Korean Traditional Music Concert

In America, when I think of a “traditional” concert, I think classical music. A formal affair, with an orchestra, band and players in black and white suits. The audience is quiet and respectful; the atmosphere is reserved and, depending on your perspective, sophisticated or dull.

A traditional Korean concert is not a solemn affair. At the concert I attended, courtesy of a school field trip, the audience often participated, clapping in time to the music, shouting greetings and responses to the singer, and even singing along. There was a strong sense of shared culture to which I was not at all privy, but that struck me as so strong and representing the close-knit fabric of this society.

I attended the concert, not knowing what I was going to until the day of, and even then, having a very fuzzy idea of what I was about to witness. There were at least ten traditional Korean instruments, more including the various types of percussion, none of which I knew the names of going in. During the concert I learned a grand total of two names: the haegum (해금), a violin-like instrument with two strings that is held upright on one’s knee like a cello, and taepyeongso (태평소), a reed wind instrument that somewhat resembles a small oboe.( I was an orchestra student, back in the day, so don’t ask me to discuss anything band-related.) Both had a unique “Korean” sound; a certain pitch that Westerners might just identify as “Asian-sounding” that I’m not sure how to describe.

The concert began with a song involving the whole band, and an incredible solo from the first/lead taepyeongso player. (To those who were musically inclined, he was very clearly the “first chair” of his particular section.) His ability to hold a note (and preserve his breath) was incredible, and immediately following his incredibly long note, he jumped into some improv, then straight back into the song. Nothing but respect for him.

The next song featured a solo haegum player, who came out in a beautiful flowing gown – not a hanbok, but something more modern. I vaguely remember reading something about the haegum before. It has two strings and a bow, and notes are created by pulling the strings. It’s supposed to be very difficult to hit accurate notes on this instrument. While a few times it seemed like the haegum player faltered, I’m not sure if this was just an aspect of the instrument. There were a other times when she hit high notes that were something like harmonics; I’m not sure what they would be called on the haegum, or even if they’re the same type of thing, but they had this past violin player impressed.

For the next song, the band began to play, and suddenly the lights came on and blinded everyone. I was confused, and began to hear cheers and screams from behind. In the two aisles were people in costumes – the music teacher who was sitting next to me laughed and said “lions” – who slowly made their way to the stage, frequently stopping to snap at audience members and swat heads with their tails. Although at least half (or maybe two thirds) of the audience members were our students, they frequently screamed and seemed genuinely afraid. The music teacher beside me acted afraid as well. It’s something that I can’t quite understand, but I’ve found that people in Korea seem more emotionally expressive and aren’t afraid to look silly. And perhaps are afraid more often. As one ignorant foreigner put it, “Asians are afraid of their own shadow!” I had to refrain from commenting (this was a facebook post by a friend of a friend and I didn’t think it would be appropriate to start an argument), but I’d appreciate a more in-depth discussion of this display of emotion (and something a little less generalizing than “Asians”). It’s an aspect of the culture that I don’t quite understand yet.

But that aside, the lion dancers were incredibly good, getting into various poses that made them seem so life-like. It was amusing and a good time.

Although we weren’t supposed to, I took some fuzzy pictures:

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After that, a singer came onto the stage, a man in hanbok-like attire. He talked for a while (though I didn’t understand much), and then switched into a “traditional” manner of speech, in which everything is drawn out and dramatized. He seemed to play a traditional, old-fashioned character’s soliloquy, then announced his own song. This traditional style of singing requires so much skill and stamina, I realized as the performance went on. When I’d heard Korean folk music before, it sounded silly, especially coming from the mouths of young children, but now I’m even thinking I’d love to learn it. My vocals would need quite a bit of work though.

When he finished, the audience called for an encore and he happily obliged.

The final (planned) song brought the whole band together and featured awesome solos from two female drummers in the back. They were crazy awesome. Again the audience called for an encore, and the conductor agreed (the concert was after all, a little short – it began at 7:30 and we were out before 9, even with the encore). For the encore, the band played a popular song – if you’re living in Korea, you can probably guess what it is – “Let It Go” from Frozen. Yes, the trend is still going strong here. I’m starting to feel as if Korea has claimed or integrated Frozen into its own culture. It’s certainly a huge part of Korean pop culture right now, even after dying down in America. At the Fireworks festival opening concert, I also watched a “Let It Go” performance, from Hyorin of Sistar. Just as the songs sung by the traditional singer, to which all the audience members except the native Chinese teacher and I knew the words, “Let It Go” also unified the audience and had many audience members singing throughout the song. One of which, I found out after, was one of my coteachers.

