A Tale of Music

About the author
Kang Kwi-mi is a writer from North Korea.

Excerpt from A Tale of Music, first published in Choson Munhak, 2nd Issue, 2003


I don't know much about music, but today I'd like to write about it. My thoughts on music have to do with my two brothers. One of them plays the trumpet at a top-tier art troupe in the capital, and the other works at a granite quarry. My readers may think that I'm going to write about my brother who is a well-known trumpeter. But I'm going to write about my brother who digs rocks at a granite quarry, not my first brother who lives in the world of music.

What? About her brother who works in a quarry? What does she mean by recounting the story of a brother excavating rocks when she says she'll write about music? What do stones have anything to do with music? People will certainly say these things. It's not surprising, given that I had entertained the same thought myself.

I will have to go back far to a time when my family lived in abject poverty in Japan.

1

My childhood was spent in a small house next to the Katsuragawa railway bridge in Kyoto, Japan. Even now, when I close my eyes, I can picture my old house, which seemed to shrink each day under the weight of poverty. I hear the sounds of the flowing river, the trains' turning wheels, and the whistles that used to fill my heart with sorrow for no apparent reason.

My father pulled a scavenger's wagon and my mother worked at a sardine factory where she sprinkled sugar, vinegar, and sesame seeds on the fish to be dried. She was fired even from that job because she was Korean, so afterward she worked at an Arashiyama textile shop, where she spread out dyed cloth along the riverbank to dry.

Our life was arduous beyond description. My parents wanted to send us to a Korean school, but couldn't afford our train fares; they had no choice but to send us to nearby Japanese schools.

My memory is still vivid about an anecdote that happened when my younger brother was in the third grade of primary school. While playing with my rag of a doll, I overheard a conversation in the other room.

"Mother, you still don't have enough money for my lunch?" It was my second brother. (Japanese schools required the students to pay lunch money in addition to monthly tuition. Only then could they get bread, milk, and soup.)

"Wait a few more days. I packed you a lunch every day instead, didn't I?"

"You mean take out cooked barley and radish pickles in front of the Japanese kids?"

"Then you haven't eaten lunch the whole time?"

"..."

"Answer me," my mother said anxiously.

"At lunch time, I went out to a corner in the school yard, and when lunch time was over ..."

"Then?"

Only after a long time did my brother croak in the tiniest voice.

"I'd go to the row of faucets, drink some water, and return to my classroom. When other kids asked me, I said I didn't feel like eating bread, so I went to the cafeteria ..." He couldn't finish because his voice cracked.

Normally, he was a boy of few words. What misery drove him to confess this to his mother?

"My child ... " Mother seemed to be crying.

Oh, my poor brother! Tears rolled down my face. Pressing the old rag of a doll to my face, I wept silently. I was seven years old at the time.

Other things probably happened when I was that age, but this memory alone remains vivid to this day. Our family was poor to that extent.

It was truly surprising that musical talent sprouted from my poor household. People often say that musical talent is inherited. The parents of Beethoven and Mozart were musicians, while Chopin, Schubert, and Tchaikovsky had music lovers, though not musicians, as their parents. My family didn't have the slightest tie to music. More precisely, we couldn't have.

We didn't even have an old-fashioned beginner's recorder to play at home. My eldest brother, for some reason, became the first trumpeter in the wind band of Rakunan Junior High School, and became known as a musical genius. This school's band was known far and wide, not only in Kyoto, but all over Japan. My eldest brother was unquestionably the No. 1 trumpet player in this band.

My second brother, who was in the sixth grade in Kishoin Primary School, began to develop an interest in the trumpet. My eldest brother would practice the trumpet on a rock near the waterfall not far from our house, and every time a boy (my second brother) would be standing near him with music sheets, acting as a music stand.

The curvy trumpet was in shining gold. The movement of my brother's lips and the pressure with his fingers produced the musical scale-do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do-and created the harmony of fluid melody. At such moments, my second brother would tremble with excitement. His eyes followed every move his brother made, observing how to play the instrument. He wasn't able to hold the trumpet in his hand, though, because my eldest brother wouldn't let him touch it.

One day, while my eldest brother was at work at an iron works, my second brother couldn't stand it any longer, so he searched everywhere for the trumpet his brother had hidden and took it out. He played as he had learned with his eyes. Unexpectedly, he could make pleasant sounds. From then on, he would play for an hour or so and put the instrument back by the time his brother came home.

