When Baramgot visited London two years ago they played to a sparsely populated mediaeval church in the middle of the Barbican complex. This year, the performance was in the more comfortable environment of the Purcell Room, and the audience was much bigger. What we gained in comfort was somewhat lost in atmosphere – the echoing of the traditional instruments around the perpendicular gothic nave of St Giles Cripplegate had contributed to the aura of the performance – but the South Bank audience was nevertheless rightly enthusiastic: one of the few standing ovations I have witnessed in London.
For those who had attended the previous concert there were no surprises in terms of repertoire, but still the music can grab you on second and subsequent hearings. Indeed, the closing section of the concluding Sinawi had me in tears, even though I had already listened to it a few times on the CD I bought at the Barbican concert in 2008.
Outside after the concert an enthusiast for Korean instruments commented how difficult it is to do new work using traditional instruments, but that Baramgot had succeeded triumphantly. I couldn’t agree more, and would go further to say that Baramgot do more for traditional instruments with their music than either the gugak fusion bands such as Sorea or authentic Korean traditional music ensembles. Sometimes, listening to Korean traditional music is a chore, and of necessity contemporary commercial gugak fusion bands often deliver a commercial product with little musical substance; but the new music by Baramgot is pleasurable and rewarding to listen to, while respecting the traditions that the instruments belong to.
“The music they played this evening was more serious than at the Thames Festival,” commented another audience member. “At the festival yesterday their music was more fusion in style.” Looking at the photographs from the festival, a tabla was involved in Sunday’s set, thus reaching out to the generic world music audience. This was probably a wise move for the occasion. In London, as in many places in the West, Indian music is relatively accessible thanks to Ravi Shankar and others.
People are happy to hear Indonesian gamelan music and the more adventurous will venture to a concert of Mongolian throat-singing. But Chinese, Korean and Japanese music is still largely foreign. I have to confess that I myself struggle not only with Korean court music but also with “folk” instrumental music such as the sanjo form. And of the music performed in Baramgot’s Purcell Room concert it was the kayageum sanjo that I found to be most difficult. The modern compositions, by Won Il (Baramgot’s leader and percussionist), Park Suna (on gayageum) and (in the case of the sinawi) by the whole ensemble, I found much more accessible and enjoyable. The raw emotion of Won Il’s vocals, the subtly evolving percussion rhythms and the interplay of plucked and bowed strings together with the haunting tone of the bamboo flutes present a constantly changing soundscape which cannot be found with any other ensemble I have come across.
Just about everything I have to say about Baramgot I’ve already said two years ago. Theirs is a unique sound, and going to hear them is a unique experience. Next time you get the chance, grab the opportunity.
Baramgot performed at the Purcell Room on Monday 13 September 2010 and at the Thames Festival on 11 and 12 September. Their participation was organised by the Korean Cultural Centre.