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Interview: Chang-Soo Kim

Chang-soo Kim is the founder of Bambell Music, the company currently leading the ukulele charge in Korea. He explains why he was initially drawn to the ukulele as a tool for music education and shares his thoughts on the future of ukulele in Korea.

Ukulele Yes!: Tell us a bit about your background. How did you get into the ukulele business?

Chang-soo Kim

Chang-soo Kim: I'm basically a Western music learner. In university my major was composition and I studied classical and contemporary music as well as some traditional folk music. Then I decided to go to India! Most Korean musicians follow their professor's way; professors in university push their student to follow a particular path. I wanted to avoid that. I believe that you have to do your music, your creation. If you just follow your teacher's way it is just copying or imitation. So my opinion was "I have to find my way."

So I decided to go to India. I was so impressed and amazed by Indian music; the theories, the history, the modes – ragas – and the thousands of rhythmic patterns called tala. I'd been studying in India around 10 years and I realized that I had to use this kind of new education material. Once, I got a chance to teach some handicapped children in India; they really enjoyed learning music. Even if they couldn't really move their fingers or sing they really loved the music and enjoyed it. So I decided to come back to Korea and establish a music research institution for children. That's when I founded the Bambell Music Research Institution.

At first there was no ukulele. I taught Indonesian gamelan music and bamboo bell (that's where the name "Bambell" comes from). I also used the Latin American cajón, African djembe and other small percussion instruments. After about two years I got feeling like we needed more melodic and harmonic development. I remembered when I was in junior high school my father gave me a classical guitar. At that time my teacher had an ukulele but I didn't know it was an instrument; I thought it was just a decoration! But now that I was teaching music to children I decided the ukulele was the instrument I had to teach them.

Ukulele teaching is not just teaching the instrument. My point of view is that teaching the ukulele is teaching the human.

Around seven years ago I started teaching pre-school, kindergarten and primary school teachers. I have taught thousands of teachers in Korea. These teachers are now teaching their kids. Now we have around fifteen branches of Bambell Music, mainly in the Seoul area. So this ukulele teaching is not just teaching the instrument. My point of view is that teaching the ukulele is teaching the human. What is a human? These days Korean people have forgotten how to enjoy singing together because of Karaoke. If people want to sing they have to go to a room and they have to watch a video and they sing. Otherwise they cannot sing.

This modern culture leads to more selfishness; people are closing their minds. I remember when I was a university student, every student would sing together outside of the university. We would sit together and we'd play guitar and sing together. I think the ukulele can recover this movement; it can remind people how to enjoy life through music.

UY!: You offer classes for students of all ages. Tell us about that.

CK: Bambell students range in age from seven to seventy! I teach mostly to the teachers and then they teach their students. Naturally we have a community of children. Also now there are parents who bring their children to learn ukulele and decide to take lessons themselves so the range of age is slowly widened. But for the senior citizens I think music education is very, very important nowadays. Because people don't want to have more than one child so the number of seniors is growing. I'm quite interested in continuing education especially through the ukulele

UY!: Because it keep the brain active?

CK: Yes, and also because music helps old people to remember the very nice feeling of being youngsters!

UY!: What do you think the future holds for ukulele in Korea?

I hope people will think "oh, ukulele... it's a really enjoyable instrument and it can do more than just accompany singing."

CK: In the future, ukulele in Korea will be like it is in Japan or America. People in Korea love to sing. That is the main thing. I have met people from many different countries. I have many friends: African, Brazilian, Japanese, American, Canadian, Spanish. I have traveled to almost 100 countries in my life. But I found that not every country has this kind of love for singing. Americans, they love to sing but Italian, Spanish, Greek... these people really love to sing. I think the same is true in Korea so if I continue to teach and promote the ukulele then it will really grow within just a few years.

And its not just about spreading the ukulele, I also really want to promote the instrument itself. Ukulele is not a toy. Ukulele can play Bach, Vivaldi, Chopin or Jazz or Pop music. I have quite a strong classical music background but many classical musicians don't really respect the ukulele. Only certain instruments – violin, piano, and so on – are "real" instruments to them. But if we really develop the quality of ukulele music then we can find our position. That's why I'm writing method books and always composing etudes for ukulele, step-by-step from the beginning to the highest end of technique. Once we have good method – like a Suzuki method – then it will make people think differently. I really want to play classical music, jazz and swing band music in an ukulele ensemble. I hope people will think "oh, ukulele... it's a really enjoyable instrument and it can do more than just accompany singing."

That is my goal and plan.

Chang-soo Kim is based in Seoul, South Korea. He is the founder of Bambell Music and and tireless champion of the ukulele as an all-ages vehicle for music education.

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