Seoul, South Korea
South Korea, The Earth Stringband’s final frontier. After a grueling day of travel from Timor Leste, we finally arrived at South Korea’s Incheon airport at 6 am in the morning yesterday greeted by our friendly assistant regional program officer, Yoon. We arrived to the Westin hotel in Seoul that morning and all went our separate paths until the afternoon.
So far in this trip, the majority of the cultural exchange has been taking place on our workdays when we get to meet people at the educational workshops and concerts while the rest days have been more mellow and reserved for alone time. The embassy here has made a huge effort however to schedule some really cool cultural activities on our days off, the first of which was visiting a very inspiring and special musician, Jang Sa-Ik. Jang Sa-Ik is a highly popular South Korean singer. His music combines elements of popular music, jazz, and Korean traditional music. His music has been described as “hot and spicy, like garlic.”
We all took a trip to Jang’s house which was built into the mountains in a beautiful part of Seoul. We were greeted by a very smiley, warm and welcoming Mr. Jang who ushered us into his house beaming with joy and delight. He showed us up to his amazing balcony spot on the top floor where one could see beautiful mountains all around and distant remains of ancient palace walls. It was immediately apparent that nature is a very big part of Mr. Jang’s being. The way his house blended into the city scenery was uplifting.
Mr. Jang’s home is the first house aside from ambassador residences that the Earth Stringband has been able to spend time in since we started touring. Even though we love to tour, The Earth Stringband loves the smell and feel of a nice cozy home.
With the help of Maria translating for us, Mr. Jang talked to us about his music and his philosophies. He showed us his collection of Gongs and gave everybody in the band a nice piece of percussion to bang on for a while. We had an awesome jam, some of which was captured in the video below. I was exposed to the awesomeness of a gong jam a few years ago by our good friends Chris Turner and Rachel Maloney so the vague notion of jamming on gongs again perked me up from my semi-jetlag state after the flight from the night before.
Midway through the jam I had a realization of how dissonance and “out” music occurs so much in nature and in the most rootsy un-intellectual of ways (when talking about something sounding “out” I’m just referring to something being out of the normal way we hear things tonally. Studying at music school, the notion of playing “out” music often gets very intellectualized and sounds and feels more like math than real music in many circumstances). In the same way you hear dissonances and crazy harmony coming out of gospel music when the spirit is coming through the church, I could feel the spirit coming from Mr. Jang as the gongs were swirling with his voice.
Mr. Jang then sat us down for some tea and talked to us about how he lets nature inspire him and how being in his home and being able to look at the sky and breathe the good Seoul air keeps him going everyday and keeps his music and art flowing at all times. He is a very busy man and it was such an honor to have tea with him and hear his stories and perspectives on life. I can’t thank the embassy here enough for scheduling this awesome interaction for us, especially considering how busy Mr. Jang’s schedule is.
In a change of pace, after Mr. Jang’s house, the embassy van jetted us off to the Korea Heritage Fashion Show incorporating traditional Korean fashion into modern interpretations of fashion. The embassy managed to get us VIP seats and we were seated in the front rows at one of the biggest imperial palaces in Seoul for this amazing display of fashion. Needless to say, we were all extremely under-dressed in our plaid shirts and jeans, but nobody seemed to mind too much. I’ve never been to a fashion show so this was a serious trip for me.
All the models with their uber-hip clothing from a future dimension would stoically walk down the walkway in perfect lines. It was amazing watching those guys and girls keep a straight face for that long with clothes that fit them perfectly well. The music went amazingly well with the show and included both a band with traditional and modern instruments and a pre-recorded soundtrack that blended with the live musicians’ repertoire seamlessly.
Day 2 in Seoul was the Earth Stringband’s shopping day. We ate amazing vegetarian temple food in the downtown area for lunch and then went around the different markets shopping for souvenirs and appreciating the smells and tastes of Seoul. The city has so much character and so many cool little things that represent that character. The food is rich and all the colors you see are full and vibrant. Shiny things are really shiny, and tasty things are rich and yummy! We ended the day with one of my fathers’ physicist friends, Inkyu, from the University of Seoul taking us out to a traditional meal of hot Korean BBQ and kimchi and squid pancakes after. Hot Korean BBQ (different than traditional Korean BBQ) is everything it’s hyped up to be. We met the woman at the restaurant who allegedly created the incredible sauce popular in the district that the ribs are seasoned with. She was outside grilling those ribs up just right for everybody.
All the little side dishes were delicious and without a doubt were the best pork ribs I’ve had in my life. Tomorrow we go to Jeonju to play at the closing ceremony of the folk festival there and we resume our musical work. Thanks to the embassy and our friends here in South Korea, the first 2 days here have been incredible and a true cultural immersion for the Earth Stringband. I can’t wait to see more music, meet delightful people, and eat delicious food. Aansanghaseyo!