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The Gift of Appreciation: Journey to Korean Music
[Festivals] The Gift of Appreciation: Journey to Korean Music
Writer : Michelle Mercer_Producer, National Public Radio 2015.12.08 Asia > Korea

The Gift of Appreciation: Journey to Korean Music
[Festivals/Markets] Journey to Korean Music 2015

A water wheel is ready to turn, but it needs the proper amount of force to put it in motion. Water drips, trickles, finally pours and then the wheel turns continuously, its rotation generating abundant power. It was on the final day of Journey to Korean Music 2015 that I was likewise propelled into a deep, ongoing appreciation of Korean music. On Friday evening, we delegates visited the Jeonju International Sori Festival, where I caught the group SE:UM’s potent fusion of jazz and traditional rhythms and realized that I was hearing the band differently than I had just the night before. SE:UM also played at the Performing Arts Market Seoul (PAMS) showcase on Thursday. At their previous performance, as much as I’d wanted to enjoy SE:UM’s unique combination of sounds, I simply hadn’t been able to wrap my mind around their music. But 24 hours later, I understood and loved their unique fusion. So what opened my ears to SE:UM?

It wasn’t only Jeonju’s pine-covered hills that gave me a fresh perspective on the music. The magical key was Journey to Korean Music’s thoughtful programming. On Friday afternoon, also at the Sori Festival, delegates were treated to a Namhaean Byulsingut, a shamanic ritual with pageantry, pounding rhythms and incantations literally meant to raise the dead. 

After attending the Namhaean Byulsingut, I’d experienced the deep significance behind SE:UM’s shamanistic rhythms, and those ritual meanings resonated in SE:UM’s uniquely Korean jazz as powerfully as African-American culture does in much American jazz. The creative possibility of combining traditional Korean rhythms and jazz horns was as obvious as it had been obscure just 24 hours beforehand. Journey to Korean Music gave me a chance to hear SE:UM on the group’s own terms in other words, the program gave me the gift of appreciation.

A Consciousness-Raising Program

Many delegates told me they benefited similarly from this year’s Journey to Korean Music program. "While I had a general idea of the sounds of Korean music, the Journey program gave me new insight and a grasp of nuances that would have otherwise taken years to gain," said Rajasthan International Folk Festival (Riff) Director Divya Bhatia. "The ’immersive’ experience was extremely valuable." 

Accelerated consciousness-raising is exactly what the Korean Arts Management Service (KAMS) has in mind with Journey to Korean Music. "We want to elevate the programmers’ understanding," said Kim Eunhee of KAMS. "We want to let them know Korean music in a proper way, through contact with its musicians, its human roots. We just want to create Korean music fans overall." 

KAMS launched Journey to Korean Music in 2008 as a way for music professionals who attend the Performing Arts Market to focus more exclusively on their area of expertise. The program’s guiding belief is that education is the most favorable route to music appreciation. "Most of the international delegates have only heard Korean music on CD," said Kim. "But Korean music has a very important background to understand. So we organize not just music showcases but museum tours and cultural tours to give background and history."

Whatever their stylistic inclination, the program’s musicians all share a high level of marketing sophistication, which is another major aim of the program. "Domestically, many Korean music groups focus very well on creating music," Kim explained. "But they don’t know how to promote themselves, especially overseas, even though they’re keen to play there." KAMS holds meetings with artists for several months in advance of Journey to Korean Music, assisting them in the production of brochures and promotional materials, advising them on overall marketing strategies.

Namhaean Byulsingut, Journey to Korean Music 2015 ©Oh Sang-jin

This year’s 16 Journey delegates definitely experienced music as an expression of culture, with our excursions into Korean food, architecture, and especially history enhancing and informing the program’s many music showcases. "It’s always good to know the contextualization of things, to know the history of the shamanic music, for example," said Kerry Clarke, Artistic Director of the Calgary Folk Music Festival. "Intellectually I know music comes from history and culture, but I hadn’t thought about Korean history and culture before, about what the different colonizations would have done to the music."

