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Korean music in June – a preview

This article was written for London Jazz News, where it appeared in a slightly different version on 20 May.

K-music brochure cover

Think Korean music in 2013 is all about tubby rappers and manufactured girl bands? Think again. Coming up in June is K-Music – a festival of Korean traditional, fusion and rock music which may appeal to people with more discerning and adventurous musical tastes.

The headline gig, if one dares call a Barbican appearance by such eminent performers a gig, is the National Orchestra of Korea on 14 June, with their conductor Won Il. (In this preview, names a presented Korean-style, family name first). Won is noted as a composer as well as performer, and his small chamber band Baramgot has performed to standing ovations at the South Bank for the past couple of years. He took on the challenge of the National Orchestra – which was founded in 1995 – last year. The instruments are massed zithers and haegum fiddles which perform much the same task as the string section in a western orchestra, along with Korean equivalents of the flute, oboe and shawm which produce a pungent sound. A few cellos and basses fill out the texture at the bottom, and an extensive percussion section completes the instrumental line-up. Expect a soundworld you haven’t encountered before: contemporary music written for these traditional instruments, and respecting the heritage to which those instruments belong.

Continuing in the fusion vein, the performance by Geomungo Factory at the Cadogan Hall on 19 June will be worth a look. The geomungo is a six-stringed zither usually plucked with a plectrum, but sometimes played with a bow for a more sustained sound. This particular ensemble has had rave reviews from Songlines magazine.

If you’re looking for something more traditional, check out the pansori concert at the Cadogan Hall on 21 June. Think Homer’s Odyssey or similar ancient narrative performed by a master story-teller / singer / actor / comedian – the pansori performer combines a bit of each discipline, and more – accompanied only by a drum. Sounds dull? Not a bit of it. There’s always humour in the performance, sometimes bawdiness, always tales of epic feats or magical journeys to the mysterious kingdom at the bottom of the sea. (And there should be surtitles so you get the git of what’s going on). There’s constant interaction between drummer and singer as the former shouts and grunts noises of encouragement, and with an experienced audience there will also be constant shouts of encouragement from the punters as well. In a pansori performance at the Cadogan Hall earlier this year, I turned round to look at the faces of the audience members to see how they were reacting. Where in a classical concert you would see expressions of vacant interest and maybe a few heads bowed in slumber, with this audience I saw smiles and expressions of sheer delight, engagement and enjoyment. (Note: in the trailer video you see the pansori singer playing the gayageum zither at the same time – a fairly common performance practice but one which to a certain extent gets in the way of the audience interaction which is a major part of the occasion.)

For a different perspective on Korean popular music, try out the gig at Scala on 15 June – Jang Kiha and Faces is an indie band that has been around for about five years, specialising in a slightly retro sound with maybe a touch of ska which brings a smile to the face. They are joined on stage by melodious singer-songwriter Yi Sung Yol, who has been a personal favourite of mine for a while. More experimental underground music is available on Sunday 16 June from Uhuhboo Project, who provided the soundtrack for a recent short film by Park Chan-wook.

If you can’t wait till the Barbican concert which launches the K-music festival, there’s a small fusion band performing in the intimate space of the Royal Asiatic Society on 6 June. Kim Hyelim, a composer and performer on the daegeum (a Korean bamboo flute) is performing a gig with the Yin Yang Collective in a programme ranging from traditional Korean, Japanese and Chinese folk through to more contemporary music some of it fused with Argentinian Tango and Irish reels. With the daegeum joined on stage by Japanese Shamisen, the moon lute, keyboard and percussion, this promises to be an interesting evening. And as if this weren’t enough Korean music for one month, down at the Landmark Arts Centre in Teddington on 15 June you can catch Jung Ji-eun playing a piece for gayageum and orchestra alongside some more familiar Tchaikovsky works.

If I had to choose just one concert from all of the above, it would be the big Barbican gig – it costs a lot of money to send a 60-piece orchestra over from Seoul. The event is partly in celebration of 130 years of diplomatic relations between Korea and the UK, so you’ll have to wait for another significant anniversary before you see them here again.


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