A Communion of Music

As a destination, Daegu doesn’t have much to recommend it. I’d come down from Seoul for one reason only: to see my friend Dong-Won Kim accompany the great pansori singer Bae Il-dong. So when we arrived at the address Dong-Won had sent us, far on the outskirts of Daegu, and found ourselves in the office of a loan shark next door to a tire shop, I was not amused.

After some frantic messaging, we got an updated address that took us deep into one of those ubiquitous beige apartment complexes, and at last we spotted Dong-Won waving his arms on the far side of a parking lot. With Korean musicians, it’s always a little yeogi-cheogi, a little here and there. But perched above a GS25 convenience store in the unlikeliest spot was this delightful little music cafe with an upright bass against the wall and a pair of master musicians getting ready to perform.

We were exactly nowhere, which is where a lot of the best things happen.

Intangible

We arrived in the middle of a screening of the documentary Intangible Asset No. 82, which tells the story of an Australian jazz drummer who comes to Korea in search of an elderly percussionist he’s obsessed with. Dong-Won becomes his guide, introducing him to some of Korea’s finest musicians — including Bae Il-dong — and providing about the best possible introduction to Korean traditional music.

When the film was over, I at last got to hear Bae Il-dong in person. His voice is an extraordinary instrument, raw but supple. There’s nothing showbiz about what he does. His only real trick is absolute mastery of his art form born from total dedication. He once spent seven years singing at a waterfall to develop his voice and find his sound.

Pansori is a storytelling art form, born as a communal activity among the lower classes in Southern Korea in the 19th century, full of humor and pathos, moments of sorrow and moments of joy. Il-dong sang a famous piece in which an old, blind man is reunited with the daughter he thinks he sent to her death — a shock so profound that he recovers his sight. The performance was vivid enough that my friend could grasp the gist of it without understanding the words.

As for me, I was startled by how much I did understand. During the film and the concert — which had a lot of lecture mixed in — I became my friend’s Dong-Won, leaning in to let him know what was going on. And for the first time, I found myself following along with the words of the pansori, even laughing at a few of the jokes I caught.

Community

After the concert, heaps of food were brought in — hearty, traditional Korean stuff — and everybody stayed on to eat and drink together. Dong-Won explained that Korean music is communal, in which the musicians don’t just transmit emotion to the audience, but share in a collective emotional experience.

After a little while, an emcee got up and began to chatter. Dong-Won explained that he was actually a fine musician and dancer who’s known for his skills as a clown and comedian, and soon it was clear what he was up to. He started pulling people up from the audience and getting them to sing: traditional songs, sometimes with Dong-Won pressed into rhythm accompaniment or with a guitarist picking out some backing chords. And these people knew their stuff. No one was at Bae Il-dong’s level, but these were people who’d spent time learning Korean traditional music and dance. Or some of them were, anyway. As the evening went on, the emcee made sure everyone got a chance to do something, whether it was singing an old pop tune or doing a little dance. I got up to dance too, showing off what I can remember of my Korean moves and then putting on the traditional grandfather mask and doing the requisite drunkard’s dance.

Eventually my friend grabbed a guitar and sang some classic rock — Oasis, Pink Floyd — while Dong-Won played the box and I had some fun thumping along on the janggu. It’s not every day you get to play with a member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, so you’ve got to grab the opportunity when it comes. My friend sang, I drummed, people danced.

The road to nowhere

I said at the start that the best things often happen exactly nowhere. I’m thinking of a night in the little Burmese trekking village of Kalaw, where some guys at the back of a bar called Hi Snacks & Drinks got out acoustic guitars and sang the night away. I’m thinking of a pansori festival I saw on the banks of a river somewhere in Jeolla province when I lived here as a teacher. I’m thinking of a night spent in an obscure temple with just one other person — my Swiss shaman friend — sitting by the pagoda under the moonlight and listening to the chorus of cicadas and frogs. I’m thinking of northern Laos, where nothing happens, and of the house where I grew up in Marin County, California.