I left the concert with a new interest in traditional Korean instruments, ashamed that I hadn’t known the name of even one before the concert. Maybe taking a traditional music class is something I’ll seek out. I also realize that I miss playing music. After the concert, I thought, if I could find somewhere to rent a violin to play for an hour or two, I definitely would. This was over a month ago.

Friday I finally asked my host mom about options, but she seemed skeptical. What about if I pretend I’m interested in buying a violin? There’s a instrument store at the local Homeplus (your one-stop shop in Korea that’s a bit like a multistory mall but has everything from groceries to brand name clothing and cosmetics), she told me, but they won’t let you play any of the instruments and definitely don’t do rentals.

Well, she remembered, I do have a friend who owns a small musical instrument store, but he mostly sells and teaches piano. She called him up, and we were in luck. He had a violin that I could come check out or feel free to even take home. That afternoon we stopped by his store; he was out working, but left the door unlocked for us. I tried out the violin, tuned it, and we walked out of the store with it, joking that we looked like thieves.

I’m pretty rusty and I hope my host sisters don’t start to hate me (but playing Let It Go probably gave me some bonus points). I’m not sure how long I’ll have the violin, but these small-town connections are pretty amazing.

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Fireworks Weekend – Part 1: Race

The last weekend of October, I stayed in Busan for the Fireworks Festival! It was a packed weekend, as I left for Busan straight from school Friday afternoon.

I met a fellow ETA and we made it just in time for the opening concert (otherwise known as Brilliance Concert Season 3), where we saw INSOONI!!! K.Will, Hyorin from Sistar, and Ali were also there, as well as a jazz band in between the main performers.

Here are some unfortunately fuzzy pictures:

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Insooni, real name Kim In Soon, is a biracial, Afro-Korean born in 1957 to a Korean mother and American GI. She had a difficult upbringing, living in poverty and unable to finish school. Some sources say she was kicked out of school due to her skin color; others cite constant bullying and harassment as the cause. However her story is a rags-to-riches narrative, with the addition of her challenges overcoming racial discrimination. Needless to say, everyone in Korea knows her now, and as far as I’ve heard she is a popular figure, widely respected for her amazing talent.

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However that isn’t all that sets her apart from your run-of-the-mill Kpop idol. Insooni is a strong advocate for multiethnic Koreans, not only bringing greater visibility to this population, but speaking out against the blatant discrimination that these minority Koreans face. With a national platform and a positive public image, she is in a ideal position to bring about positive change and makes every effort to do so. Although I have mixed feelings about this, she has even opened a multicultural school for children with multiethnic backgrounds.

I have a hard time reading accounts of biracial Koreans that paint their situation as all doom and gloom, as if any biracial Korean must be depressed and psychologically scarred from their experiences, but the reality is that growing up biracial in Korea, especially 20 or more years ago, isn’t comparable to growing up biracial in America, or even modern-day South Korea. While I’m becoming accustomed to always being seen as the foreigner (unless I can pass as Korean), I can’t imagine what it would be like to always be seen as foreign in your own home country. So with great hesitation I’ll say maybe a school for multiethnic children would be helpful for these children…but it’s in no way sustainable. Despite any good intentions, this is segregation.

It’s hard for me to tell if Korea is moving forward on this issue; I only hope and assume so. Race comes up in strange, very blatant ways. While in the US, multiracial identities seem often hidden or ignored, in Korea they are advertised. Literally. I found this in the newspaper last week:

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Whenever this topic is discussed in Korea, the language is almost always “multicultural”, sometimes “multiethnic”, and never “multiracial”.

I hope that this is only an affirmative action-like stage that will enable South Korea as a country to become more open and welcoming to racial diversity among their own.

Through the efforts of high profile multiracial Koreans like Insooni and Hine Ward, programs and campaigns have been launched to support, and perhaps normalize Koreans with varied ethnic backgrounds, and I don’t dispute that they are doing important work. From my limited research and few conversations in passing, Insooni is particularly instrumental in these campaigns as she is seen as a more legitimate figurehead. She was born and raised in Korea. In the end, Ward, despite his background, is still an American citizen, who didn’t experience the same discrimination growing up. While his efforts are important, it’s more important to see people in Korea standing up for this issue.

I end this section with some Insooni: