As part of the Korean Cultural Centre’s K-Music Festival, we were treated to two very traditional music stages in the form of Geomungo Factory and a night of Pansori featuring the famed Ahn Sook-sun.
First to perform at the very elegant Cadogan Hall were Geomungo Factory, a quartet featuring 3 geomungo players, Yoo Mi-young, Jung Ein-Ryoung, Lee Jung-seok and gayageum player Kim Sun-a. Composing their own music, style and even instruments, Geomungo Factory focus on creating original music to help develop Korean traditional music and introduce its instruments to a modern audience. During the concert we saw some of their own musical inventions in the form of the beautiful cello geomungo, electric damhyeongeum and even a saw (of the D.I.Y kind) in action! “Their ultimate goal is to popularize the geomungo so that people everywhere can savour its charms”, and this is certainly what happened as the UK were treated to an evening of wonderfully enchanting sounds from the geomungo.
The evening was divided into two parts. The first part was very basic to familiarise the audience with the natural sounds of the traditional Korean instrument. We watched as the players tuned up, exploring all parts of the instruments and giving the audience an idea of how the geomungo and gayageum compliment each other. The geomungo and gayageum are both zither like instruments and are very versatile. When played, all parts of them are used, from the usual plucking of strings to tapping the wooden frame. The gayageum has a very feminine sound compared to the geomungo which has a deeper and stronger tone, which means the two instruments compliment each other very nicely. It was almost like a rock band where the gayageum is the lead guitar with its playful fun and fluttery melodies, whilst the geomungo plays the bass, bringing the strong rhythm and beat to the piece. Geomungo Factory are very mesmerising performers; they have no sheet music and the way they interact and bounce of each other as they play is very fun and uplifting to watch.
The first half was very traditional and mellow but this all changed when it got to the second half and the fabulous quartet showed off why they have such an impressive reputation. Everything really livened up and here we get to finally see Geomungo Factory’s inventive adaptations to Korea’s traditional instrument. Everything had a much more Rock & Roll vibe and we were introduced to the very intriguing sound of the cello geomungo. We especially loved it in the piece Geomungo & Tango. This piece seemed very familiar with its festive Spanish sounds, and it was very interesting to see how such a distinctively different instrument can produce such a familiar and recognisable tune to our ears. We also loved the dramatic use of the saw, very horror film-esque! The second half showed off the modern side of the Geomungo Factory and they’ve really demonstrated how these old and traditional instruments can still be very relevant in today’s music world. We would love to hear a geomungo version of the White Stripe’s ‘Seven Nation Army’! That would sound so epic with the strong vibrations and depths of the geomungo. Everything from the sound to the visuals of the instruments being played was charismatic and very impressive!
Geomungo Factory Set List: Part one ~ Sanjo Relay (Dasreum, Jinyang, Jungmori, Jungjungmori, Gutgeori, Jajinmori, Dongsalpuri, Eotmuri, Hwimori), Byeolgeumja (The Starry Night) Part two ~ Jirirariru, Geomungo & Tango, Jeong-Jung-dong (Movement of Silence), Arias, To a Free Bird (Fly to the Sky), Nightmare of Blind sound (Groundless Fear), Hwan-yu (Cycle of the Sound), Black Bird
Closing off the Festival was a night of Pansori at the same venue, Cadogan Hall. The KCC has brought over famous Panaori Masters before, and this time was no different. World famous Ahn Sook-sun was the star of the night, wowing audiences from the get-go. Ahn Sook-sun started to learn Pansori from the age of 8 and since then her career has grown to be one of great repute, and she is seen as one of the top names in the world of Pansori.
Usually a full Pansori performance can last for hours, even days, but for this concert, the stages were split. For the first half, we were treated to a variety of songs from not only Ahn Sook-sun, but two other female Pansori singers too. Accompanied by a geomungo, gayageum and buk, the three singers joined their harmonies brilliantly, and it was an amazing chance to experience Pansori singers performing together, as so far, we’ve only seen solo Pansori performances. With years of experience, Ahn Sook-sun was clearly the strongest singer amongst them, but there’s no doubting that the other two singers had great talent of their own. The instrumentalists also got their time to shine as they also performed some solo pieces too, getting the audience to sway along with their captivating rhythms.
After the interval, it was time to get down to the story part of the Pansori, with Ahn Sook-sun reciting the tale of Heungbo-ga. In this tale, good brother Heungbo is thrown out of the family home by the evil brother Nolbo, who goes around performing such nefarious deeds ranging from ringing bells while people are trying to talk, to punching pregnant women in the stomach (bit of a mix of extremes). Eventually Heungbo’s good karma kicks in when he helps an injured swallow. The swallow left him seeds which he planted, and upon cutting the gourds that grew, he discovered riches. Heungbo states that even though he’s rich, he will not change his good ways and will still help others no matter what their background, the moral being that whatever situation you’re in, you shouldn’t rage or whine that it’s someone else’s fault, but carry on regardless and help people.
Ahn Sook-sun’s performance was amazing throughout. Her voice was stunning, filling up the whole venue with its rich tones. Her skill was evident and the ease with which she played around with the notes was a joy to watch. Her communication with the audience was also great, and it felt like she was telling each one of us in the audience the tale personally. Ahn’s beautiful personality really shone through as throughout the night she was always smiling and even a little bit cheeky at times; she enthralled everyone. The audience was so involved, we even saw some super enthusiastic men joining in with the traditional shouts that encourage the Pansori singer, which is ‘chuimsae’. We heard quite a few johta’s being called out from the crowd. You could really tell how world class Ahn was, truly a master at her art-form, and this was a unique experience of being able to hear the voice of a true pro.
Aside from the music, the whole concert was visually stunning. The costumes were so beautiful and vibrant, you couldn’t help but admire the detailing, patterns and accouterments of the performers’ Hanboks. For the second half, Ahn was wearing a lovely pure white Hanbok that looked splendid as she stood on the stage, singing. Wearing the Hanboks really helped give the concert another dimension, helping us to truly experience the art traditionally.
To close the night, Ahn, with the other two Pansori singers and instrumentalists, sang Arirang. Not only did they sing it, but encouraged the audience to join in too! The perfect end to a beautiful night in many respects. It was also a great way to close the Festival as a whole, with one of Korea’s most beautiful forms of music. It was a pleasure to be able to listen to such a legend as Ahn was, and we’re sure the whole audience felt an honoured as us.
We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves at the K-Music Festival and do pray that this will be an annual event. This Festival has given us a chance to experience something from all different aspects of Korean music and has given the British public a deeper insight into Korean Culture beyond K-pop. With a nice balance of modern and traditional music, there was something for everyone. A MASSIVE congratulations and thank you to both the Korean Cultural Centre UK and Serious Music for organising and hosting such a top class Festival!