demonstration. That is where Oriental Express begins!

I had a vision. When I first bought my car, I wanted to drive to Europe, but it is not possible to go there. There is North Korea. In a plane map, Seoul to London is really far. But once you explore Google Maps with a little bit of interaction, you can roll the earth! If you put the North Pole to the centre of your screen, Seoul to London is not that far as compared on an ordinary plane map.

Korea has a dream for re-unification. Koreans wants to drive to China, Russia, Middle East and Europe. I say, that is Oriental Express. That is where Oriental Express came from. As I said earlier, technology helped me to find a short cut. “Oriental Express” expresses Korean traditional music with technology. In fact we develop Korean traditional instrument software synthesizer, apps, electronic versions of traditional instrument and robots too!

Oriental Express tries to find a new sound from the traditional to high tech and will find an express way to express new music!

What made you take to music, particularly the piano?
When I was six, my father brought me a piano. He taught himself to play piano, from classical to Korean songs. I play piano a lot, sometimes all day long.

In front of the piano, there was a whole new world spreading beyond my imagination. I went to a private music teacher but after playing piano I realised classical music was so boring to me. However, I kept playing piano and composing music. I had a tape recorder and I recorded some music in my childhood. My elder brother bought an electric guitar for fun but I was too serious to play guitar too. I played acoustic guitar for the girl next door to my house – though I never talked to the girl, I was too shy to talk to her as a teen!

Soon, I came back to piano again. I want to explore more new sound, that is why I went to an electronic engineering college to build my own synthesizer. At that time, there was no jazz music college in Korea either.

I mainly use keyboard to compose music, but I do some avant-garde computer music and tape music too. For that I use the computer to generate sound. But in Oriental Express, I use the sequencer and keyboard with some extra sound design.


How would you describe your musical journey?
The first album “Oriental Express” shows the main idea of our band. “To The West” is the album title. I want to play music especially in London. That is the end of the continent from the Korean point of view. Of course, we are going to play music on the way there by car: it means Korea is re-unified!

Our second album is “Cruising Together.” Playing with other musician is really hard, as well as keeping good relations with them. It is really a challenge for musicians. As a teacher at the music college, I want to show to the student, that there can be a band that plays together for more than 20 years. Cruising together is a vow to keep musicians in a band.

The third album is “Vision of the Road.” We ask ourselves, why do we play music? What is the plan of the God? Why did God assemble Oriental Express and let us play in harmony? I am trying to be a religious man and find a way to reach God. A way to reach God is via a road, how to reach to God is vision. Today people are very stresses by everyday life. To escape the routine of daily life is to find a vision. I want to share that vision with people through this album.

Our fourth album is “Wonderful Life.” In Confucius, when a person reaches age 40, he is not suspicious of everything and is able to overcome temptation. At 20, we study, at 30 we try to find a job. Everybody wants a wonderful life: successful career for money, house or nice car. In order to reach that wrong dream, we sometimes do wrong. At age 40, I can see more than 20 or 30. I see more absurd things also. I thought to correct the wrong is justice. But sometimes defining justice is not that easy. It is not just one side of the coin. I mean, justice cannot be defined that way. You cannot flip it to define right or wrong. I try to describe these matters in the album through the track “No winner, No loser”, “Lost and Found”, “Something Special” and “Beautiful Life”. You get something when you achieve a wonderful life. You believe that there is something really special. But you have to pay for it or lose something. What if the stuff that you lose is the most important thing? What would you do? These are the matters that we debate in the album.

We are now working on our next album, the fifth. The title will be “Colour of Mind.” I have started to have more curiosity about people.  In order to cure people, we need to diagnosis the problem.  What colour and vision does the person have? How do you define people? We have finished a couple of songs and one of them is “Mind Explorer”. I want to know people.

How did you meet the musicians in your band? Tell us something about them.
Our bassist is Hyunmo Kim. I meet him when I was 23, after military service as an army conscript. I came back to college and played more music. I hung around to find a good musician and meet Hyunmo Kim and assembled the band.

We did a CD album which really faded away, no income, no fame at all for us. But it was the most valuable album that I made. While I was studying at Berklee College of Music, he worked for Samsung Electronics. Probably stressful to him, he quit maybe in four years! He came back as a musician for no pay. But, he did bass and was really popular in Japan as a Hentai bassist who could play as a Japanese cartoon animation character. The Japanese were amazed with his chopping bass, and his nice personality.

Back in 2010, in California, there was the Whitman-Jerry Brown race for governor. When Whitman’s spokeswoman put out the Twitter id for Whitman, their mistake in the URL lead to Hyunmo’s freak bass playing YouTube site! That night, the YouTube clicks exceeded 1,300 million views, and he was featured in the Los Angeles times too!

I met drummer James Kim in college as a student. When I finished my master’s degree, I had a hard time getting a job. One day there was an open position in a college, due to a professor’s suicide.  I meet James Kim there. He is older than I am, and already was a famous drummer in Korea, so teamed up with him to do music together.