At the heart of Korean music is cyclicality: strong and soft, yang and yin, breath in and breath out, in every note and movement. Right now I’m leading just about the most yang existence imaginable, living in Gangnam and working for Samsung, but there’s an undertow of yin that’s calling to me.

“So save your money and then run away!” Dong-Won said, when we had a chance to talk about it.

Maybe.

“You and I have the same blood type,” he said. “Blood type W. Blood type wind.”

In the film, Dong-Won used a different metaphor from nature: you can be a lake, or you can be a river. A lake stays where it is, but a river is always carving out new paths, flowing where it’s never flowed before. Yeogi-cheogi.

He could have added that a river does this by letting go, not by force of will. I suppose that to heed the call of the yin is first of all to stop worrying about the yang. Things will go how they go. My life has taken enough surprising turns that if I go back over it in five-year increments, I realize that I never really had any idea what was coming. Why should now be any different?

Seoul Jazz Festival 2017

Over a glorious weekend of bright sun and clear skies, a corner of Seoul’s Olympic Park played host to the Seoul Jazz Festival. Spread across three indoor venues and one outdoor main stage, the festival was extraordinarily well run: good sound, shows that started and ended on time, few serious lines, minimal hassles. Because Koreans are mostly pretty honest and not prone to public violence, security could be handled by college kids doing cursory bag and wristband checks at the entrances to venues, while the main pavilion was technically outside of any restricted area and open to the public, and you could go a little further to the local convenience store if you wanted to. Across two long days, I saw no drunkenness, no violence, no real incidents of any kind. Well done, Korea!

There was no way to see all the performances, of course, because of all the overlapping shows. But here’s what I did see.

Day 1

Arturo O’Farrill and the Afro Latin Jazz Ensemble: Good Latin jazz of a thinky variety. Arturo is a helluva piano player, and he’s got a trombonist who can make Korean girls scream.

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Echae Kang: A singer and violinist who does alternative rock that’s reminiscent of Jaurim. She’s definitely got something going on. Tremendously charistmatic, and her band is also very good. Definitely worth checking out.

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두번재달/2nd Moon: So the schtick is that the singer is a young, handsome guy who does pretty traditional pansori — a traditional style of story singing — while the backing band plays a mishmash of folky Americana. The hall was packed and the Koreans seemed to go for it, but it left me cold. The pansori singing was good but probably wouldn’t have seemed extraordinary in a traditional setting, while the backing music was undistinguished, and the combination never melded into more than the sum of its parts.

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Lianne La Havas: The highlight of the day and the most delightful surprise of the festival, Lianne La Havas is a British soul singer of Jamaican and Greek parentage. She played solo, just her voice and some very, very hip guitar playing. She sang mostly her own songs but also covered “Say a Little Prayer,” and it takes some guts to tackle a song everyone knows from the Aretha version. Her sense of rhythm is unerring, her lyrics are smart, and the songs are excellent. She reminded me at turns of Sade, Ani Di Franco, and Bill Withers.

Part of the charm of her set was her evident surprise and delight at finding a passionate fanbase in Korea. Crowds of Korean girls were singing along, hanging on her every word, calling out for favorites or just shouting that they loved her. I noticed this with a lot of the musicians, actually: they seemed very, very happy. Apparently the Seoul Jazz Festival treats its performers right, and it’s probably a relief, when your booking agent has told you that you’ll be playing at a park in the afternoon in South Korea, to discover an entirely professional setup with great sound and support.

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지코/Zico: Korean hip hop. Unmemorable stuff for kids.

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Avishai Cohen Quartet: Thorny, confrontational Israeli jazz with none of the decorum and studiousness that can make a lot of American and Scandinavian jazz these days so toothless. This is not easy music. Cohen takes traditional jazz and fragments it into shards, but his musicians have the rigor to hold the pieces together, and Cohen’s plaintive tone on the trumpet is what Miles Davis might have sounded like if he’d grown up hearing the shofar.

Day 2

오프온오프/OFFONOFF: Off off off.

