Lucid Culture


Eunhye Jeong and Her Quartet Make Haunting Improvisational Music Out of Otherworldly Korean Pansori Themes

Pianist Eunhye Jeong‘s CHI-DA quartet’s live album The Colliding Beings – streaming at Bandcamp – is like nothing else you’ll hear this year. With an otherworldly intensity true to the spirit of the epic Korean pansori tradition, the group reinvent those stark, dramatic themes as jazz improvisation. What’s most striking is that Jeong brings in the great pansori singer Il-dong Bae, whose stern, melismatic vocals shed eerie microtones and soar over the instrumentalists in more muted moments, and interact with them when the music grows more stormy. The greatest pansori singers are known for their individualistic interpretations, so there’s always been an element of improvisation in the tradition, and Jeong seizes that mightily here, with a relentless unease and a fondness for lower registers. This is dark music.

The concert is a series of longscale works that conclude with a relatively brief, six-minute number. The group – which also includes cellist Ji Park and colorful drummer Soo Jin Suh – open with the almost eighteen-minute Jeogori, based on a historical song popular among diasporic Korean schoolchildren in Japan. There’s a lot of stark conversationality throughout this performance, beginning with murky resonance and quickly giving way to a little leaping around. The drums introduce a suspensefully muted backbeat as the cello scrapes the lows and Jeong colors the music with enigmatic close harmonies and sudden bursts. Bae’s gruffly impassioned intensity eventually recedes for a persistently flurrying, funereal Atrocity Exhibition beat contrasting with all the agitation overhead; then the vocals take over the rhythm. Mysterious lulls and gritty declamations serve as a contrasting backdrops for spare, rather bleak accents from the band.

The ghostly, anguished Return to Life begins with snowbanks of white noise from Suh’s drumheads punctuated by icy piano droplets, shards and wisps of sound from the cello as Jeong goes to stygian lows. A flickering franticness that recalls the macabre compositions of Michael Hersch develops, rises and falls, Jeong using every texture available, both inside and outside the piano, from a menacing drone to furtive scrambles and fragmented, circularly percussive phrases, Bae lingering like a spectre outside the window.

The centerpiece of the concert is The Hope Landed. In about twenty-six minutes, Bae is an often anguished, desolate voice in the wilderness, Jeong a persistently restless presence, Park and Suh the shadows lingering behind. There’s infinitely more going on: dynamically shifting variations on an insistently troubled, stairstepping Messiaenic passage; a long, aching vocal interlude with atmospheric, lurking cello and leapfrogging piano; chilly, ambient dips to stillness; surreal handoffs and echo effects; heavy, severe block chords from Jeong; and a hint of a ballad at the end.

The Sacrifice is dedicated to the victims of the 2014 Sewol Ferry disaster. Calm/acerbic contrasts between cello and piano build tension, then back away elegantly for Bae’s mournful intonations: this music transcends any linguistic limitation. The grim crescendo midway through, seemingly where the overcrowded boat capsizes and everything goes flying, is arguably the most intense point of the show. They bring it full circle, elegaically.

They close the concert with Curtain Call, a return to contrasts between shamanistic beats and poltergeist piano blurts, and shivers from the rest of the ensemble. Even if free jazz is a little outside for you, the roles are so clearly defined and the playing so focused here that fans of dark sounds in general should check this out.

March 29, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

In Her First New York Solo Show, Seungmin Cha Invents a Riveting, Brand New Kind of Music

It’s impossible to think of anyone other than Seungmin Cha who could make a tiny dinner bell sound more menacing than she did at her first-ever New York solo concert last weekend. Or for that matter, who could get as much sound as she did out of a single Korean daegeum flute, sometimes serene and verdant, other times acidic or even macabre.

“Can I check out your rig?” an interested concertgoer asked her before the show.

“Sure,” she replied. On the floor in front of her were a couple of large pedalboards’ worth of stompboxes, hardly limited to reverb, delay, disortion, chorus, flange and an envelope filter. Hardly what you would expect a virtuoso of a centuries-old folk instrument to be playing her axe through.

“This is a guitar rig,” the spectator observed. “Is that a volume pedal?” 

“It’s a total guitar rig,” Cha smiled. “That’s a distortion pedal. For my vocals.”