As history experts at the National Gugak Center or contemporary musicians at a showcase guided us through Korean music, we began to comprehend the vastness and richness of the country’s musical traditions. Along the way, we got acquainted with some initially strange instruments and tonalities: The gayageum, for example, was strummed into familiarity as we heard it in diverse contexts, played by artists of both traditional and modern sensibilities. 

In a generally outstanding week of music and culture, a few events stood out for me. We had the rare pleasure of experiencing the Changdeokgung Palace privately, much as its one-time royal residents might have known it. A hush fell over the delegates as we walked through the palace grounds and along a shaded cobblestone path to the Secret Garden. The masterful music performed there included the revelatory talents of Tae-baek Lee, whose bent notes on the ajaeng suggested the Mississippi delta blues to this American listener, and whose accents on the buk drum amplified his fellow musicians’ every strength. The Secret Garden concert reached into that elevated place in music where virtuosity and generosity combine into ecstasy.  

Another high point was the delegates’ trip to Jeonju, a day organized by our hosts with the precision of an action film. A few stops into our high-speed train ride from Seoul, the drumming group U-Hee hijacked our car for a surprise performance, playfully drawing audience participation from the delegates. At an epicurean lunch afterward, the pansori singer Yu Taepyungyang steered me through dishes of jukhoe and Jeonju’s prized bibimbap while sharing stories of his life as a child prodigy. As steeped as Yu may be in the pansori tradition, I was encouraged to learn that he’s no purist, seizing every opportunity to collaborate meaningfully with South African musicians, jazz artists, and anyone else who finds potential in his genre’s unique style. After lunch, our journey continued at the Sori Festival, where we ended the day with the gut and jazz performance mentioned at this article’s beginning. That night I fell asleep on the heated floor of a traditional hanok house, marveling at just how far and how well we’d traveled from dawn to dusk.  

The drumming group U-Hee ©Oh Sang-jin

The Journey Back Home

As is the case in most countries, traditional music in Korea attracts a smaller audience than say, the staggeringly popular K-Pop artists. In a roundabout way, that’s what Journey to Korean Music addresses: Promoting traditional music overseas is KAMS’s strategy for promoting it at home. "We think that if we get some name value abroad, we’ll also get some ticket power in Korea," said Kim Eunhee of KAMS. "The traditional music market is smaller than the mainstream pop market, so many artists are looking forward to being invited to overseas festivals first, because that will enhance their reputations in Korea."

Every international programmer returns from Journey to Korean Music with an intense desire to share the music they experienced with audiences back home. But the practical question is: How well does traditional Korean music translate to international audiences? Can the gayageum sell tickets? "I think quite a lot of it translates," said Kerry Clarke from Calgary. "Traditional Korean music can be the exotic element, because in the context of a festival we have the privilege of presenting the exotic stuff. If it were a concert we’d start by reaching out to the local Korean community, but they may or may not like their traditional music. In the context of a festival we can make unusual instruments work." Divya Bhatia believes he could work with several Korean artists at his Rajasthan festival, too: "Having heard a variety of artists and felt some of the differences, I now feel confident that my audiences will appreciate some of the masters (Lee Tae-baek on the ajaeng, for example). I am less hesitant to be experimental, too, already imagining some collaborative work."

Collaborations and points of connection are also a programming strategy for Clarke. "When I see a percussion group with horns like Noreum Machi playing in a marching band style, it gets me thinking," she says. "I like performances that have links, so you could bring in a New Orleans marching band and then the Korean act, and you go, ’Wow, they have commonalities.’"