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Squirrel Nut Zippers: I saw the Squirrel Nuts way back in the 1990s, during the swing revival back then. Like me, they’re a lot older now. They still put on a great show with lots of energy and loopy antics, and they still suffer from the same fundamental flaw they’ve always had, which is that they’re just not such great musicians. They play swing with the skill of a ska band, and it’s not quite enough if you’ve grown up on the Count and the Duke and know what swing sounded like in the hands of people like Ben Webster and Lionel Hampton and Sweets Edison, et. al. The Squirrel Nut Zippers are the cotton candy of swing: colorful and fun, but they leave you hungry and slightly queasy.

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Cecile McClorin Salvant: Salvant is a serious and skilled jazz musician of a particular sort. She grew up on classical and came to jazz late, and her approach — fishing up obscure old songs, often focused on the travails of underprivileged women of color — can feel like a graduate seminar on intersectional feminism. There’s something pedantic about it, and the music and musicality can seem secondary, even if the level of skill is hard to argue with. It never caught fire for me.

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Tower of Power: Ho. Ly. Fuck.

Go see Tower of Power. Do it now.

Tower of Power, the Soul-Funk institution from Oakland, is in its 49th year and still has three of its original members. This won’t go on forever. On records they can sound a little wan, a little too smooth. Live, they’re something else. How these old dudes have this much energy, this much funk, this much soul, I don’t know. But they do. The horns are legendary and deservedly so. The bass player — still an original member — is slinky and groovy like funk base oughtta be.

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Tower of Power has always been a backing band, the JB’s without a James Brown, and their singers over the years have been better and worse. Their latest singer is phenomenal. Marcus Scott is a Memphis soul singer in the Otis Redding vein, a showman with tremendous range and a master soul man’s consummate skill in whipping the crowd into a frenzy. His dance moves, his passionate patter, his descents from the stage and into the crowd had the Koreans going nuts, and I think it would’ve worked on anyone anywhere. With the giant force of Tower of Power behind him, Scott put on a glorious show that had everybody jumping. It’s this — soul, funk, sweatin’ it out — that makes me proud to be an American. This is our gift to the world. (The Koreans knew it, too, and I was impressed that a few guys behind me knew the words to every song.)

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Zion T: The Korean pop and soul singer didn’t exactly follow Tower of Power — he was in another venue — but because Jamiraquoi dropped out for health reasons, much of the Tower of Power crowd went to see Zion T right after. A smart and savvy singer who writes good songs, he managed to hold his own. We stuck around long enough to hear a couple of his biggest hits, “This Song” and “Seethrough,” before heading out and calling it a night.

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Every Artist You’ve Ever Loved

You have to be bloody-minded, and you have to be awkward. You have to be, like, “I’m doing it like this.” It doesn’t matter what everyone’s saying it should be like. Every artist you’ve ever loved has done that.
– Richard Russell 

Like Somebody’s Best Friend Died

Back in 1989 or so, a friend gave me a cassette that changed my life. On one side was Nothing’s Shocking by Jane’s Addiction, and I warmed to that side first. On the other was Soundgarden’s Louder Than Love, strange and knotty and difficult, and eventually I fell in love.

I saw Soundgarden at a San Francisco club called The Stone, down on Broadway. They were opening for Voivod. (That same friend took me, and later I found him at the bar, chatting with Tim Alexander from then-unknown Primus and Jason Newstead from Metallica.) I remember Chris Cornell, shirtless and in shorts, stomping around on the stage in big combat boots, screaming. I fell in love.

If you never experienced an underground metal show back then, you might not grasp what an intense, overwhelming sensory experience it was, or in what way. The sound was murky and loud, the room was hot as hell and filled with smoke, and anywhere close to the stage was a press of bodies moshing, shoving, jostling, heaving. It was messy, chaotic. You were half watching the show and half trying not to get killed, and you came out smelling like other people’s cigarettes and sweat, deaf and screaming.

When my first serious girlfriend broke up with me, early in my junior year of high school, Badmotorfinger got me through it. I had a best friend then who shared my obsession with Soundgarden, and with Chris Cornell — his voice, his presence, his beauty. When I started a shitty band with some friends, I wanted us to sound like Soundgarden.