But this wasn’t a rock show. Instead, Cha invented a brand new kind of music right there on the spot. This particular blend of ancient Korean folk themes, western classical, jazz improvisation and the furthest reaches of the avant garde might have only existed for this one night.

She began by slowly making her way in a circle around the audience. It took her a good fifteen minutes, playing subtle, meticulously nuanced variations on a gentle Korean pastoral theme. On one hand, this might have been a welcoming gesture, a comfortably lulling interlude. More likely, Cha was getting a sense of the room’s acoustics for when she really cut loose.

Which she did, eventually. At one point, she was getting two separate overtones out of the flute, without relying on the electronics. As it turned out, she’d been talking shop with her special guest, clarinetist Ned Rothenberg, before the show and he’d shown her a couple of overtones. Which, maybe half an hour after learning them, she incorporated into the show. Can anybody say fearless?

As Cha built her first improvisational mini-epic of the night, a mist of microtones wafted through the space, sometimes light and tingling, sometimes mysteriously foggy. Slow, judicious bends and dips flowed through a mix that she eventually built to a dark deep-space pulse, the flute’s woody tone cutting through like a musical Hubble telescope somewhere beyond Pluto but unwilling to relent on its search for new planets. Yet when she sang a couple of resigned “my love’s gone over the hills” type ballads, her vocals made a contrast, low and calm – until she hit her pedal to raise the surrealism factor through the roof.

As it turns out, Cha can also be very funny. She began an improvisation inspired by a snakelike Alain Kirili sculpture on the floor in front of her with a sort of one-sided Q&A…then decided to pick it up and play it as if it was a flute. Grrrr!! This thing is evil!

Rothenberg joined her for a lively duet to close the show: he tried goosing her with a few riffs early on, and she goosed back, but it became clear that she wanted to take this in a more serious direction and he went with it, adding judicious, mostly midrange, confidently bubbling motives while Cha took a slow, similarly considered upward path. It was a playful way to close what had been an intense and sometimes harrowing journey up to that point. You’ll see this on the Best Concerts of 2017 page here later this year.

Cha flew back to her home turf in Seoul the next day, but a return to New York is in the works: watch this space.

October 8, 2017 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jen Shyu Debuts Her Spellbinding, Relevant New Suite at Roulette

Ultimately, Jen Shyu‘s mission is to break down cultural barriers and unite people. In her own work, the singer/multi-instrumentalist has assimilated an astonishing number of styles, both from her heritage – Taiwan and East Timor – as well as from Korea, Indonesia, China and the United States, among other places around the world. Last night at Roulette she celebrated her birthday by unveiling a bracingly dynamic, otherworldly surrealistic, envelopingly beautiful new suite, Song of Silver Geese, a characteristically multilingual work combining the strings of the Mivos Quartet as well as vibraphonist Chris Dingman’s Jade Tongue ensemble with violist Mat Maneri, bassist Thomas Morgan, drummer Dan Weiss and flutist Anna Webber.

Shyu opened with a series of judicious plucks on her Korean gayageum lute, then switched to piano, Taiwanese moon lute and eventually a small Indonesian gong. Throughout the roughly hourlong piece, dancer Satoshi Haga struck dramatic poses when he wasn’t moving furtively or tiptoeing in the background when the music reached a lull.

The storyline, according to the program notes, involves the interaction between two characters from Timorese and Korean folklore, both known for their disguises, in addition to an iconic Taiwanese freedom fighter and a Javanese schoolgirl who was tragically orphaned at age six in a car accident.

Spare exchanges between the strings and the gayageum grew to an uneasy lustre evocative of 80s serialism, Cellist Mariel Roberts’ wounded, ambered lines eventually giving way to sinister microtones from Maneri. Shyu’s switch to the moon lute signaled a long upward climb through a dreamlike sequence punctuated by Weiss’ increasingly agitated rumble and the flutter of the strings, texturally ravishing yet troubled.

Shyu’s uncluttered vocals were just as dynamic, ranging from a whisper, to an imploring, angst-fueled Carol Lipnik-like delivery, to an insistent, earthy, shamanistic growl and pretty much everywhere in between. The big coda, seemingly meant to illustrate the fatal crash, built to a pandemonium that came as a real shock in view of the lustre and glistening atmospherics that had been lingering up to that point.

The performance ended with the ensemble members performing a candle ceremony of sorts and then walking out through the audience as Shyu sang a mantra: “I am alone, but not lonely; Life has no boundaries when every place can be home.” Something for everybody in the audience to take home.

