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Live music review: SaaWee at the Albany, Deptford

SaaWee lead image

When anticipating Korea related events involving live performance, I generally try not to raise my expectations too high. That way, I don’t get disappointed. But sometimes I break that rule, usually based on past experience of one or more of the performers. Hence, when pulling together the events post for July I highlighted three events that were likely to be special. Unfortunately I couldn’t get to one of them (Hyelim Kim’s collaboration with Merit Ariane) but another (Jinyeob Cha in Bongsu Park’s Dream Ritual) triumphantly lived up to my high expectations.

The third event on the list was SaaWee – the collaboration between Jihye Kim (percussion) and Sita Chay (violin). I’d never heard Sita Chay play before: I managed to be out of town for K-music 2018, when she guested with Urban Sound, and similarly missed the showcase at October Gallery last July. But having experienced some of Jihye Kim’s collaborations recently (with jazz trumpeter Byron Wallen and with Zadie Xa as part of Art Night 2019) I suspected that this gig might be well worth exploring.

And so it was.

SaaWee (photo 앤서방)
Photo: 앤서방

It was one of those unrepeatable experiences that you can only get when top musicians are improvising in collaboration with each other – the sort of experience you get at Club Inegales, or that we were treated to at Redon last month. As it happens, in the audience at Redon for the collaboration with Byron Wallen was vocalist Elisa Angelou, in her first encounter with Jihye Kim’s playing. They clearly hit it off, because Angelou guested in SaaWee on Friday night, her melancholy soprano voice soaring gently above the violin melodies.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

On paper, a duo of violin and percussion doesn’t sound too promising. But when the violinist has the versatility of Sita Chay and the percussionist has a concise, well-selected armoury of different instruments, both tuned and untuned, the audience’s attention is not going to waver for a second. Chay herself played an instrument modified by the addition of an extra string, giving her an extra half octave in the bass, thus increasing the range available to a conventional violin.

The evening started with the duo outside the room, processing in slowly as Kim gently struck a Buddhist prayer bowl and Chay experimented with quarter-tones, deliberately out of tune double-stopped unisons that created aural beats, and delicate, shimmering harmonics. In subsequent numbers the violin explored folk and gypsy-style music along with more experimental improvisation with double- and even triple-stopping, while Kim’s percussion ranged from simple, meditative chimes to propulsive and complex shaman rhythms.

In a peaceful interlude, Chay sat to play a small rattle whose sound was like seashells being rolled on the shingle by a gentle tide, before attaching bells to her foot to provide additional percussion to accompany the next lively number. The set ended with another procession around the room, this time Kim softly thudding the janggu with a padded stick, as the duo were joined by the vocalist Elisa Angelou who floated serenely through the texture.

It was, as the Instagrammer ajiktto comments, a magical evening, in which the audience were taken on a serene trip through emotional highs and lows, astounded that two players could produce such a rich and varied musical experience. This is a duo I would unhesitatingly prioritise to listen to again, and I would urge you to go see them if you get the chance.

SaaWee was at the Albany, Deptford on 26 July 2019. Photos by 앤서방 and LKL. The event notice, with detail of the programmatic structure, can be found here.

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