I went up to the top of the bank and stood as lookout, being a sentry for him. My brother could play pretty well thanks to these stolen practices. They didn't last long, though. One day, about a month into his practice, he was caught by his brother. While I was looking the other way on my watch duty, my eldest brother suddenly materialized before me. The loud trumpet sound was still coming out of our house. My brother scowled fiercely as he raced toward home.

My heart sank, and I ran after him. As soon as he entered the house, he snatched the trumpet away from his brother and shouted, "What are you doing?"

My second brother was at a loss for words at such an unexpected turn of events.

My first brother's voice rose higher and higher. "Do you know what this trumpet means? You must know we haven't fully paid for it yet. Because of our debt, Father, Mother, and I are hammering away to make tools at the factory. Do you think this is a toy?"

An unexpectedly clear voice came out of my other brother's mouth, though I thought he'd be breaking down in tears. "I was not playing with it! Brother, I would like to learn how to play the trumpet, too!"

"What?"

There was silence for some time.

Finally, my eldest brother spoke in a low voice. "What's the use of learning how to play the trumpet? Look at me. People talked about what a great trumpeter I was, but no company wanted to hire me because I'm a Korean and the iron works was the only place I could find work. My fingers are ruined there. I even tried to jump from the railway bridge. I hope you won't ..."

All this was true. My eldest brother hurt his hand at the iron works, so he couldn't freely move his fingers. He couldn't play the trumpet with that hand of his. Despondent, he attempted to jump from the bridge and was deterred by a Korean compatriot who happened to pass by.

What could my other brother say, knowing full well what had happened?

Afterward, my eldest brother banned his brother from playing the trumpet and hid it where no one else could find it. My second brother's trumpet fever didn't cool down, however. If anything, it burned more passionately.

The incident I'm going to describe happened after music class. All the students left the music room, but my brother stood there all by himself. A trumpet was shining in the cabinet. Without realizing it, his hand stretched out toward the instrument. His heart pounded. The music teacher's ferocious face hovered before his eyes. The hand extended to the trumpet shrank back. But the temptation was too big. His hand darted to the instrument, and then dropped several times.

Finally, he took out the trumpet. As soon as he held it in his hand, he put the instrument's mouth to his lips, like a thirsty person grabbing at a bottle of water and pressing it to his mouth. Boom ... As the sound rose, his heart no longer pounded, engrossed in the sound the instrument was making. He had no idea how much time passed.

"What are you doing?" Someone tapped him on the shoulder, and my brother turned around. He stood frozen. He saw the headmaster and his homeroom teacher standing there.

"You dirty Korean! Who gave you permission to pick up this instrument any way you pleased?" The headmaster snatched the trumpet away from my brother's hand.

During the next class, the homeroom teacher called the Korean student who had touched the trumpet without permission to come to the blackboard and meted out the punishment of holding two water-filled buckets with outstretched arms. As time passed, my brother's arms seemed to break with the sense of humiliation, not just the weight of the water.

This incident, however, did not dampen my brother's trumpet fever. Rather, his desire to learn how to play the instrument burned more vigorously, fueled by the resentment he felt about mistreatment against Koreans.

Soon after, my brother graduated from primary school and entered Rakunan Junior High School.

As I have mentioned earlier, this junior high prided itself on having a famous concert band. When the students in the band donned white Navy-like band uniforms and marched out, the envious eyes of the student body followed every move they made. So much so that it was no easy matter to join the band.

On the first day of school, the school authorities allowed musically talented students to try out to find new talent among the incoming students. The parents made such a fuss around their children that it was hard to tell which one was going through the tryouts. Anyway, it was a great honor to make the band.

"Sir, my child has received private lessons since he was eight years old."

"I'm the Chief of so-and-so Police, sir. And this is my son."

"Sir, this is my business card. If there's anything my architecture firm can do for you, please feel free to come and see me."

A boy, standing all alone in the corner, was silently watching the parents' power play. This boy was my second brother.

When the atmosphere of flattery and fuss calmed down a bit, he approached the teacher. "Please let me play in the band, sir."

The teacher, who was worn out by the parents' clamor, simply stared at the brazen boy, who had come to him without a sponsor.