Shyu’s next performance features another premiere,of a dance piece at 7 PM on April 21 at the Czech Center, 321 E 73rd St. Those who were lucky enough to catch this performance would probably also enjoy the concert of rare, delicately haunting folk music from Amami Island, Japan, played by Anna Sato and Shogo Yashi at Roulette on May 14 at 8. Tix are $25/$21 stud/srs.

March 29, 2016 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Norian Maro’s Deliriously Entertaining Korean Harvest Spectacle Keeps the Crowd on Their Feet

You might think that a drum-and-dance troupe performing an ancient Korean peasants’ nongak harvest festival celebration would draw a mostly Korean audience, right? Friday night at Flushing Town Hall in Queens, Korean ensemble Norian Maro (whose name translates roughly as “Premier Performance”) had an unmistakably multi-ethnic, sold-out New York crowd, ranging from in age from kids to their grandparents, on their feet, cheering and stomping along with the irresistibly kinetic performance onstage.

The show reached a peak and then stayed there for its final twenty minutes or so, the performers clad in bright costumes and wearing caps topped with streamers on a swivel. The group members charged with the task – pretty much everybody – first spun their heads in a semicircle to activate the swivel and get the streamers flying in big arcs behind them, all the while spinning around the stage, and also playing intricate polyrhythms on a diverse collection of drums at the same time. And nobody onstage could resist a grin as they worked an ecstatic call-and-response with the crowd – and made it all look easy. How they managed to do that without losing their balance, or the beat, or a lot more, was mind-boggling. As a display of sheer athletic grace combined with musical prowess, it’s hard to imagine witnessing anything more impressive in this city in the past several months.

Norian Maro premiered the piece, titled Leodo: Paradise Lost, at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last fall. It’s a metaphorical tale of the cycle of renewal, personified by a lithe dancer who gets caught in an ocean undertow and then comes face to face with the sea gods, among them a strikingly decorated dragon figure requiring two group members to keep him on his feet. After some very vigorous resuscitation, she’s transported to a magical isle where she comes to life again. One of the women in the group sang the narrative in Korean, in low, mysterious, otherworldly microtones, a revealing glimpse of the ancient, mysterious roots of dramatic Korean pansori singing.

As meticulously choreographed and spectacularly athletic as the dancing was, the stars of the show were the drummers, on a series of janggu drums ranging from a big, boomy tom, to a metal gong, to smaller metal hand drums that provided both clanging and mutedly shimmering tones. The star among all the players was a petite woman with a double-headed drum slung over her shoulder that was almost as big as she was, which she played in two separate time signatures at once, at one point firing off long volleys with a single mallet on both drum heads. Of all the players onstage, including Jong Suk Ki, Jung Hyeon Yung, Min Kyoung Ha, Sungjin Choi and Yoo Jeong Oh, she seemed to be having the most fun. Although one of the guys in the group had an equally good time with a tassel that he swung about fifty feet into the crowd, then later spun and spun until he had it flying from the roof to the floor of the stage, practically cartwheeling to keep it in motion.

The Korean Cultural Service, who staged this show, have a series of enticing concerts and spectacles coming up here. The next one is by Korean classical pianist Eunbi Kim playing works by Debussy, Fred Hersch, Daniel Bernard Roumain and others at 7 PM on Feb 26. Admission is free, but you have to RSVP, the sooner the better: and make sure to get to Flushing Town Hall’s historic Gilded Age auditorium, about five blocks from the last stop on the 7 train, at least a half hour early in order to claim your seats.

January 17, 2015 Posted by | concert, dance, drama, folk music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, theatre, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Exhilarating Celebration of Ancient Yet Sophisticated Korean Sounds at Symphony Space

