Simon Broughton meets two groups who are both innovating Korea’s traditional music, but in very different ways
You probably couldn’t find two more contrasting groups than Jambinai and [su:m] if you wanted to show the extreme range of Korean traditional music. Jambinai are a trio of haegum (fiddle), geomungo (zither) and electric guitar – sometimes with bass and drums. The sound is screaming heavy metal rather than polite tradition. Kim Bomi bends over her haegum, sawing away on it like a tortured soul; Sim Eun-Young stabs at her geomungo and strums a fierce tremolo; and Lee Il-Woo thrashes the electric guitar. For the most part they avoid looking at each other as if it’s a study in alienation. The effect is extraordinary and the audience responds enthusiastically – first out of surprise and then exhilaration.
All three musicians were classically trained at the Korean National University of Arts and guitarist Lee also plays piri (oboe). “Many traditional bands try to mix Eastern and Western music, but we don’t want to do that,” he says. “It’s not about mixing genres, we just want to focus on the sound.”
So what’s traditional about the music? In a piece called ‘Hand of Redemption’, Kim basically plays traditional shamanistic music on the haegum, but attacks it with the ferocity of an electric guitar solo with distorted sound and emphasising the scratchy tone. The lyrics, sung by the women, have a feeling of desolation: ‘Young people are worried, life is hard, my dream is gone.’
If Jambinai seem very urban, the duo [su:m] come across as contemplative and meditational. “I think music and nature have a very deep relationship,” says Seo Jungmin, “for example, a bird singing, the wind in the trees is also music. We compose our own music from the environment around us.” Park Ji-Ha adds, “our instruments also come from natural materials.”
In a stylish instrumental duo, whose performances are almost like a monastic ritual, Seo Jungmin plays the large 25-string gayageum (zither) and Park Ji-Ha plays wind instruments – the piri and saenghwang (bamboo mouth organ). Mouth organ doesn’t convey the sophistication of this instrument with 17 bamboo pipes.
One of their pieces begins with a brass bowl stroked with a stick, the sound of which grows and grows in intensity. It almost sounds electronic, with a strange pulsating tone. All their music is self-composed and, while respecting tradition, they are creating new sounds and structures in Korean music. They build up their pieces through improvisation and experimentation, giving an impressionistic quality to the music. “Traditional musicians weren’t trained to improvise in the past,” explains Seo, “so this is pioneering. Up until recently, Korean music has been about preservation rather than improvisation and composition.”
Jambinai – ‘Time of Extinction’
숨[su:m] – ‘Spirits around Us’