He finally asked, "You don't have parents?"

"I do, but they couldn't come because they are at work."

"Hmmm."

The student did not grow diffident at all. "Teacher. What's the need of parents in a tryout? I would like to make it with my own ability."

The teacher studied him before he asked, "What instrument can you play?"

"The trumpet... Let me play it, please."

Even a cursory look told the teacher that the boy was poverty-stricken. Thinking, "Well, what can you do, anyway?" he offered the trumpet.

When the teacher heard my brother's music, his eyes grew as wide as saucers. He asked him to play one more time and granted him admission to the band. My brother was the only student who made it without his parents' business cards, with no one's sponsorship, and with no one's introduction.

I'm sure that my brother couldn't play the trumpet all that well. The music teacher, known as a music enthusiast, might have recognized the potential in my brother.

The next day, when my brother rushed to the band office as soon as his classes were over, what was given to him was a cornet, not a trumpet. The cornet is shorter than the trumpet. Since it was hard to play and in charge of a secondary theme, no one was eager to take it on.

Holding the cornet, my brother pleaded with the teacher. "Sir, I would like to play the trumpet."

The teacher lost his temper. "How dare you question me? All trumpet positions are filled already."

The trumpet is the backbone in a concert band. A powerless student couldn't dream of playing it. Since then, the sound of cornet rang out from the rooftop of the school building every day after school. It was like my brother's cry, "I will show you all how good I am, even though I'm just playing the cornet."

Some ten days later, when my brother, all by himself, was practicing a minute-long continuous sound, the music teacher made an unexpected appearance. He had come up, attracted by my brother's playing.

"Were you the one who was just playing the cornet?"

"Is there anyone else in the band who plays the cornet?"

"That's amazing. Your technique is strikingly similar to Bok (Pak), a graduate who played the first trumpet... . He was a musical genius. None like him has appeared since." The teacher muttered in a lamenting tone without realizing it.

"My brother was that first trumpeter."

"Is that so? I can't believe it!"

The teacher went down to the musical storage behind the stage and brought out a glittering trumpet. He placed it in my brother's hand. "Play for me." After he listened to the music, he said, "Now I finally have a true No. 1 trumpeter."

My brother's joy about playing the trumpet was beyond words. Suddenly, he remembered how he had to hold two water buckets up in the air in primary school, along with the faces of the headmaster and his homeroom teacher. He felt as if he had gotten back at them.

Since then, the trumpet was always with my brother except when he ate and when he was in class. When we went to bed, I held my doll in my arms and my brother the trumpet in his.

Every day, the night air of the quiet Katsuragawa riverside was broken with the trumpet sound until Orion's Belt made its way lower in the sky. The passengers of the Kodama, a bullet train that passed there every night, could have heard my brother's trumpet mixed with the whistle from the train.

My parents, who were struggling just to make ends meet, didn't pay much attention to my second brother. And my first brother looked at his younger brother, who was following in his footsteps, with eyes of pity. I was the only one who hoped for my brother's success.

I was a primary school student then. Lying on the dirt floor of my room looking up at the night sky, I would pray, "Please let me have a pretty doll" whenever I spotted a shooting star. After my brother started playing the trumpet, however, I would pray, "Please make my brother a big success!"

On Sundays, I volunteered to act as my brother's music stand while he practiced in front of the waterfall. Two months later, he secured the first trumpeter's position in the band. Of course, he did justice to his role. The jealous Japanese students, notably a boy named Shinda, secretly took away a piston or springs from my brother's instrument, drilled a hole in the connecting conduit, or removed a cork, but my brother's position as the first trumpeter was secure. My brother's musical talent was beyond comparison and no one else could do it better.

In July 1961, four months after my brother took up the trumpet, a competition for individuals and groups took place for concert bands nationwide.

The families of the participating students must have made a lot of commotion in the morning, packing delicious lunches and snacks and ironing band uniforms. In my family, the morning hours passed as usual. Actually, no one knew about the contest. My second brother was so taciturn that my neighbors often wondered whether he was a mute, so he left the house without saying a word about the competition.

Toward the evening, the neighborhood children told me, "Your second brother blew a horn and got first place." "They say he's received a prize, too."