Saturday night’s celebration of traditional Korean music and dance staged by Sue Yeon Park of the Korean Performing Arts Center  at Symphony Space featured sounds that were as cutting-edge as they were rustic. Korean pansori singing, and much of Korean singing in general, employs microtones and trills and downwardly bent notes that would baffle an awful lot of western musicians. In her gritty, expressive contralto, like something of a Korean mountain-music counterpart to Tina Turner, iconic pansori chanteuse Shin Young-Hee made it look easy throughout a rather macabre-tinged excerpt from the 19th century love epic Chunhyung-ga. Famous Korean percussionist Lee Kwang-Soo – a gregarious and engaging guy with an edgy sense of humor – led a drum troupe through a thunderously hypnotic, subtly polyrhythmic benediction of sorts. Virtuoso Gee-Sook Baek teamed up with drummer Soung-Jae Cho, who spurred her on through a rivetingly spacious, suspenseful performance on the gayageum, a twelve-string lute that throws off otherworldly tremoloing tones and seems like it could be a predecessor of the sitar. Meanwhile, the night’s emcee, a musicologist from Seoul, reminded the crowd that all this music dated from an era when there was no distinction between performer and audience: participation is pretty much mandatory. All this did nothing to discourage the commonly held notion that Koreans are the 24-hour party people of Asia.

There was plenty of drumming, notably a skull-pounding interlude to open the second half of the concert by the Rutgers Korean Cultural Group, to rival the kind of explosively shamanistic Brazilian sounds produced by BatalaNYC. There was also dancing, lots of it. Park herself took a solo, a graceful number that saw her practically disappear into the stage, facedown, at the end, the folds of her silken costume edging closer and closer downward. It’s one thing to do the splits, Chuck Berry style – it’s another to hold that position in place. Park was doing that twenty years ago and clearly hasn’t lost any athleticism in the ensuing two decades, no small achievement.

A bevy of women swayed and gently exchanged places throughout a stately fan dance, serenaded by the band offstage. Several of the drummers wore ribbons on a swivel affixed to the rear of their uniform helmets, which they spun by moving their heads quickly, side to side – how they managed to keep their footing, keep the ribbons swirling, and keep time, without losing their balance or running headfirst into the the back wall of the stage, was impressive, to say the least. One of them finally made a circle of the stage, spinning faster and faster, leaning in toward the center in a more explosive take on what Turkish dervishes will do at the peak of a musical number. The night’s final performances brought a full musical ensemble together with the dance/drumming contingent (there was a lot of overlap among them, the night’s organizer included); tersely intense geomungo (six-string zither) player Mi Jin Park being a standout among them.

The Korean Peforming Arts Center and their house ensemble, Sounds of Korea, stage frequent outdoor concerts during the warmer months, from Lincoln Center to Little Korea just south of 34th Street and points further south as well; bookmark theirwebpage if sounds as sophisticated yet ancient as these are your thing.

October 27, 2014 Posted by | concert, dance, folk music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Suwon Civic Chorale Make an Exciting, Cutting-Edge NYC Debut

It’s possible that the best globally-known export from the South Korean city of Suwon is its Civic Chorale, who made an exciting and eclectic debut in New York at Alice Tully Hall last night, meticulously directed by In-Gi Min. That a lush, vividly poignant arrangement of the Agnus Dei section of Samuel Barber’s iconic Adagio for Strings was not the highlight of the program testifies to the diversity of the rest of the bill and the choir’s otherworldly power. In both the 20th century and traditional Korean pieces, both Asian and Western scales were employed, typically within the same work.  Both Korean and American composers were represented, and although the Korean works surpassed the American material in terms of edgy harmony and intricate polyphony, every arrangement had something unique and often unusual to offer.

Beyond being simply entertaining, this ensemble can be very funny. The audience chuckled throughout a drolly choreographed Vivian Fung arrangement of a Malaysian monkey dance – guys against the girls – and was equally tickled by not one but three works illustrating birdsong – which the group delivered with an amazing verisimilitude in full-blown stereo. Gyun-Yong Lee’s Bird song featured two pairs of soloists trading off with both each other and the ensemble, with spine-tingling moments from both high soprano and low bass as species from a roc to a phoenix were depicted. By contrast, Eric Whitacre’s Lux Aurumque and Little Birds gave the group a chance to show off their ability to work lustrous, minutely jeweled magic.