A couple of years later, when I first realized I was bisexual, Chris Cornell was part of it. I knew I was attracted to him. It was undeniable. He was maybe my first explicit, conscious male crush.

When I was in college and that best friend had moved to Connecticut, we would lie on the floor of her weird little apartment in the attic of a flower store, get really really stoned, and listen to Superunknown and the various Soundgarden B-sides we’d dug up and talk about how sexy Chris Cornell’s voice was and analyze the lyrics.

Another thing my friend especially loved about Soundgarden was that they were death-haunted. Chris Cornell was death-haunted. My friend had lost a brother, plus a shocking number of friends and acquaintances for someone in her early twenties, and Soundgarden seemed to understand. Temple of the Dog was a tribute album for a friend of Chris Cornell’s who’d died, and much of Badmotorfinger was about death.

I thought of Chris Cornell as a survivor. But he’s gone now, gone like Andrew Wood and Kurt Cobain and Layne Staley and Scott Weiland. Being a grunge singer is hazardous.

Candles burning yesterday
Like somebody’s best friend died
And I’ve been caught in a mind riot

National Music

Some years ago, a professor invited me to a chamber concert at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall on a Saturday afternoon. Five minutes into the Haydn, he was snoring softly. He was hardly alone. In the half-empty auditorium, I couldn’t see anyone who looked to be under sixty, and much of the audience was nodding off. Even the orchestra seemed to be sleepwalking through their note-perfect renditions of pieces they’d all been playing since middle school.

Why did we all show up for this soporific farce? The audience wasn’t there for the music itself, that was clear. They were part of a generation that felt an obligation to better themselves and their community by patronizing the arts, which meant the classical arts: orchestras, ballet, opera. I was witnessing the dying embers of a kind of Jewish immigrant striving that had put Leonard Bernstein at the center of American middlebrow culture in the mid-twentieth century.

Gugak by Helmut Lang

Something similar (though not so sleepy) was at work during a recent performance — also on a Saturday afternoon — of The Banquet, by the National Dance Company of Korea at the National Theater of Korea, which put dozens of dancers into exquisite costumes and marched them through complex choreography reminiscent of both North Korean mass games and Disney musicals. It was a new piece with lots of modernist trappings, but at its heart it was the same old vocabulary of Korean traditional clothing, stock characters, and dances: the court attendants, the leaping farmers, the women drummers, the upper-class yangban dandies.

With its spare white staging, careful white lighting, and traditional costumes reworked in colors from recent issues of Vogue, a lot of it felt like Korean gugak (tratitional music) by Helmut Lang. Because there were so many dancers on the stage at any one time, it was inevitably more about pretty shapes and stage pictures than about any individual artistry. The precision sometimes lapsed — a wobbly ankle here, an out-of-place dancer there — and it occurred to me that Korea’s very best dancers probably don’t end up as part of this anonymous national corps churning out reheated tradition. The show was never quite boring, and at some moments — especially the farmer’s dance, when individual dancers finally had a chance to show off some acrobatic skill — it was lively. But it was never quite alive. In a Korean sense, you could say that it had no hoheup (breath).

The invention of tradition

As with the Upper West Siders who feel an obligation to sponsor precise renditions of eighteenth-century Hungarian and Austrian music, there are historical and cultural reasons why this particular vocabulary of styles and symbols represents Korean culture, why Koreans enjoy recycling and rewatching these particular cultural artifacts, and why performances with “National” in the title have this zombie quality to them.

The middle of the nineteenth century was a time of extraordinary upheaval, much of which took the form of a reckoning with onrushing modernity: the failed revolutions of 1848 in Europe, the forced opening of Japan in 1853, the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the American Civil War from 1861 to 1865. Ideas of modernity and tradition, reform and reaction, swirled around these conflicts, rarely in straightforward ways. Perhaps no event encapsulates the contradictions of the era as well as the Taiping Rebellion, which took as many as 30 million lives in China between 1850 and 1864. The Taipings were Chinese nationalists who rebelled against the “foreign” Manchu Qing Dynasty, which had been humiliated by the British in the Opium Wars a few years earlier. The Taiping leadership was Hakka, an ethnic minority sub-group within the larger Han Chinese identity, and the head of the movement considered himself the brother of Jesus Christ.

From this maelstrom, independence movements emerged, and they faced the task of forging national identities, whether for relatively organic nations like Korea or Japan, or for colonially invented polities like Indonesia or Malaysia. In Korea, this process was delayed in some ways by the late date of its opening to the outside. The 1894 Donghak (Eastern Learning) Rebellion is an early symptom, but South Korean ideas of national identity really crystalized during the Japanese occupation period, between the World Wars. That’s why the vocabulary of Korean tradition is so specifically that of late-Joseon Dynasty culture, which had ended within living memory. What was being preserved was what the intelligentsia remembered from their youth.

This also has much to do with what made the cut and what didn’t. Palaces are preserved and reconstructed with tax dollars, and national theaters perform the music and dances of both high and low classes because folk was an important concept in the early twentieth century. But most educated people in late Joseon saw Buddhism as retrograde and shamanism as beyond the pale — superstition that needed to be purged if Korean society was to modernize — so there’s relatively little overt Buddhism in Korean traditional performances, while what survives of shamanism in the national vocabulary is usually stripped of ritual power or meaning, and shaman paintings and shrines are almost never given the kind of respect accorded to traditional houses or markets or city gates.

I’m here because we’re here

In country after country, I’ve found similar arts and performances: recreations of Peking Opera in a palace in Beijing, folk ensembles in Luang Prabang, endless repetitions of Mozart in Vienna, dinner buffet dance shows in Siem Reap. (Communist countries tend to produce a socialist-realist version of traditional dance — at some point, ladies will sow seeds and carry water — while capitalist countries are more likely to keep the dance abstract. And Communist performances tend to have brighter and more primary colors in the costumes and lighting, with less deference to the latest Pantone trends.)

Why do people keep showing up to see these same performances, over and over? It has to do with a shared sense of identity and understanding. Koreans can come to a reheated Banquet at the National Theater and nod along, assessing how well or badly the dancers did all the things everyone has been seeing since childhood. It’s art as karaoke: you don’t listen because someone at the bar will sing “I Will Survive” better than Gloria Gaynor, but because you can, as a group, assess the performance against Gloria Gaynor.

And who can engage with Korea’s codified traditions this way? Koreans, of course. That’s where identity comes in. To go to a performance like The Banquet is to reassert both the existence of Korea as a unique cultural entity and your membership in it. That’s why these kinds of performances so rarely innovate or confront: they’re a trip to the folk village, not a trip to the contemporary art museum.

Safety in numbers

Korea does have a traditional music scene that feels alive. The musicians may be playing the old pieces, but they’re bringing personal passion and force to their playing. These performances, though, are usually smaller, without any “National” imprimatur — more downtown theater than Broadway musical. They have hoheup.

Why do they draw smaller audiences? In part, it’s a matter of marketing, budget, and positioning. National theaters have production values, and people show up for that.

But I think there’s something deeper at work too. I have, on several occasions, been moved to tears by Korean traditional music and dance. It happened with So Ra Kim. But being moved and touched can be uncomfortable. It’s raw and real. It’s the equivalent of skipping the folk village, going to an actual village, and reckoning with the ancient, toothless ladies who squat by the side of the road sorting vegetables.

The simulation is tidier, easier. And there’s safety in numbers.

New Old Korea

Kim So Ra is why I live in Korea.

I discovered her this past Saturday night, after a new friend made a vague invitation to a janggu concert. It was a bitterly cold night, and the concert was in an underdeveloped, industrial section of Seoul called Yeongdeungpo, where the main street is still lined with small machine shops and artificial limb wholesalers. It reminded me of winter excursions to the Lower East Side twenty years ago to see experimental theater productions tucked in between old bra shops. I connected with some friends of friends at a chicken restaurant with an outdoor fire rotisserie and stacks of wood, and then we headed off, eventually finding our way to the Mullae Art Factory Box Theater, a stylish bit of postmodern concrete architecture hidden down an unpromising side street.

I wasn’t expecting much. The theater was small, the audience probably fewer than fifty people, and the theme of the show, “A Sign of Rain,” complete with accompanying video projections, seemed like it might turn into the kind of embarrassing conceit that masks mediocre playing.

But the art scene in Seoul, I’ve discovered, delights more often than it disappoints. Kim So Ra, it turns out, is not only a janggu virtuoso, but also a subtle explorer of world percussion, which she integrated into her playing in startling ways, incorporating everything from pouring water to Tibetan singing bowls (only the xylophone piece fell flat). Her fellow musicians — percussionist Hyeon Seung-hun, O No-eul on piri, Im Ji-hye on gayageum — created a rich, complex range of sounds that put me in mind of the Steve Reich performance I saw at BAM in 2015.

Visual music

Traditional janggu performance is inseparable from the excitement of watching the drummer swing the stick from one side of the hourglass drum to the other, and samulnori music comes fully alive as dance, with colorful costumes and long spinning streamers attached to elaborate hats. Kim So Ra augmented that visual tradition with video projections. At times it felt a little Pink Floyd laser show or nineties screen saver, but at their best, the videos helped to focus our attention on particular details in the music, or brought out themes and feelings, as when the screen behind the stage became a dancing watercolor ink painting, creating a kind of willed synesthesia.

Similarly compelling was a burst of modern dance from Kim Jeong-un, whose expressive face and joyous movement brought the theater to life even before she began spinning plates (which is apparently an old Korean art form that predates Ed Sullivan by some years).

The cleverest effect was a projection onto a white-painted janggu, timed to the rhythm so that drum hits became splashes of water and bursts of color. What could have been a gimmick turned out to be powerful and moving, in no small part because of the general tendency in Korean art to take craft seriously.

More than fusion

That all of this is happening in Seoul, right now at this moment in history, is a big part of why I’m here. Other than Japan, there’s nowhere else in Asia where artists are bringing together traditional and global ideas not as fusion — a flaccid affair that usually means old instruments and shitty synthesizers — but as serious postmodern art.

And right now, I think Korea’s more vibrant than Japan, or at least a lot newer and fresher at this particular game. It’s only in the past few years that young Koreans have started venturing out into the world, but they’ve gone in droves to the art and fashion institutes in the US, and what they’ve brought back with them is starting to take root. Fashion, music, art: Seoul feels like it’s on the cusp of something. Artists like Kim So Ra are why I’m here now, ready to wander off into weird neighborhoods in the freezing cold to see what’s happening.

Ah, Singapore

Little girl said Chinese dumplings taste so good
And the tourists take pictures of
The phoenix all around the town
Singapore, ah, Singapore
Many tall skyscrapers standing all in a row
In this Asian country just north of the equator
Singapore, ah, Singapore

You can’t buy chewing gum anywhere in Singapore
But you can buy peppermint candy
Cause you eat it til it’s gone
Singapore, ah, Singapore

 

You Can Never Leave

Nong Khiaw, Laos

When Glenn Frey checked out, on January 18, my Facebook news feed was still full of tributes and encomiums to David Bowie, who had died eight days earlier. Frey got hardly a mention. Bowie’s career was long, varied, and complex in a way that Frey’s was not, and Frey was just one member of a group. Still, it was a notable silence, especially if you happen to be traveling anywhere in the world that isn’t England or America.

Wherever I go in the world, I hear Frey’s music. Specifically, I hear “Hotel California.” I’ve heard it sung with Afro-French accents on the banks of the Seine. The Filipino bar band in Yangon played it. Today a Lao trekking guide was noodling around on his guitar at a local restaurant in Nong Khiaw, and inevitably he wandered into “Hotel California.” You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave “Hotel California” for long.

I know we’re all supposed to hate the Eagles, for countercultural reasons long forgotten and because The Dude hates the Eagles, but admit it: you know the words to “Hotel California,” and chances are you’ve hollered along to it at a karaoke night or when it was played by some cover band somewhere in the world. For better or worse, it’s the song that everyone everywhere knows. You can stab it with your steely knives, but you just can’t kill that beast of a song.