Only then did I remember that my brother had stashed his band uniform in his bag. My heart soared with joy. I ran home as fast as I could. While running, I remembered the shooting stars. One of them had heard my prayers ... .

Entering the house, huffing and puffing, I saw my brother sitting in the room.

"Brother ... the horn ... you got first place?"

In response to my breathless question, my brother, who rarely smiled, grinned, saying, "Yeah."

Overjoyed, I jumped up and down in the room. "My brother got first place!"

Smiling again, he began to take out the prizes from his bag. First came a commendation certificate, then a musical box, and then a doll. My eyes grew wide with wonder.

My brother pressed the doll to me and said, "Now you can throw away that old doll of yours."

I pinched my leg, wondering whether I was dreaming. It was no wonder because the doll I had played with was a doll in name only. My father found it in the trash when I was six; now it was so faded that it was impossible to tell her original colors and she had no eyes, nose, or mouth. That was why I had prayed to the shooting stars to let me have a new doll. I didn't throw away the old doll of mine, though. I couldn't bring myself to play with the new doll, so I put it up at the top of the wardrobe and admired it from afar, while continuing to play with the old one.

That evening, laughter was heard from my house for the first time in a long while, as we admired the commendation certificate and prizes my brother had brought home.

My father, who had always kept his head bowed and didn't speak much, held his head high as he said, "So, you're the best horn player in Japan. I'm so proud of you! I'm so happy that you defeated all the Japanese kids."

My mother concurred in a broken voice, "Why didn't you tell me in the morning that you were going out to a competition? I could have at least fried an egg ... . Did you eat lunch all by yourself again? You should eat well to have strength in your stomach to blow the horn well ..."

Only my eldest brother was quiet. He kept opening and shutting the musical box. The box held the tune, "The Maiden's Prayer," and sent a snippet of a melody that seemed to convey a girl's heartfelt wish when it was opened and then halted when it was closed, and then the sad music continued from where it had stopped.

Thinking back, his behavior must have come from his regret about his younger brother, who would end up becoming just like him.

The next morning, there was a pounding on our door. Unexpectedly, it was our district's president of the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan. A tall man with big eyes, nose, and mouth, he wildly waved the newspaper clutched in his hand as he said, "Look at this. The second child of this family has caused quite a ruckus." He guffawed. To my father and mother, whose eyes were wide open with question, he showed the picture of my second brother printed in the morning edition of Kyoto Shimbun. He then read aloud: "‘Musical Genius-Boy Trumpeter' In the national concert music contest held in Kyoto Hall July 7, Bok Seigen (Pak Song-won), 7th grader of Rakunan Junior High School, came in first without dispute... . The 13-year-old boy started learning how to play the trumpet only four months ago. The judges were astonished by his refined performance. A pride of Kyoto, his future looks promising."

Stopping here, he asked my mother for a glass of water and gulped it down. "The water's so refreshing. How's that? Is he only the pride of Kyoto? He's the pride of our Korea, isn't he? You have such gifted children. But then, because of that talent, your eldest almost became a ghost under the railway bridge. If I hadn't found him then, the boy would be dead by now. It would be wonderful if you take these gifted boys of yours to our fatherland and bring them up there! I think it would do your family good if you return to our fatherland with the boys." His booming voice shook our entire house, almost lifting up the roof. After pressing the paper into my father's hand, he returned to his office.

After he left, our room seemed to be swirling with fresh air, and Father was deep in thought the entire day, looking intently at the newspaper.

We learned about it later, but my brother had almost not made it to the contest. Several days before the competition, there was a serious discussion at school about who, of eighty students in the band, would be sent. All the students in the band were asked to play their instruments in front of the principal and music teachers. No one came close to my brother's trumpet performance. His name was mentioned among the principal and the music teachers. After the principal said, "He's a dirty Korean, isn't he?" no one dared speak his name, however. There was silence before the music teacher in charge of the band said, "But the famous wrestler Rikidozan is Korean too." Once again, my brother's name was on everybody's lips. "Bok is Korean, but he's a student of a Japanese school, not a Korean school, so the honor will belong to Rakunan, don't you think?"

That was how my brother could enter the solo competition. We heard that a big commotion had taken place during the competition. The seats in Kyoto Hall were overflowing with dozens of bands and over 300 soloists from all over Japan. The group competition came first. My brother's band shone above all other competitors and won the first prize. The solo contest followed. The sounds of soloists on the saxophone, the horn, the flute, and the clarinet flowed from the stage one by one, and finally the trumpet solos began.