The ensemble opened with a rousing yet nuanced arrangement of Airiramg, the only national song that’s a curse, meaning, essentially, “leave me and your feet will hurt before you’ve walked a couple of miles.” The Kyrie from Jong-Sun Park’s Airirang Mass bristled with eerie close harmonies and low/high dynamic tension. Keeyuong Kim’s Dona Nobis Pacem, an elegaic tone poem of sorts sung in the Asian pentatonic scale and dedicated to the victims of the poison gas attacks in Syria, grew in waves to rather harrowing crescendos

The group paired amped-up folk songs: the anthemic, somewhat predictably nostalgic Gagopa (Wishing to Return) and a lumber camp song which literally lumbered, a grim illustration of the arduous conditions faced by rural laborers as the singers literally panted in unison  Then Jeeyoung Kim’s Miserere brought back the austere close harmonies and angst

After the Barber, the group sang Shenandoah with a wistful, towrering sway – it was the most traditionally Western piece on the program. The program concluded with Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho, delivered with an icepick staccato almost all the way through, to the point where the high and low registers diverged for an all-too-brief, showstopping explosion of voices.

October 18, 2013 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

January 5, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, experimental music, folk music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Top Ten Songs of the Week 9/14/09

We do this every week, almost always on Tuesday – back on schedule again, yaaay! You’ll see this week’s #1 song on our 100 Best Songs of 2009 list at the end of December, along with maybe some of the rest of these too. This is strictly for fun – it’s Lucid Culture’s tribute to Kasey Kasem and a way to spread the word about some of the great music out there that’s too edgy for the corporate media and their imitators in the blogosphere. Every link here except for #1 will take you to each individual song.

1. Jang Sa-Ik – This Is Not It

The Korean superstar is on the brink of going global: be the first to know who he is. This one’s a haunting carpe diem cautionary tale from his latest cd, impossible to find via English-language search, but watch this space.

2. The Bright Room – Amerigo

Slashing, brooding, smartly lyrical indie rock – a real original sound. They’re at Spikehill on 9/19 at 9.

3. Mark Sinnis – St. James Infirmary

A vintage New Orleans take of this standard by the ominous Ninth House frontman  – especially haunting.

4. Natalie John & the Fine Columbians – Song from a Greyhound Bus

Up-and-coming jazz trumpeter/chanteuse. Prediction: she’ll be headlining Dizzy’s Club in five years.

5. Roosevelt Dime – Rants & Raves

Funny smart original oldtimey country with a banjo – a lot like White Hassle. They’re at the Rockwood at midnight on 9/18.

6. The Sunday Blues – Tinted Windows

They call themselves the alt-country Wings but they’re way better – gorgeously anthemic songs and neat keyboards although the lyrics aren’t much. They’re at Spikehill on 9/27 at 7.

7. The Wandering Bards – Spam in a Can

An oldtimey bluesy tribute to the processed meat delicacy – hard to resist. They’re at Spikehill on 9/20 at 11.

8. Abby Payne – Bad One

She’s a bad girl…or she wishes she was. Catchy jazzy piano pop. She’s at Spikehill on 9/24 at 10.

9. Parias Ensemble – Nublando

Thoughtful pensive Sunday afternoon song without words from this Colombian-tinged groove jazz outfit. They’re at Spikehill on 9/26 at 9.

10. Amanda White – Monica’s Getting Her Tits Done

Generic but funny bar band rock.

September 14, 2009 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Jang Sa-ik at New York City Center 4/18/09

[Editor’s note: special thanks to Jinho Jang, proprietor of the 32nd St. jazz hideaway J’z for his invaluable help with translations]


Jang Sa-ik is a populist phenomenon in his native South Korea. Despite being virtually ignored by corporate radio and tv, he’s become something of a Springsteen there, with six chart-topping albums and consistently sold-out concerts extending throughout the Korean diaspora around the world. As with Fela and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan before him, there’s every reason to believe that there’s a mass audience here in the US ready to anoint him as the first Korean world music star. Saturday night’s powerful, marathon performance vividly revealed some of the reasons behind his status as a cultural icon. With a fifteen-piece band and choir, the concert began as riveting, darkly rich orchestral spectacle, morphing into an upbeat stadium show and ending as carefree karaoke, the once-sedate, sold-out audience transformed and raising their voices.


The lights went down for the first part, ominous, majestic and white-knuckle intense like a Pink Floyd concert. Jang has lately been doing his live show in three stages, beginning with Death, moving to Life and then to what could be characterized as the Good Old Days. Unsurprisingly, it was death’s icy hand that exerted the most powerful grip as the 59-year-old singer, immaculate in a white traditional Korean robe, strode to the mic and in a potently projected baritone, backed only by the piano, worldlessly intoned the long introduction to the stately dirge Back to Heaven. As influenced by American soul music as by pansori (Korean operatic singing) and the rural folk music that he first heard as a child, Jang drew out the notes, often ending a phrase with an impassioned, somewhat raspy vibrato evocative of Wilson Pickett or Sam Cooke. The majestic, epic orchestration of the next several songs aptly evoked their English titles: Empty Ocean, Dusk Road and then the best song of the night, This Is Not It, equal parts haunting, memorable minor-key anthem and cautionary tale to seize the day (otherwise This Is Not It becomes This Was It).


