Posted on March 06, 2018
The Korean Wave seemed to stutter for a while at the beginning of the 2010s , but it has been receiving attention again. Idol groups such as BTS, Twice and Exo have all been abroad, and are getting noteworthy results. However, it is, in my opinion, quite unfortunate to notice that this so-called K-pop music actually lacks any ‘Korean’ elements.
It has become a cliché, but there’s a saying that “being the most Korean is being the most global.” It doesn’t mean that being “the most Korean” is best, but it can be interpreted in the sense that emphasizing the character of a region will eventually enhance its individuality and competitiveness. There are already a handful of bands worldwide that display such characteristics. System Of A Down, a band formed of Armenian-Americans, successfully blended melodies from the Middle East and Eastern Europe with Nu Metal, and Wagakki Band from Japan employed traditional Japanese musical instruments in their music, to create something very original.
There have been many attempts in the Korean indie scene to blend Korean elements into band music, and some of them have been receiving attention lately. I would like to present four noteworthy bands among many other ‘sintoburi’ (a Korean four-character idiom which means that the human body and the land cannot be separated from each other) musicians.
Ssing Ssing, led by Hee-moon Lee, is distinctive in many ways. After studying film in Japan, Hee-moon Lee learned Gyeonggi minyo (Korean traditional folk songs of the Gyeonggi region) to become an initiate, after being inspired by his mother. Later, along with Korean tradition singers Seung-tae Shin and Da-hye Choo, and directors Young-gyu Jang, Chul-hee Lee and Tae-won Lee, he formed the minyo-rock band Ssing Ssing. Not only did they blend the minyo sound with band music, but they also captured attention with their striking drag queen visuals, reminiscent of the musical ‘Hedwig.’ By employing the unique excitement of minyo and a funky rock sound, Ssing Ssing created something original that anyone can enjoy.
Ssing Ssing was spotlighted after appearing on NPR’s ‘Tiny Desk Concert’ last November. With this momentum, Ssing Ssing will perform at SXSW (South by Southwest), the biggest music festival in North America, in March.
Three-piece rock band Asian Chairshot, currently consisting of Young-won Hwang, Hee-nam Son and Yong-jin Lee (former members of Nastyona and Sizose), projects an unparalleled sound, as if delivering a chairshot to the listeners. Although the band is devoid of any Korean traditional musical instruments, they arrange a Korean sound better than any other bands in the field. If Ssing Ssing’s main characteristic is ‘heung’ (a Korean word for joy, pleasure), Asian Chairshot’s identity lies in ‘han’ (a Korean word for resentment, regret).
Often, vocalist Young-won Hwang’s possession-like live performance even reminds one of a shaman doing a sword dance. Asian Chairshot released the single ‘Mountain, Bird and Me’ last November, and the track was nominated for “Best Rock Song” at the 15th Korean Music Awards.
Jambinai was formed when Il-woo Lee, a former member of the band 49 Morphines, gathered some of his classmates from the Korean National University of Arts to make a novel attempt using Korean traditional musical instruments. Jambinai is comprised of players of piri (Korean pipe instrument), haegeum (a single-stringed Korean instrument) and geomungo (a six-stringed Korean zither). More than any other band, Jambinai’s unique composition actively adopted Korean classical music. As Jambinai recruited bass and guitar players in 2017, they successfully expanded the spectrum of their music.
Jambinai captured the world’s attention as they took to the stage at the closing ceremony of the recent 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.
Junbumsun and the Yangbans
Last but not least, Jun Bum Sun & The Yangbans is led by Junbumsun, who studied history at Dartmouth and Oxford. With the release of “Vagabond Songs,” Jun Bum Sun & The Yangbans completed a trilogy of albums, consisting of “Love Songs,” “Revolution Songs,” and “Vagabond Songs,” all displaying different styles within the frame of ‘yangban rock.’ If other bands exhibit Korean style in terms of their sound and the musical instruments they use, Jun Bum Sun & The Yangbans exhibit Korean style in terms of their musical theme.
Their songs, such as “Bangbang Crossroads,” “Monster,” “Moondance,” and “Niliria,” successfully blend modern rock sounds with themes that Koreans can easily sympathize with. While serving in the military, Jum Bum Sun won the first prize in the ‘Uni Music Race,’ a competition organized by the Ministry of Unification. After the end of his term of service, he plans to pursue his musical career.
The following is the music video for “Bangbang Crossroads,” which covers Jun Bum Sun’s 26 years of life.
Written by: Minjip Kim
English Translation: Robin YeongGuk Jo
Edited by: Rock 'N' Rose