Last Sunday night we had the choice between two Korean performers, both known for their unusual dress sense and unique stage presence and more importantly both leaders in their respective fields. With one, the price tag was upwards of £60, for which you had to queue up at a large North London venue, submit to a bag search, and depending on the ticket price and the length of time you were prepared to queue, take your seat up to 100 metres away from the performer. With the other, £15 bought you a ticket to a South Kensington venue where you could stroll in and (if you were fortunate) grab a seat at a table in the front row within reach of the performers.
One singer specialised in a global genre that originates in the cities of America, a genre with many practitioners both in Korea and internationally, the other in a genre with its roots in the mountains and stories of the Korean countryside and which struggles to get audiences domestically let alone overseas but which gives voice to the full range of human feeling from han to heung.
It will come as no surprise to readers that LKL decided to skip the Wembley Arena performance by rapper G-Dragon and instead revel in the unique sounds of sori singer Lee Heemoon supported by the jazz quartet Prelude. Advance publicity for the event focused on its theatricality, its humour, and its “look at male/female roles today”. Lee is certainly known for his fulsome performance style, and the look certainly added to the enjoyment of the evening, but for me it was the music that made the evening.
What was the look? The jazz quartet wore slick white double-breasted suits while Lee’s backing vocalists Nom Nom (roughly, the Two Dudes) were dressed in the traditional garb of a Confucian scholar. As for Lee himself: platform shoes, black lace body stocking that made him look as if he had spent a fortune with a tattoo artist, shiny gold necktie with tightly fitting dark suit, sarong-like flaps of black fabric hanging from his waist to accentuate his extravagant hip movements. The look is completed with stylish shades and an outrageous wig, and, for the first part of the set, a colourful red robe.
As with a 1970s glam-rock band, you enjoyed what you saw, but even more important was the sound. And what a sound. To state the blindingly obvious, if you don’t like jazz and don’t like Gyeonggi-do minyo there’s a reasonable chance that the evening would have left you cold, but even that conclusion is not a certainty. If you like, or are open-minded to, both then you will have been blown away.
The first three numbers were slow, slightly depressing, with the emphasis on han. The performers acknowledged this. Richard Rho, the saxophonist, acted as MC for the evening, almost apologised for opening with the down-tempo tunes. He needn’t have, because it eased us into the soundworld gently. We then had a pure jazz interlude, giving Lee the chance to take off his red robe, revealing his gleaming gold necktie and lithe body. After the break, Rho announced a more macho, upbeat song – though the machismo was immediately questioned by Lee swinging his slender hips in a very feminine way.
In one of the numbers he was joined centre stage by the two dudes, adding to the visual entertainment, and to enable another break one of the dudes Shin Seung-tae, did a comedy routine. Much of it was lost on the audience (even Rho claimed he didn’t know what was going on) but somehow it worked, as the dude, in the character of a haraboji snake-oil salesman jabbered away, in the process charming the nice lady who runs Seoul Bakery who happened to be sitting in the front row.
It was all very entertaining and the language barrier didn’t really matter. What really mattered was that we all knew we were in the presence of something special. If you want an idea of what their music sounds like you’ll just have to buy their album. Their encore, a swing version of Kangwondo Arirang, was about as far as Nah Youn-sun’s tear-jerkingly emotional version as you could possibly get. We were left wanting more, much much more. This was the sort of music-making and entertainment you just can’t get enough of. After the final set of Black String & Kathryn Tickell’s gig the previous week I thought that the bar had been set pretty high. But the whole of Lee Heemoon and Prelude’s gig matched or even exceeded the level of awe I felt at the quality of music making at the Union Chapel. If you get a chance to see these guys live, drop everything and buy tickets.
Lee Heemoon + Prelude performed at the Royal Albert Hall’s Elgar Room on Sunday 24 September 2017 as part of the K-Music Festival. Prelude consists of Choi Jinbae (bass) Ko Heean (piano) Richard Rho (tenor sax) and Han Woong-won (drums). The Two Dudes (놈놈) are Shin Seung-tae and Jo Wonseok. All the songs performed during the evening can be found on their album Korean Man (한國男자), available from Mirrorball Music and elsewhere.
- Ssing Ssing (featuring Lee Heemoon and Shin Seungtae, plus Choo Da-hye, Jang Young-gyu, Lee Tae-won, and Lee Chul-hee) give a Tiny Desk concert on NPR.