Lucid Culture


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