Jang then left the stage and the lights went up for an interminable drum solo that morphed into primitive heavy  metal, the guitarist (now on Telecaster) joining in the melee. Finally, Jang returned (he’d used the interlude to change into a loosely immaculate grey suit) and they launched into an irresistibly amusing version of the rock ballad Silly Angel (from Jang’s latest cd, Volume 6/Mother, See the Flowers) done here as simple Black Sabbath-style stomp complete with leaden funk-metal interlude. “Welcome to the club!” Jang laughed after they finally wrapped it up.


From there, the band made their way through a mix of Jang’s hits and Korean pop standards, mostly from the 60s and 70s. His Roy Orbison-inflected, somewhat noir pop hit Wild Rose took on an ELO-style grandeur, contrasting with lighter fare such as the popular standard Daejeon Blues (featuring some nice, jazzy muted trumpet) and a medley of singalong covers ranging from psychedelic-tinged 60s inflected pop to a rather cloying number that sounded like an Asian version of Bread. The last of the encores was Airirang, the national folk song of Korea, vastly preferred over the national anthem of either country because it predates the nation’s division by any of the colonizing powers who’ve tormented its native population over the centuries. At the end of the show, Jang offered a heartfelt thanks to the audience for having helped him conquer the nasty cold he’d caught after arriving here, telling them that they’d kept him warm throughout the show. No doubt he’d done the same. “You are deep and beautiful like the night,” Jang told the crowd as he left the stage, perhaps inadvertently but perfectly capsulizing his appeal.

April 20, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Jang Sa-Ik Interview

Known as “The Voice of Korea,” singer Jang Sa-ik is poised to become the first worldwide Korean superstar. In a world of autotuned, prefabricated moppets, he casts a towering shadow, a dramatic yet tersely and often hauntingly soulful presence, blending traditional Korean folk music with an early 60s American noir pop sensibility. The story of how he got here is nothing short of heartwarming. Born the son of a farmer and traditional musician, he struggled through a succession of dead-end, mostly blue-collar jobs. It wasn’t til his mid-thirties that he took up the taepyeongso, the traditional Korean oboe, quickly discovering he had an aptitude for it. After playing with traditional music ensembles, in 1993 he won the first of a seemingly endless series of major awards in Korea, this one for instrumental artistry. However, his bandmates persuaded him to sing, and the rest is history: six hit albums later (including a striking new one, Chapter 6/”Mother, See the Flowers”), at age 59, he’s ready to conquer America. Charismatic yet thoughtful and philosophical, up close he responds with the same kind of poetic terseness that characterizes his music. Lucid Culture interrupted his busy schedule preparing for what will likely be his second consecutive sold-out show on April 18 at New York City Center:


Lucid Culture: What was your favorite kind of music when you were growing up?


Jang Sa-ik: Nong Ak, traditional rural Korean farming music.


LC: Did you want to be a musician when you were young?


JSI: No, I wanted to be a politician!


LC: What other artists have influenced your singing and your writing?


JSI: Kim Dae Whan, a free music drummer in Korea [who played in the pioneering 60s Korean rock band Add4].


LC: What other artists do you enjoy listening to these days?


JSI: World music artists, gypsy musicians, South American music.


LC: Was the taepyeongso your first instrument? When did you first start playing it, and why? Was your father responsible for this?


JSI: Yes, at the age of 35. The taepyeongso is a typical Nong Ak instrument.


LC: You’re best known as a singer, but you’ve also won major awards in South Korea as an instrumentalist. What do you prefer, singing or playing?


JSI: Of course, singing. I can express myself better by singing.


LC: When did you first start writing songs?


JSI: In 1993 I started writing songs, inspired by the many styles of Korean poetry.


LC: Do you remember what your first original song was?


JSI: Wild Rose [a beautiful ballad which became a runaway hit].


