BUSAN, South Korea — One Wednesday in March 2009, I walked into Ol’55 Tavern for Mike Edmunds’ open mic music night. He told me there was a new couple in town named Anthony and Violet who were going to play. Great! I thought, new blood. When it was their turn to play, I sat down in the corner of the bar and watched them set up.
Before they played a single note, it was obvious that these two were different. They were gracious and confident and they handled their instruments like pros – they were at home on the stage. And then they played, and my jaw fell to the floor. Within 90 seconds of hearing them play, two distinct thoughts entered my brain. First, this changes everything. Second, I will play with these two.
Both came true. They changed the music scene in Busan, and not only do I play with them often, but they have become two of my best friends. So why am I the one writing this article? I don’t know. Bobby asked me to and I said yes. You see, Poko Lambro, Anthony Garcia and Violet Lea, are leaving next Monday to go back to Texas. And I’m very pissed off about it. But the least I can do for them, for all they’ve given me, is send them off with a document of how they came, how they affected our close-knit community of expats, and what lies ahead.
Anthony and Violet met at Acuff Studios near Lubbock, Texas in 2007. Violet was recording her own songs and Anthony arrived to pick up his finished album. It was the seed of a relationship that developed over subsequent chance encounters in the Lubbock music scene.
“I was really interested in him as a songwriter,” Violet says. “I was new to it and I wanted to know what that process was like for him.”
One day, the two were sitting at a cafe and Anthony said he had to leave for a gig. “I just said ‘You wanna play with me tonight?’”
That gig marked the beginning of their performing relationship which eventually evolved into a personal one. Early on, they were billed simply as “Anthony Garcia.” At the time, Anthony was already an established performer.
“He would get up and play for an hour. Then he would invite me up for like three songs. That was how it started, but it grew from there. We didn’t really become Poko Lambro until we came to Korea,” recalls Violet.
They came to Korea needing a change. “We were going through a miserable time,” Violet says. “He was depressed and moody and we were having big problems. We were waiting in line to get into the Grand Canyon and he turned to me and said ‘I’m sorry, for my sanity, we have to go abroad.’”
Violet agreed to go “because I loved him. I was going to do what he wanted.” The decision was made right then, but it brought one major concern: they worried they would not have the chance to perform in public. Their worries disappeared when they met O’Brien’s owner Andrew Tennent.
“We weren’t here five days when we got our first gig,” Anthony explains. “We walked into O’Brien’s all professional, with our CD and were like ‘Hello sir, we’d really like to play at your bar.’ He just said ‘Wanna play tonight?’ And we came back and played from like 9 until 4.”
Recognizing the talent in front of him, Tennent immediately called all the foreigner bar owners in town. “Andrew really helped us out,” Anthony says. “He called Dongha (Kim) for us, and Basement Matt (Liam Cullivan). Pretty much anybody that had a bar, he called them that night and said ‘You gotta get these guys.’”
Now, Poko Lambro is regarded as the hardest working foreigner band in Busan. They recorded a double album (East West) in 2010 with the help of Busan talent. And they play as often as they can as a duet or a five-piece (including yours truly on drums, Gino Brann on bass, and Patrick Carle on violin). They play bars, weddings, private parties, and festivals. They play in Busan, Changwon, Daegu and Daejeon.
“The thing I really loved, from the moment we came and played the first note, was the crowd and the other musicians,” Anthony explains. “There was just no ego. And that’s the thing I really love about being here. There’s a lot of creativity and a lot of willingness to get together and do things.”
When asked about their fondest memories performing, both mention the collaborative events as highlights. Anthony spearheaded a benefit show for Haiti earthquake relief in 2010 that brought together many of the big names in the Busan music scene. That event sparked a trend of subsequent benefit shows and themed events that pulled the foreigner community together in a way that hadn’t been done before.
Members of One Drop East, Hajimama, Klickitat, The Headaches and Defector Frequency have all shared the stage with one or both of Poko Lambro at some point. And they’ve organized benefits and special events with those and other bands. Prior to their arrival, bands tended to stay in their own camps. But they helped spark the strengthening of a community that is both more fluid and more cohesive than before.
And now, three years after they arrived, they’re leaving Busan a better place. They will return to Texas where they will play locally and nationally. After a year, they plan to temporarily relocate to Germany. It’s a return of sorts for both of them – Anthony lived there in the mid-1990s and Violet was born in Nuremberg. While they harbor the familiar concerns about leaving Korea – expenses, health care, losing touch with new friends – they know that now is the time.
They came to Korea at a low point, needing inspiration and a lifestyle change. Busan became their nesting place, a chance to find themselves and hone their craft. Now their cups are full and they leave very much on a high.
“Korea was our chance to take a breath, say this is who we are,” Anthony says. “Now we can go back and be ourselves.”
Violet agrees: “I think we’re both at a place now where we’re ready to be a respected band. I feel like I can go home and kick some ass.”
You can keep up with Poko Lambro through their website www.pokolambro.com
Photos by Ben Weller.