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Traditional Music: Remixed for Global Stages

Maverick Creates Musical Potpourri

Music performer, director and composer Jang Young Gyu spans the full range of mediums in the performing arts, compiling a remarkable portfolio of critically acclaimed works. Since the early 1990s, he has organized and led a series of bands, posing questions and conducting experiments that stretch traditional Korean music with catchy rhythms.

Jang Young Gyu set out on his musical journey by organizing a band with his elementary school friends. The band played tambourines and melodions, and as he recalls, it was “ludicrous.” Today, many words can be used to describe Jang’s music. “Ludicrous” is not one of them.

Jang, 54, became known to international music fans while performing with SsingSsing, a band fusing rock and minyo, or traditional Korean folk songs. He has also won awards at domestic and international film festivals; in all, he’s been involved with more than 80 films, including the international smash hit “Train to Busan” (2016) and notables like “The Wailing” (2016), “Tazza: The High Rollers” (2006) and “A Bittersweet Life” (2005). As if that weren’t enough, Jang’s eclectic scope also extends to dance and theater productions.

Much of his attention nowadays is focused on his duties as the music director and bassist of LEENA LCHI, an alternative pop band that became a global sensation in 2019 with the song “Tiger is Coming.” The success has raised Jang’s profile in the musical world even higher, though he isn’t comfortable talking about himself. Though he describes himself as a poor conversationalist, he was clear and succinct discussing his career and music at his studio in Paju, Gyeonggi Province, the incubator of his musical adventures.

At the forefront of contemporary experimentation with traditional Korean music, Jang Young Gyu has worked with artists from various fields since his youth. The experience, he says, has helped him broaden the range of his music.

When did you get into traditional music?
Won Il, the traditional Korean composer and instrumentalist, showed me the way. I met him in the early 1990s. We worked together in Uhuhboo Project, which formed in 1994, until the band’s first album was released. At the time, I had an immense curiosity about new sounds. Won Il introduced me to his friends and colleagues, with whom we carried out various projects.

My interest in traditional music deepened when I started to work with modern dancer Ahn Eun-me. Her dance company offered me an opportunity to make music on my own terms, encouraging me to approach it in a drastically different way. Working on projects such as “New Chunhyang” and “Symphoca Princess Bari – This World,” I was finally able to distinguish the three genres of traditional vocal music – that is, pansori (narrative song), minyo and jeongga (classical vocal music) – and came to appreciate the different qualities and charms of the sounds.

Wanting to delve deeper into the tradition, I organized a seven-person band called Be-Being in 2007. We worked on projects of Buddhist music, mask dance and court music, regarding them as a process of learning.

As a music director, what do you think pulls you to traditional music?
I’m enchanted by what’s created over a long passage of time. And I also think that the circumstances under which you listen to music, or the way in which you appreciate it, can make a lot of difference. I was fortunate to be able to meet musicians in person and listen to their performances up close. That means I could immerse myself in aspects of our traditional music that differed from what people usually feel while listening to records or going to concert halls, where sounds are amplified by microphones. This is something you cannot experience without being at very close range. I hope many people will have such experiences.

SsingSsing, a minyo (traditional folk song) rock band, captivated audiences with groundbreaking music and funny performances. Formed in 2015, the group included three singers, a drummer and two guitarists, including Jang Young Gyu. It disbanded in 2018.
Courtesy of National Theater of Korea

What do you think of crossovers?
Last year, working as a judge at an audition, I had a chance to watch the performances of over 60 teams of musicians. Throughout, a question lingered in my head: “What do they want to do?” Most traditional musicians are technically proficient because their art requires a long period of training. But music isn’t all about refined skills – that’s my honest opinion.

For the last several years, a growing number of bands have fused traditional music with other genres. Last year, a TV audition program for traditional musicians was even broadcast, further accelerating the crossover trend. But I’m not sure if this is all good. I’m worried that people who aren’t well-informed might tend to mistake the crossover pieces featured on the TV competition for true traditional music and only seek out music like that. We should soon find a way to expose them to the fun and charms of authentic traditional music.

What is your view of music that fuses traditional music and other genres?
I grew up listening to a collaboration record by the percussion quartet Kim Duk-soo & Samulnori and the multinational jazz group Red Sun. I thought it was excellent music. Later, I was attracted to Percussion Ensemble Puri and Yang Bang Ean (aka Kunihiko Ryo). Although Yang couldn’t have expected it, almost all traditional music bands played his pieces on stage. Many groups emulating his music style emerged at the time and significantly influenced the traditional music scene.

If we talk about Jambinai, I don’t think their music can be called traditional, but they have a clear orientation and original musicality. They’re playing a prominent role in the music scene. There’s also 2nd Moon, a seven-person band that’s good at discerning popular taste. It’s a good phenomenon that various groups are appearing.

LEENALCHI performs at Strange Fruit, a live theater near Hongik University, in December 2021. The alternative pop band formed in 2019 with seven members. “Tiger is Coming,” based on pansori (narrative song) reinterpreted into pop music, became an international sensation. Front: (from right to left) bassist Jang Young Gyu and singers Kwon Song Hee, Lee Na Rae, Ahn Yi Ho and Shin Yu Jin. Rear: bassist Park Jun Cheol and drummer Lee Chul Hee.

What ultimately determines the value?
I think good music offers something different. As for me, I also try to always keep in mind how to extract something different from what I’m doing.

Does that mean you try to avoid clichés?
Working on a constant series of projects, I once worried about fixed styles and repetition. At some point, however, it occurred to me that having a style wasn’t necessarily bad, and I was freed from an obsession with always being new. With my style, I can seek new methods depending on content.

How does LEENALCHI differ for you?
For other projects, I usually have a clearly defined role and a distinct purpose, but LEENALCHI opens up everything. The typical process of making a song goes like this: first, I compose basic rhythms and patterns, after which the four singers get together to find matching melodies from pansori works. Sometimes, we listen to and review all the five major pansori works so as to fit their melodies and verses with the composed rhythms and our musical intent. It’s interesting to capture what comes up unexpectedly in this process and build it up into a song. What we do isn’t rearranging one of the existing pansori works but creating a new one in our own way.

Has LEENALCHI’s success changed you?
I had a vague idea that it would be great if my music were well-received in the pop music market, but I didn’t think about what I would have to do for it to happen. Since our first album, “Sugungga” (Song of the Underwater Palace), was re-leased in 2020, I’ve had heaps of work in front of me that I would have hated to do, that I would have never done before. But then it occurred to me that I shouldn’t say I wanted to be “successful commercially” while avoiding those things. The biggest change, I guess, has been my acceptance of the things that would have formerly made me wonder, “What does all this have to do with my work?” I’m trying hard to adapt. By the way, LEENALCHI isn’t successful yet. “Is our work consumed as band music?” I ask myself, and the answer is “no.” There’s a long way to go.

What more do you have to do?
In fact, there’s no market for band music in Korea, so just making good music doesn’t ensure success. It makes no sense, either, to wait indefinitely to be recognized. Optimal circumstances don’t magically happen, so each band should try hard to make themselves heard.

Are you planning to perform overseas?
For the band to survive, we should continue to find ways to get closer to domestic audiences while also trying to secure our place in the international music scene, as markets for bands do exist there. Yes, we’re having concerts overseas this year.

What about your second album?
I never expected to be so busy, with so little time to work on the album. And I thought I could make something more out of the five pansori works, but now I’m doubtful. I wondered if telling a new story would be enough to appeal to contemporary listeners when the means to tell the story remain unchanged, with parts of the existing pansori works simply cut and pasted. Then I realized we should find new musical methods of making sound, not to mention new stories to tell. The second album is primarily intended to present creative pansori reflecting all these thoughts, so it will take longer. I’ve set a goal to release it at the end of this year, if possible.

SeoJeong Min-gap Pop Music Commentator
Ha Ji-kwon Photographer


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