Kim Doo Soo’s stage set-up is simple but carefully planned. The stage hand has marked out the precise place where the music stand is to be positioned, and the chair – which offers the minimum of comforts. A table to the musician’s right has some water and a surface to keep the various harmonicas; also within easy reach is a stand against which he can rest his second guitar. From the end of the music stand dangle three bells on a string.
Kim Doo Soo shuffles on stage, sits on his chair, rests the calf of his right leg on his left knee, so that his right foot is in contact with the bells: a gentle jangling can now be produced at will. The musician clamps a harmonica into his brace and strums his guitar. At first he seems to be feeling his way hesitantly. But then the chords become more confident. And then he starts singing.
That voice is probably what caught the attention of the compilers of the International Sad Hits album in 2006. Initially it seems like a tentative, quavering vibrato. But that’s just his style: gentle, uncertain, searching. The tone is dark and comforting. He seems to be singing to himself rather to an audience; and it is as if we are privileged to listen to some of his private thoughts as they express themselves for the first time in music. Some of his songs are ambiguous in their tonality, shifting between major and minor. In fact one song’s final chord has both a major and minor third arguing against each other as the strings’ vibration fades in to silence.
Despite the limited forces on stage, the music envelops you. The simple melody on Kim SoonOak’s accordion enters your soul. The effect is cumulative. If, at the beginning of the set you are politely interested, by the end you feel as if you have had a massage that relaxes you and somehow purifies you. You are at peace, and you emerge into the night air strangely rested.
Probably the above comments undersell the complexity of his work. He sings entirely in Korean (except for the last song in the set which in deference to the London audience was in English); and according to the information provided by Cafe OTO his songs tell “tales of political oppression, alcoholism, suicide, and a ten-year period of mountain seclusion”. Translated lyrics from his 2002 album 자유혼 Free Spirit (scanned into jpeg files here: Page 1 | Page 2) were handed out at the door to give an idea of his subject matter. “That / Edge of emptiness, I’m going there” starts one of his classic songs, Bohemian. Maybe, as a non-Korean speaker, I was unable at the time to appreciate the darkness and depth of the lyrics. And maybe to describe the evening as an hour of mellow, melancholy magic trivialises what Kim Doo Soo is trying to say. But, hell, if I have a better musical experience this year I shall be extremely fortunate.
Kim Doo Soo was at Cafe OTO on 14 October 2019. The opening act of the evening featured recordings of the recent Hong Kong street protests, embellished with improvised piano playing from Xu Shaoyang and visuals prepared by artist Livia Garcia.