From Elgar to Shamans and Spicy Squid

An Evening with UK-based Korean Artists, sponsored by the Embassy of the Republic of Korea and the Korean Cultural Centre, 27 June 2008

Report by Jennifer Barclay, with photos also by David Kilburn and Saharial

Let’s hope this is the first of many evenings devoted to young Korean artists living in the UK, because the Korean Cultural Centre provides an ideal central venue – and Friday night events mean out-of-towners like me can run across to Waterloo and catch the last train home, knowing we don’t have to be up early next morning for work. Judging by the turnout of well over a hundred guests, if word is spread through various channels there could be a regular audience for similar evenings organised by the eleven-year-old Korean Artists Association UK.

H.E. Ambassador Chun Yung-woo (photo: Jennifer Barclay)H. E. Ambassador Chun Yung-woo, formerly ROK representative to the Six Party Talks, this week saw his hard work come to fruition with the symbolic demolition of part of the Yongbyon nuclear installation in North Korea. Such a promising result had to be mentioned, but the Ambassador with modesty simply noted it was an auspicious occasion, and went on to give a brief, genial and upbeat speech recognising the value of artists in helping to define ‘who we are, the Korean people and nation’ and promoting ‘cultural exchange, friendship and understanding’.

Bach Double (photo: Saharial)Francesca Cho, chairman of the Korean Artists Association UK, made a great choice by asking London Korean Links’ founder, editor and principal blogger, Philip Gowman, to be master of ceremonies for the evening. He put everything perfectly into context for a mixed Korean-British audience, and his musical knowledge particularly helped to introduce the first performance of violin and guitar by the elegant So Ra Lee and Jieun Park in little black dresses and strappy heels, and Roger Norkie, a South African honorary member of KAA. The beautiful Elgar piece felt, as he said, like music for the English ‘tea ceremony’ of cucumber sandwiches. The three pieces they played were not too long, popular and very nicely presented. A great start to the evening.

Next came poet Hye Kyoung Park reciting ‘The Face of Separation’. It was clever to choose something short and poignant, though I couldn’t catch the English version and thought it might be interesting another time for a native English speaker to perform the English half.

Ji-eun Jung (photo: David Kilburn)

I’ve seen them before, and everyone loves them: Ji Eun Jung on kayagum – in a stunning silk gown that gives her arms freedom to roam with such precision across the wide instrument – and Sung Min Jeon on guitar. Personally, I love it when Ji Eun Jung plays older Korean music on the traditional 12-string kayagum, which looks like a zither, a big plank of wood with strings, invented in the sixth century. What an amazing sound – dare I say it, a bit bluegrass-like, with rhythmic ebb and flow – they call it a Korean harp but the sound has a more masculine twang to me, like a slide guitar. Then she swapped it for a 25-string later variation on the kayagum, and the two of them played ‘Amazing Grace’, Arirang and the Korean and English national anthems – the crowd were delighted. I think maybe the guitar was overpowering the kayagum slightly at first, but the sound mix was fixed halfway through.

Sunnee Lee (photo: David Kilburn)

Philip admitted that his wife Louise first knew of Korea when she saw the dance troupe the Little Angels on Blue Peter. And now a former member of the Little Angels, Sunnee Park, was to perform a shaman ritual dance. She waved incense into the corners of the room, shook a very loud bell at each wall to ward off evil spirits, span around with swathes of cloth in a pretty way, all the while trying to show the trance-like state of the shaman. It was a stylised dance inspired by shamanistic ritual, which for me didn’t convey the slightly scary, ecstatic emotion of the real thing. But as a dance based on an aspect of Korean culture, it works well.

The Taekwondo team (photo: Saharial)To round off the performances came the troupe of very young students of taekwondo, led by Seung Soo Ha. ‘Don’t try any of this at home,’ quipped Philip, as perhaps the youngest and tiniest of the martial artists punched and kicked his way through a series of wood blocks. In another routine, three of the kids knelt to the ground together while another leaped over all their backs and then roundhouse kicked through another block. The tallest of them was blindfolded, took three steps back and then kicked an apple off a knife. What’s even cuter about these kids is that it’s not always perfect. When their instructor ended the display by punching his way through six blocks together, one sweet kid at the edge of the stage raised his eyebrows above the rims of his glasses and stuck his tongue right out in admiration.

Inside the KCC (photo: David Kilburn)The evening’s displays were cleverly kept to an hour, and there was time to mingle afterwards over a drink and a buffet, during which I discovered my new favourite Korean food, squid and vegetables cooked in a spicy sauce, which I believe is spelled something like ojinga hae muchim. Let’s hope I can find some at the Korean Food Festival coming up in New Malden on 12 July.

I was gutted to discover last week that I’d missed Dulsori performing at Petworth Park in Sussex, my own neck of the woods, only finding out about the concert a day later. Please let us know about Korean artists’ performances across the country. London Korean Links aims to spread the word, but it relies on getting the information from the organisers and sponsors. The Korean Cultural Centre and the Embassy seem to be doing a fantastic job of sponsoring fine events. Keep it coming.


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