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Shinjoo Cho: Selling Philly To The World.

May 28, 2014

ShinjooCho01smallShinjoo Cho is the director for international business investment, working out of the city’s Commerce Department. She’s also a classically trained musician who performs on the bandoneon with her group, Oscuro Quintet. The globetrotting musician spoke with our G.W. Miller III about how her two worlds overlap.

What is a bandoneon?

That name actually derives from the inventor of the instrument. I believe his last name was Band. He was German.

How is it different from an accordion?

They’re cousins, for sure. They’re both free reed instruments. But they’re completely different in keyboard layout.

It’s almost like a concertina?

Yes, it’s more similar to a concertina. Slightly different materials. The keyboard layout is what makes the bandoneon very challenging and illusive to a lot of people because there’s no logical relation in the keyboard layout. There’s no pattern. For people who were raised on a mechanical keyboard, like me, it’s fairly insane.There are four sets of keyboards. The right hand is completely different from the left hand. It’s a similar sound to an accordion but the bandoneon has a mental tinge that sets it apart.

How did you wind up playing this?

When you play tango and you want to play a singing instrument – and you want to play something that is very symbolic of tango, this is the sound. I studied piano classically and went to conservatory. Sometime in my sophomore or junior year, I realized that I want to be happier with music making and be able to play something other than classical music all my life. At the conservatory, I came to the realization that there are so many people who are superb. I’d rather be doing something for myself rather than compete with world-class people.

I first encountered it through flamanco music. One of my part time jobs was to be a live accompanist for a flamenco class at the ballet school in Princeton. A few years later, when I was actually in Korea discovering Korean traditional music, I went to a concert that featured Astor Piazzolla’s music. I was kind of struck by lightning or something. I had to find out what that was all about. I came back to the Philly area but I couldn’t find people to play with. So I started taking dance lessons, thinking it would help me understand the music better.

Sometime around then, I traveled to Serbia as well because I was also fascinated with Balkan music. I had picked up the accordion in the middle of the forest in Serbia because there was no instrument for me as a keyboardist. Since that was at my disposal, I started playing the tango with an accordion.

Eventually, I realized I should go to the original, essential instrument of tango. So I traveled to Argentina to study Spanish, buy the instrument and get to know the tango music from the source.

When did Oscuro Quintet form? And was that the first time you performed with the instrument?

About eight years ago. For the first couple of years, I was still playing the accordion. As you can imagine, it’s very nerve-racking to perform with an instrument you are not very proficient in. It was a slow progression. Now I perform solely on the bandoneon.

How did you wind up working at the Commerce Department?

I was looking for a job after school. I had a brief stint with American Express, working at their magazine. After that, I traveled for music for a couple of years. Then, it was time to settle down and figure out what to do next. The International Trade Office was looking for somebody bilingual in Korean and English. Inchon, Korea and Philadelphia are sister cities. There is an active relationship between that office and the Commerce Department. I worked in that job for a few years and then the city was looking for someone to work with their immigrant businesses in the city. I applied and got the job. That was nine years ago.

Was that job about inviting immigrants to start businesses here or was it about assisting existing immigrants already in business?

The idea was to better service existing businesses and make the city more inviting for others to come.

Your current job works with international businesses already here and you try to draw international businesses to come here, right?

Yes. This position, I stepped into last April. We have long been talking about how we can better retain and attract international businesses. A lot of it is making the contact and in-roads for them.

Do you use the music scene and the vibrancy of the city as a selling point?

I talk about arts and culture a lot, and especially the growing population that is attributable to the exodus from New York. I have friends who are dancers, musicians, painters, filmmakers and artists of all sorts who have come from New York and beyond. A big attraction point for them was that we’re still a very welcoming scene, where not everything has been done and seen. You can make a living and be a homeowner and an artist, and not spend all your time struggling to survive. There’s a welcome community and clusters of people willing to work with you. It’s inviting that they can make it here. That’s part of what makes our vibrant economy that is going on.

You’re fairly uniquely qualified for this job?

I guess so.

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