LC: What made you finally quit working at a sales job and start a professional career? Was it because you had finally saved up enough money at that point?


JSI: I did not make money doing other jobs. It is my destiny to be a singer.


LC: You frequently set other peoples’ lyrics to music. What qualities in other peoples’ poems are you looking for when you work with other peoples’ words?


JSI: The poems that match my heart and my life.


LC: Your songs are about working people, their families, their loves, everyday events. Do you do this because other singers aren’t writing socially relevant songs?


JSI: I like to explore the nuances of everyday life, and I also like to communicate through music. My life experience is deeper because I am old enough to have experienced all this.


LC: For example, one of your most famous songs, Daejeon Blues is about a guy who takes a train a long way to work, then he has to go to another city and leaves his girlfriend behind. Is this a common event in South Korea?


JSI: Daejeon Blues is a popular song, not mine!  It’s just a Korean pop tune.


LC: Some of your songs that I know – Wild Rose and Spring Rain, for example – sound like they’d be aptly suited to film. Have your songs appeared in movies in South Korea? 


JSI: Arirang [Jang Sa-ik’s version of the iconic Korean folk song, sung by a man cautioning his lover not to run away] is in the process of being put into a film. I’ve had several proposals about using my music in the movies. Korean TV dramas frequently use my music as well.


LC: Why did you sing Airirang at a soccer game between the North and South? Was it to create controversy, or to give hope to the idea of uniting the two countries?


JSI: Arirang is the national song of the Korean people. I often call this song a national anthem. Singing the national anthem of either country at the game wasn’t allowed. They specifically requested that I sing Arirang.


LC: You’re very successful in South Korea. What are your reasons for wanting to play to American audiences when nobody here outside the Korean community knows who you are?


JSI: I’d like to share modern and traditional Korean music with people all around the world.


LC: Most of your songs – at least the ones I’ve heard –  are slow, dramatic, very haunting and soulful. Do you ever write funny songs?


JSI: I think sadness is a very powerful emotion – I use it to free myself from life’s burdens. I don’t write funny songs. 


LC: Many of your songs are about old South Korean traditions. Do you write these songs for the Korean diaspora, or Korean-Americans who might miss their country and the old ways?


JSI: My songs are for all the Koreans over the world. My music probably appeals to their homesickness.


LC: Your new cd Volume 6/”Mother, See the Flowers” starts with two very powerful, very haunting songs. The first is This Is Not It, which is about looking back on life and wishing you’d done things differently. Are there things you wish you’d done differently?


JSI: The song doesn’t relate to my life. My intention is to encourage people to live their lives more seriously.


LC: The second song on the cd is a beautiful ballad about a mother whose son carries her into the mountains to die, because he can’t afford to support her in her old age. Was this a common practice in South Korea in the old days?


JSI: It was not a very common practice, but surely it was one of the ways to survive tough times during the Korea Dynasty about 800 years ago. These days I don’t see much difference in the way that young people treat their parents.


LC: Yet the mother in the song is not angry, she only wants the son to get home safe. Shouldn’t she be very angry at the son who’s left her to die?


JSI: Korean mothers know all that, but they sacrifice for their sons.


LC: Many of your songs deal with dying and the afterlife. What are your beliefs about that?


JSI: Death and life are the same. If you understand death, you will feel life is more precious and appreciate it more. In a roundabout way, the song puts this message across.


LC: The last song on the new cd is a big rock song with loud electric guitars. Is this a style you also enjoy? 


JSI: Yes, I like that style very much. It gives my music a different flavor.


LC: It appears that your audience covers a vast range of demographics, young and old alike. Is a reason for that?


JSI: I only sing songs – no dancing. So people focus more on listening  when I’m singing.


LC: You’re also a famous calligrapher in your native country. Is this something you’ve always done, or is it a new thing for you?


JSI: It was one of my hobbies. But I started realizing this was another thing that I enjoy doing. When I inscribe something on a sheet of white Korean traditional paper, I feel good.


LC: Can I ask you why in the past you’ve compared your music to Korean bean paste [a richly delicious, garlicky concoction that serves as the basis for most traditional stews and soups]? 


JSI: Korean bean paste is a completely natural, traditional ingredient. My music is the same.


Jang Sa-ik plays his only American appearance of the season at New York City Center on April 18 at 7:30 PM.

April 13, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, New York City | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment