Words by Simon Broughton
There is something about the ney, the Turkish reed flute, that evokes a sense of spirituality. It’s the breathiness of the sound and the elusive tunings of the melodies which are hard for the untrained ear to grasp, but easy to feel. Kudsi Erguner on ney is circling around the vocals and oud playing of Syrian singer Waed Bouhassoun in an outdoor concert against the soft rasp of nighttime cicadas
The concert is taking place in Jeonju, South Korea, about four hours south of Seoul, on the western side of the Korean peninsular. This part of the country is considered a source of traditional culture and is where the Jeonju International Sori Festival takes place in October – bringing together some of Korea’s best singers and musicians with international names. Mali’s Fatoumata Diawara was onstage Saturday, tall and commanding in a turquoise dress, red turban and wielding an electric guitar. It was her first tour in Asia, thanks, I’m pleased to say, to her winning a Songlines Music Award last year. Her message was of empowerment of women – as an antidote to war, a commitment to children and as a powerful force in music. Her charisma and fantastic dancing thrilled a predominantly youthful audience.
My first full day of the festival I spent judging the Sori Frontier competition for world music bands. It was six hours watching eight bands and it went from heavy metal Korean folk, to Korean-flavoured bossa nova and classical lounge music. Given Fatoumata’s message, it was good to see that the musicians in the bands were pretty equally men and women, if not more women than men. Our unanimously selected band are called Juris Kuns (probably not a very marketable name), but they bring a thrilling rhythmic drive and instrumental colour.
One of the ideas of the new festival director Park Jechun is to create double concerts of Korean and visiting musicians. It was one of these – held in the grounds of an old Confucian academy from 1608 – that featured Kudsi Erguner in part two and a select group of Korean classical musicians in part one.
With a snap on the janggo drum, the Korean music begins quite solemn and formal, and you can feel its roots in an aristocratic tradition. The featured instruments are two of Korea’s zithers – the gayageum and the geomungo, played by Lee Jiyoung and Heo Yunjeong – and the haegeum spike fiddle, played by Kim Seonga, which has a particularly nasal tone. Like Indian music, Korean classical music is essentially a solo tradition, in which a soloist plays with a percussionist on a double-sided hour-glass drum. This trio of players, all women, with the male drummer Yun Hose on janggo are doing something quite new.
To my ears, the nasal tone of the haegeum isn’t so endearing, it doesn’t have the warmth and depth of the Iranian kamancheh, for instance, but as the music speeds up and becomes rather more funky, there’s no doubt that we’re listening to a group of masters. After the ensemble opening, there’s a gayageum solo piece, with janggo drum, which is a real highlight. I’m told Lee Jiyoung is Korea’s best gayageum player and what she’s doing is not a classical piece, learned from the old masters, but a new composition within the tradition. The strings are plucked with the right hand and given a heavy vibrato with the left. Melodies in Korean music are like flowing streams with an undulating path – they call it pungnyu – wind and stream – suggesting an affinity to nature. With light and occasional taps from the janggo drum, it is music like a spider’s web, delicate but tough. Korean music doesn’t go in for the virtuoso display that Indian music does, which is perhaps why it has been slower to catch an international audience. Lee’s piece builds up to some rapidly flowing arpeggios in the right hand and then suddenly halts for a slow, reserved conclusion. The huge cheer and screams of delight at the end seem somehow surprising.
“There is no Sufi who understands what Sufism means,” says Kudsi Erguner introducing his trio of Waed Bouhassoun (voice and oud), Kudsi on ney and Pierre Rigopoulos on fantastic tombak and frame drum percussion. It’s actually the first time they have performed this repertoire – with spiritual poems by Jalaluddin Rumi (13th century) and Arabic poetess Rabia al-Adawiyya (8th century), but it is an impressive debut. The woody sound of the oud, Bouhassoun’s warm vocals and the ethereal ney gliding like a bird from note to note are entrancing in the cold evening air. It’s one of those magic moments when the music, the location and the ambience work perfectly together.