Anna Lindgren meets with one of the fathers of modern Korean folk music, with special assistance from Jeon Sung-min.
A few years ago I came across a stunningly beautiful folk piece. It was called 내마음의 보석상자 and it had been recorded by 해바라기, Sunflower, in 1986. After getting my hands on a couple of Sunflower compilations, I could conclude that Sunflower offered some of the highest quality music I had ever heard coming out of Korea. By a lucky chance it turned out that a friend of Philip, Jeon Sung Min, is the nephew of Sunflower founder and leader Lee Joo Ho. He kindly agreed to interview his uncle for me when they would meet next time. The text below could not have been written had it not been for his great help and assistance.
The Sunflower Catholic hall in Myeongdong, Seoul, had been a place for young musicians to come together to share their works and perform in the early 70s. Four of these musicians (Lee Joo Ho, Lee Jung Sun, Han Young Ae and Kim Young Mi – above) formed a quartet named after their Catholic hall and went on to release an official album in 1977 (below). The following year a second album was released, but as Lee Joo Ho had gone into military service Lee Kwang Cho took his place. However, it didn’t last for long and the quartet had broken up before Lee Joo Ho had a chance to come back.
Lee Joo Ho released a solo album, but he wanted to have two acoustic guitars and harmony vocals so he set out to find a duet member. In 1982, You Ik Jong had joined him for the duo Sunflower and its first album was released. Sunflower in its duo form exists still today, but Lee Joo Ho’s duet partner has changed over the years. Often they would leave while he was concentrating on making new songs, but sometimes they came back. Another partner, Lee Kwang Joon, joined him for three albums, but the current partner, Kang Sung Woon, has been with him for the longest, 10 years.
Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young, Bob Dylan and James Taylor along with Korean folk pioneers Kim Min Gi and Han Dae Soo inspired Lee Joo Ho, but growing up with a school music teacher for a mother he found most of his musical inspiration at home. The times being as they were in Korea, Kim Min Gi and Han Dae Soo both faced heavy censorship and Lee Joo Ho had to resort to metaphors to express his feelings and ideas: “For example, my song ‘Please say it right now’ (어서 말을 해) sounds like an ordinary love song as it says ‘You’re fool if you can’t say you love the person.’ However, it’s actually about the suppression of the press by the Korean government.”
The feelings and ideas that make Lee Joo Ho write songs are such that he’d like to share with his family, friends and nation. The lyrics are usually influenced by daily lives, and love is a main theme. “However, the love I’d like to sing is not just the one between man and woman. It’s much more than that,” he explains before continuing: “The love I’d like to sing is the very pure love which all we have for others, especially for those who are in need. I’d like to make my country, my family and my friends love each other through my songs. It’ll never be enough to love each other.”
A song that summarizes that which Lee Joo Ho wants to say about love is ‘With love’ (사랑으로), released in 1989: ‘We put our hands to the dark side of the world and brighten them with our love which will never change’. It is the most famous and popular song of Sunflower – covered even by tenor José Carreras on his 2001 ‘Around The World’ album – and also Lee Joo Ho’s answer to my question of which the best Sunflower song is. While Sunflower songs are often covered, Lee Joo Ho has also written quite a few songs for others that not necessarily resemble typical Sunflower music. The most famous and popular song in this category is the latin dance tune ‘The face I’m missing’ (보고싶은 얼굴), performed by Min Hye Kyung.
Sunflower celebrated 30 years last year and for the past couple of years Lee Joo Ho has been working on a 30th anniversary album. His best five songs and fourteen new, dealing with “old friends, memories of life and of course the love I’m still seeking for,” are recorded for it. A 30th anniversary tour with a string quartet and a band too is planned. As for other performances, Lee Joo Ho used to perform all the time but nowadays he’s down to about 15 performances per month as he needs more time to himself. He’s always willing to perform outside of Korea and has already performed in the US, Canada and Europe – including the UK. Perhaps he’ll visit Europe again someday soon and play for his fellow Koreans.
As somebody that has been an active musician for more than thirty years, Lee Joo Ho offers a perspective on the differences in music now and then: “Maybe it’s not just the story of Korean music. Music itself has changed a lot. The music of my early days was made in somewhat poor and insufficient life. So the music used to have some space for us to rest in there. But it’s quite quick and easy to make music nowadays. In addition, thanks to the great technology, recent music sounds so full. But there’s not much space for us to rest in there. I’d say this is the biggest difference between music of early days and nowadays.”
To conclude the interview, Jeon Sung Min asked his uncle how he would like to be remembered in history and this is his answer: “Most of all, I’d like to be remembered as a musician who loved music so much and all of my lives are explained through my music itself. And a musician who found real rest and happiness in music. Finally, a musician who made music for his country and a people, and always wanted to make them love each other.”
Thanks again to Jeon Sung-min for intermediating and facilitating this feature – Ed
- Two Sunflower CDs are now available at YesAsia, released 8 July 2008