Ancient and Avant-Garde Korean Sounds From Janya
This page might not be the first place you’d expect to discover an ensemble that made their stage debut at the Kennedy Center, but the pleasure is yours, if you’re in an adventurous mood – or if you speak Korean. Avant-garde Korean quartet Janya (meaning “to be born”) premiered there last spring: they sound like Bjork playing ancient Korean court music. Frontwoman Lola Jung Danza is an idiosyncratic, original singer, sometimes coy, sometimes completely in your face. She whispers, growls, and gets misty and ethereal with a bluesy nuance: she may come from a jazz background. Other than one absolutely triumphant, soaring solo by daegeum (wood flute) player Seungmin Cha, the melodies on this group’s debut album don’t move far from a central tone: as in south Indian music, the dynamics and rhythm are front and center rather than melodies themselves, making much of this very hypnotic despite the insistent rhythmic intensity of Woojung Sim’s janggo (Korean drum) and Eunsun Jung’s gayageum (zither). The tonalities are rustic; the often jagged, abrupt shifts in rhythm, cadence or theme are contemporary.
Most of Danza’s lyrics are in Korean, although she also sings in English on a couple of tracks, the first a matter-of-factly crescendoing anthem on a theme of newfound existential awareness, its narrator eventually deciding to embrace her fate of deciding how she wants to fill in the space between the “tick” and “tock” of the clock. Whithered sets agitated, Siouxsie-esque vocals in conversation with the drums and zither, building to a gently rolling gallop, while Generations features jazzy scatting and sitar-like bent notes from the zither. A tense, unresolved atmosphere lingers from song to song, notably on the slowly swaying Epic, where the vocals playfully shift lower as Danza runs them through a pitch pedal. Their signature song juxtaposes scrapy, cello-like zither against an ominous drum drone which eventually brightens, quite unexpectedly, while Mother ponders the life of immigrants in the role of the “other” in a new society, eventually building to a triumphant resolution. At the opposite end of the spectrum is the apprehensive No Escape, where Danza’s mantra is “love hate love hate,” the instruments building on a jazz-tinged three-chord riff which is the closest thing to western music here. Strange, intriguing, compelling stuff: they’re playing Drom at 8:30 PM tomorrow, Jan 6.