Haunting, Surreal Korean Shamanistic Magic with SaaWee at Flushing Town Hall

by delarue

Last night at Flushing Town Hall, violinist Sita Chay stood inches from the crowd, firing off smoldering variations on a witchy, Middle Eastern-tinged phrase. To her left, percussionist Jihye Kim sat on the floor, grounding Chay’s increasingly feral attack with a terse, subtly syncopated pulse on her doublebarreled Korean janggu drum. Dressed in matching rainforest-print jumpsuits, their faces made up with identical aqua lipstick and eyeliner, the two were an elegantly surreal, otherworldly presence throughout a night of often haunting, shamanistic music and movement.

The duo call themselves SaaWee; this program, New Ritual, blends ancient Korean spirit-summoning with improvisation and an elegaic dance component. The two performers entered from separate sides of the stage and ended with a slow, hypnotic march back to the wings, together. In between, they built an atmosphere bristling with suspense but also tinged with persistent plaintiveness. Acknowledging the wounds of history and then healing them seems to be a big part of the work’s largely unspoken narrative.

The music was a ride on a haunted roller coaster. Chay didn’t play as much readily discernible Korean melody as she alluded to it, whether via the blues, or several increasingly slashing intervals where her jagged shards and short, sharp, biting phrases brought to mind legendary violin improviser Billy Bang. Kim saved her fireworks for a couple of brief, thundering cadenzas, working both boomy ends of the janggu as well as a set of contrastingly delicate, small metal gongs and a single cymbal. Otherwise, she drifted between a forlorn, funereal pulse, spacious resonance from the gongs and thoughtful outward trajectories from both.

There were several raptly brooding processionals, a couple where the two slowly made a circle at the front of the theatre. Chay worked her way from airy acerbity to more insistent intensity as an interlude illustrating current-day societal troubles unfolded. Kim put on a veil, then put one on Chay; they didn’t take them off until it was time to wrap them in a bright red burial shroud (which Chay had picked up and trailed eerily behind herself at one point). The music came full circle at the end, offering hope even as the simple stage props (the masks and a couple of plants that Kim had somberly fixed her stare on) were taken away, Chay trailing Kim with a hypnotic mist that faded slowly to total silence.

Flushing Town Hall isn’t just one of the few big stages in New York where you can see Korean avant garde music; they also have an ongoing series of dance parties they call “global mashups.” The premise is to book two bands from completely different traditions, often with absolutely nothing in common other than energy. At the end of the show, everybody jams together. The concept seems ludicrous but it works shockingly well, and these concerts routinely sell out. The next one is Feb 29 at 8 PM with pyrotechnic klezmer clarinetist and composer Michael Winograd‘s wild, cinematic band along with percussive Afro-Venezuelan trance-dance group Betsayda Machado y El Parranda El Clavo. It’s not clear who’s playing first, but it really doesn’t matter. Tix are $18, $12 for students and if you’re 19 and under, you get in for free with your NYC school ID.

Be aware that this one is strictly for the local Flushing crowd since there is no 7 train running this weekend.