Changdeokgung Palace privately, Journey to Korean Music 2015 ©Oh Sang-jin

2010 Journey to Korean Music delegate Bill Bragin was able to book two bands at New York’s Lincoln Center almost immediately after returning from Korea. DAORUM, a cross-cultural Korean/Australian collaboration featuring pansori and free jazz, was accompanied by a screening of the critically-acclaimed documentary Intangible Asset No 82. Bragin also booked Tacit Group, who he says "hack video games and use algorithmic programming as a way to create experimental multimedia performances and reinterpret classic minimalist pieces by Terry Riley and Steve Reich." Both groups played to capacity crowds in New York. Bragin has also commissioned Tacit Group this year in Abu Dhabi as part of his inaugural season as Executive Director of the NYUAD Arts Center

Still, we delegates have had the ideal experience of immersing ourselves in Korean music and culture for a full week, an advantage that most overseas audience members do not have. Barbican Centre’s Contemporary Music Programmer Chris Sharp is realistic about the challenges of booking some of the more traditional acts. "I work in London, and at the present time there’s not much of an audience for traditional Korean music. So it would be more about creating or finding a context, a way of doing it that would make it appealing to audiences. It’s not so much about the nature of performance, but the context you place it in, the story you tell about it. That is an ongoing conundrum that I will brood upon until I figure out how to resolve it." 

Most programmers do find a way to resolve their programming challenges: Kim Eunhee says that since Journey to Korean Music’s launch in 2008, 70 percent of the artists in the program have ended up performing abroad. A good part of those international concerts are funded by a collaborative program of KAMS and the European Forum of Worldwide Music Festivals (EFWMF). KAMS-EFWMF Tour Grants are available to European festivals, arts centers, performing arts organizations and networks planning special Korean music programs. "So many of our shining young artists have been invited to international stages," said Kim (KAMS). "I hope it will continue to grow."

‘Seoulmates’ Connecting on a Human Level

Whether or not a 2015 Journey to Korean Music delegate is able to book as many Korean bands as he’d like, the program has once again succeeded in its consciousness-raising aim, establishing firm interest in Korean culture. Chris Sharp said there’s been a fundamental shift in his awareness: "If a Korean CD comes across my desk now, I’m going to play it, because in a short time here I’ve acquired a taste for this music or these types of music." Similarly, when Korean music comes to my attention, I’ll listen more closely than before, recalling the costumes, venues, rhythms and flavors of my trip to Korea. For most delegates, this fascination endures: Five years after his Journey to Korean Music experience, Bill Bragin’s curiosity is very much alive. "The grounding I got in Korean music created an ongoing interest in music being made there," says Bragin. "Especially groups like [su:m] who I have subsequently seen at WOMEX groups that use traditional instrumentation to make very contemporary music." 

Perhaps the reason for Journey to Korean Music’s ongoing resonance is that it impacts performers and programmers on so many levels. For Korean musicians, a spot on the Journey program is a career-changing opportunity to refine marketing tools and polish stage presence to a cosmopolitan shine and maybe secure a gig or two overseas. For international programmers, Journey is a rare immersion in Korean music and culture; equally, it’s an opportunity to develop friendships with organizers and other delegates, to become "Seoulmates," as we like to call ourselves.  

‘Seoulmates’, Journey to Korean Music 2015 ©Oh Sang-jin

Most importantly, Journey to Korean Music allows musicians and delegates to connect on a human level. Following this year’s Namhaean Byulsingut in Jeonju, delegates were invited to join the Jeongs, a family of performance artists, for a discussion. As we drank tea with this earnest, warm group, I thought about the enormity of a shaman’s duties. 

"Being a shaman is a big responsibility," I said to Jeong Young-man.
"What do you do to relax?"
"I sing," he answered. After experiencing the rich, transporting sounds of Journey to Korean Music, I definitely believe him. 





Michelle Mercer_Producer, National Public Radio
Michelle Mercer is a writer and radio producer. In addition to her regular contributions to National Public Radio, Michelle has contributed to the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Village Voice, and many magazines, while reporting from more than a dozen countries. Michelle is the author of Footprints: The Life And Work of Wayne Shorter and Will You Take Me As I Am. Her working book is titled Where Music Matters.
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