It was midday on Sunday, the third day of the WOMAD festival at Charlton Park and after a big Saturday night, there was already quite a crowd gathering at the Charlie Gillett stage. Its an architecturally pleasing structure, defined by its projecting canopy, which depending on your outlook, resembles either an upturned brim of a Stetson or a shark’s jaw looming out of the sea. It provides shelter from both rain showers and the sun’s strong rays and with fine acoustic properties, it’s perhaps the near perfect open air setting for a more intimate performance.
The audience had gathered early, in order to secure prime position in front of the stage. Here they stood, ten deep before giving ground to the trip hazards and impassable pathways created by those who prefer to drag their camping chairs around. They were all here to experience one of WOMAD’s strengths, the introduction to “music you don’t yet know” and all eagerly waiting for Sunday’s opening act, the Tori Ensemble, a group of four master musicians from Korea. Two men and two women all steeped in folkloric musical traditions and also the more classical court aristocratic chamber music of Korea.
Formed in 2007, under the leadership of the geomungo player, Heo Yoon-jeong, they are not afraid to reinvent the century old rule book by incorporating elements of jazz, improvisation and contemporary music. Although they have a number of performances in the United States under their belt, they have only played to small audience in the UK at London’s Korean Cultural Centre as part of February’s Great Full Moon Festival. WOMAD Charlton Park was effectively their UK debut.
In a similar manner to Qawaali singers, the group were seated on the floor of the stage, dressed in modest wrap round silk over tunics in co-ordinating colors of purple, grey and lime. From left to right were, Kang Kwon-Soon (vocals) Heo Yoon-Jeong (geomungo) Lee Suk-Joo (bamboo flute and bamboo oboe) and Min Young-Chi (percussion and Korean hourglass drum). As I had missed Kim Eun-Jung’s recital at the University of Sheffield and hadn’t yet explored to the Songlines special covermount CD, this was my first introduction to Korean music.
Their music demanded my full attention, it was as if every note and the spaces in between were planned, purposeful and each with their own meaning. The time spent waiting to secure a place at the front part of the audience paid dividends. Theirs was not the type of music to appreciate from a distance. The musicians were wearing their hearts on their sleeves, their faces full of passion, their bodies completely engaged with their instruments. My senses were firing on all four cylinders.
Many of the performance pieces started with Kang Kwon-soon singing unaccompanied. She demonstrated an amazing array of techniques that had me totally captivated. In western music, vocals seem to occupy one space and dimension but with Kwon–soon there was more at work.here, including feint elements of overtone singing but that doesn’t accurately describe the range of tones and sounds. There was precision in the way she held the notes, sometimes with a breath so long that many deep sea divers would have already been forced to the surface.
For the most part I was glued to the geomungo playing of Ms Heo, which was full of elements of grace, poise and strength. The six stringed instrument, a relative of the zither which dates back to the 4th century, was central to the group’s sound. Yoong – jeong would initially play it in a low key, quiet fashion, to accent and contrast with the vocals of Kang Kwon-Soon, before breaking out into a more robust freestyle solo movement. Her right hand would press down on the twisted silk strings, pushing them firmly against the frets before leaving the strings in a graceful circular movement before once more touching down. There was no sliding up and down on the strings in this repertoire. In her left hand, held firmly between her thumb and index finger was a suldae, a small bamboo stick used to pick and strike at the strings. When used forcefully, it created a robust and intense bass sound, capable of startling and rattling my body.
It was organic, exciting and mesmerizing, none more so than when it was just the geomungo and the hour glass drum playing on stage. The sound was a driving drum and bass that any innovative club dj looking for new sounds would be incapable of recreating electronically and thus I would imagine insanely jealous of. The geomungo and the janguu, competing, teasing and chasing each other, building momentum before subsiding a little but working the crowd at every moment. They were going crazy. I was reminded of my times in jazz clubs where the audience would spontaneously applaud intricate musicianship or seamless handover of rhythms. I wonder if this would ever have happened in Korean Aristocratic society from whence some of the vocals originated.
The icing on the cake was a phenomenal drum solo, rooted in the shamanistic tradition, it showed just how Young-chi had mastered the notoriously difficult techniques of the janguu. He used to be one of the janguu players in the Korean super group Puri and now also works as the musical director of Reimei a traditional Korean arts group in Japan. In the video clip below I am reminded of a story I was told when I was young, about a tiger, who ran around a palm tree so fast and so many times, he melted.
Perhaps less easy on western ears was the piri, a bamboo oboe, played by Lee Suk-joo. However, I had to marvel at the intense sound he managed to produce from something so small, a sound that sits somewhere between the drone sound of Northumbrian pipes and the depth of the ritual horns used by Buddhist monks. Born into a musical family with both shamanic and pansori backgrounds, Suk-jon has been playing the piri since the age of 13. Taking a look into his pedigree, one gets the impression that the Tori Ensemble is his side project, the way this guy relaxes and has fun when he is not busy as the director at the Chungang Korean Traditional Orchestra. Somewhat akin to UNESCO conferring the status of Artist for Peace on musicians, Suk – joo has been nominated as Important Intangible Cultural Treasure No 72 by the Korean government for his work with preserving culture and tradition but more specifically, the shamanic ritual ceremony of the Ssitgim gut from his hometown on Jindo Island.
It was fitting that the Tori Ensemble should be on the Charlie Gillett stage as he visited Korea shortly before he died and was an avowed fan of Korean music and played Yoon-jeong’s cd on his show Sound of the World. The name Tori comes from the word saturi, meaning dialect. It is a musical term used to denote “local style” in Korean traditional music. In the program it said that the group “aims to seek a new sound that can internalize a variety of tori in traditional music, as well as harmonize with other toris in world music..” After being part of their performance I understand it now.
Never in million years did I expect to be so rewarded, so challenged and indeed so switched on after a performance of Korean music, that I’m off to discover a whole lot more.
- Kim Eun-Jung’s recital at the University of Sheffield
- Link to Wikipedia page on Important Intangible Cultural Properties
- Korean Musical Instruments
- Heo Yoon-Jeong’s Tribute to Charlie Gillett