Our lovely gayageum (a traditional Korean zither-like string instrument) player Kyungso Park is a diva for Oriental Express. A professor in the same department introduced me to her. I had requested the professor to find a performer with deep Korean traditional music and yet contemporary chops, with a beautiful mind. That is how I meet Kyungso. I worked with Kyung a long time, almost seven years, in composing for a full Korean traditional music orchestra, ensemble and many other works. She teaches me good lessons in Korean traditional music too.

Haegeum (a traditional Korean string instrument, resembling a fiddle with rod-like neck, hollow wooden soundbox and two silk strings) player Ashley Choi just joined band. We search a long time to find a great player. She just graduated from Korean National University of Art and also has a good Japanese skill. We are still knocking on the doors of the Japanese market.

Who would you say are the leading influences in your musical career?
For me, in the early 1980s Shakatak was the main influence. That could be one reason why we want to go to London too. Though we all come from different backgrounds, we play from the same big page. We try to find common ground. The band member’s ages range from 20 to 40. We actually cover all genres and pretty much every kind of music. I would never know the music of Björk if had not met Kyungso.


Who are some of your favourite Korean and jazz musicians?
Eunpa Jo” is my mentor and he showed me a really bright way to be a good musician. He is famous composer in Korean pop, one of the top royalty earning composers and lyricists, but most of his money goes to people who lost their way — he helps homeless people. For me, I do not admire a musician who just plays good music, I admire a composer who shows his music through his life. The music is like a mirror, it projects one’s thoughts.

How do you blend jazz with Korean music in your performance?
Western music and Korean music is really different. In text, “composition” means you arrange something for Western music. But “compose” in Korean, actually Chinese, means you make a tune. This may be hard to explain. For instance, in Korean music, you pluck one string and vibrate it to make resonance, you pluck a note and wait. Sometimes it is like Korean scenery, mountain views of Korea. For rhythm, it is really ritual and ceremonial to the God of the land. As you know, Korean history is based on agriculture. The tuning system is different from Western music, and rhythm is different too.

It is really hard to blend Korean music to jazz. Jazz has roots in Africa and Africa American slaves. Korean music also has roots in its farmers, who sing while working. That inspires me and it really works for me to mix the two kinds of music. Of course jazz music has many genres, and so does Korean traditional music too.  But this is the starting point for me.

What new album or video are you working on now?
We plan to record our fifth album “Colour of Mind” at the end of the year. We plan to make a music video too, in front of the iconic Korean places such as demilitarised zone, palaces, and city views.

What have been your previous highlights in playing across Korea and Asia?
Japanese magazine “Workers” mentioned us as one of the top Korean Jazz bands. We have millions of clicks in Japanese top video site www.nicovideo.jp — this is why we want to expand our career in Japan before we go to London. Spanish webzine NoSoloSoothJazz.com has reviewed every Oriental Express album too.


Do you also teach workshops for students and musicians?
I teach music class and music technology class. I also teach Korean fusion music class in my college.

In my college, there’s a Korean Traditional Music Department and Contemporary Music Department with jazz, rock, and pop music. Each department has its own curriculum, so it is hard to mix them. But I started with a small group of student and now there are almost 40 students who play fusion music. We start from Korean traditional rhythms and expand to melody. At the end of the semester, we do a concert and record a CD album. It is on the iTunes store too.

What music influences did your family have?
My father plays piano, he unfortunately passed away last year. He knew how to sing and dance like most Koreans. He worked really hard to make money and take care of us. His working hard in life gives me a great inheritance and asset. I try to work hard to make music and be a good man too.

What is your message to the audience?
Modern life is too stressful. We easily betray friends for small benefit. But if you wait or endure for your friend, he will give you back with great joy. Young people easily break up with their bands. There may be many reasons for this, such as ego, economical reasons or personal matters. Musicians cannot make money easily, it is hard to make a living. When I was young, working for TV and the entertainment business meant the quality of life was really not good. You get money but you lose many other things.

I want to be a role model for young musician who want to make a living. To break Oriental Express with James Kim, Hyunmo Kim and Kyungso means the end of my music career.

Do you have any piece of advice you want to give to aspiring musicians?
Yes, in my fourth album, “No winner, No loser,” there are good messages for students. I also recently published “Computer Music for Arrangers,” where I explain a lot about Oriental Express music. I feel there must be deep philosophical thinking and musical connection. Winner could be a major scale, loser could be a minor scale. Sometimes a minor scale makes a happy melody and the major scale makes moody melody too. Life is like a “no winner, no loser” melody! But at the end of the tune, it gives you a bright vision and makes people happy to overcome bad feelings. That is the energy that I want to share with people.

Written by Madanmohan Rao, on June 27, 2012; Seoul
Editor & DJ, World Music and Jazz; Bangalore
Global Correspondent for Jazzuality.com

Photos were taken by Madanmohan Rao, except the header, taken from YoungJun Choi’s page