My brother played the Italian folk song, "O Sole Mio." When his performance was over, the audience was silent for a moment, but it soon broke out into applause. He had been as good as the newspaper article described. After he won first place, the teachers, overjoyed, hugged one another and circled round and round, and the principal, grinning from ear to ear, forgetting that he had hesitated because of my brother's ethnicity, thumped my brother on the back.

Years later, watching a foreign singer belting out "O Sole Mio" on TV in Pyongyang during the April Spring Friendship Art Festival, my second brother said, "That Italian folk song likens a lover to the sun, but when I was playing it in the solo competition, I played it with a completely different feeling. I yearned that there would be the ‘sun' that would brightly shine on our poor family... . Maybe my trumpet sounded all the more heartfelt."

After the competition, its outcome was reported in Mainichi Shimbun as well, heightening the reputation of the Rakunan Junior High School and my brother. When Rikidozan, the pro-wrestling world champion, came to Kyoto for a match, the Rakunan Junior High's band was invited by the Kyoto City Hall to march all over downtown to play welcoming music. That day, my brother left home with more enthusiasm than ever, saying, "I'm going out to play for Rikidozan." Since he was Korean as well, when the wrestler appeared, my brother got to see him in person and played his instrument with every ounce of energy he had until his head spun. For some reason, however, he was in despair when he returned home that night.

"Brother, did you see Rikidozan?" I asked.

He answered in a dispirited tone, "I thought he was Korean, but he was just another Japanese." He didn't want to elaborate.

Probably getting a glimpse of Rikidozan surrounded by a welcoming crowd, he must have thought: he is Rikidozan the Japanese, not Korean, and it's the same with me, the one who's playing the welcoming music. From the next day on, he began to change little by little. His enthusiasm for the trumpet seemed to be flagging. His nightly practices at the riverbank took place less often and he stopped going out to the waterfall, so I no longer had a chance to act as his music stand.

That autumn, my father decided to take his family to our home country.

At the news, the first person to rush over to my family was the music teacher. He said to my parents, "Please entrust your son to me before you leave. Your son is a rare musical talent. I've recently come into an inheritance of a considerable sum. I will take responsibility for sending your son to Tokyo Musashino Music College. Wouldn't it be great to cultivate an Asian as a world-class trumpeter?"

He must have thought that my parents would be impressed by the name Tokyo Musashino Music College, but my father's unexpected reply rendered him speechless. "Even if he becomes the No. 1 trumpeter in the world, he will be known as Japanese. Will he ever be known as Korean?"

The music teacher could not come up with an answer. Still, he followed us all the way to Niigata, where our homecoming ship would be launched, unable to discard his hopes. On the day of boarding the ship, the Japanese Red Cross officials asked everyone, including children, "Do you really want to go to North Korea? If you change your mind now, you can stay in Japan." They especially asked my second brother several times. This was because of the music teacher's "behind-the-scenes operation."

My brother's answer was one and the same. "I'm going home."

He had little notion of his fatherland at the time because he had gone to Japanese schools all along, but I think that his awareness of being Korean, sprouted in his heart during his not-too-long life overseas, pushed away the music teacher's tenacious temptation.

The Niigata pier was teeming with people who had come to see the passengers off. Among the throng of people stood the music teacher. To my brother boarding the ship, he said, "I really wanted to raise you as a world-class trumpeter. I admit that I hoped to be known as a famous soloist's coach. You made me think about music and one's nation. Make sure to be successful in your home country. You have special talent." I stood there, holding my brother's hand. I was afraid that my brother would be whisked away.

At last, the ship left Niigata port. The land of Japan receded in the distance. The music teacher standing on the pier looked smaller and smaller until he became a mere speck. Eventually even the speck disappeared. Soon, the land of Japan was out of sight.

Translated by Yu Young-nan

From Literature from the "Axis of Evil": Writing from Iran, Iraq, North Korea and Other Enemy Nations. A Words Without Borders Anthology. Published 2006 by the New Press. Copyright 2006 by Words Without Borders. All rights reserved. Please visit Words Without Borders at www.wordswithoutborders.org.