New York Music Daily

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Category: korean music

Bewitching Singer Na-rae Lee Reverses the Curse in an Iconic Pansori Epic at Lincoln Center

Ong-nyeo lost her first husband when she was fifteen.

That’s how the story goes, anyway. In the ancient Korean pansori epic Byeongangsoe-ga, she’s a cursed woman in a cautionary tale about hubris and its consequences. In the American premiere of Na-rae Lee’s withering remake Thursday night at Lincoln Center, Ong-nyeo was transformed into a tragic heroine whose bravery in defying patriarchal norms leads to a grisly fate. Exactly what that fate was, star pansori singer Lee left to the audience to figure out. But the message was clear: in a misogynistic society, the perils a woman faces when she gains power over men can be treacherous to the extreme.

Considering how male-centric pansori narratives typically are, Lee acknowledges that there’s considerable irony in her choice of career, especially given her advocacy for women’s rights. So she decided to reinvent the tale of Byeongangsoe from his long-suffering wife’s point of view.

Lee sang that role and several others in Korean with a feral intensity, meticulously modulating a torrential vibrato that took on more power the further down the scale she went. English supertitles helped immensely. She was backed by an excellent, eclectic band – Hwayoung Lee on gayageum zither, Gina Hwang on geomungo bass zither, and Simun Lee on acoustic guitar – who began the show with unexpectedly subtle variations on an ominous chromatic riff that they would eventually turn into slightly muted doom metal when the guitarist kicked in with a primitive distortion effect.

The traditional version of the fable casts Ong-nyeo as a tragic character cursed to watch a succession of husbands die, often very gruesomely, since she’s too beautful for her own good. Na-rae Lee has recast her as defiant and fearless as she goes through man after man, curse be damned. Likewise, the one dude she thinks will help her reverse the curse, Byeongangsoe, is traditionally cast as a cartoonish, Falstaffian type. Here, the bandleader tore off the clown mask to reveal him as a smalltime thug who beats up on his wife since he’s not very good at picking on anyone his own size.

Throughout the show, there seemed to be a great deal of improvisation, often hectic, sometimes frantic or sepulchrally sinister, the music matching the narrative. Pensive, bossa-tinged folk-pop set the stage for the meeting between the two lovers; the ensuing marathon sex scene (sans disrobing) got plenty of droll bed-shaking effects. A lament for what Ong-nyeo ‘s scrub of a husband could have been – after the gods’ verdict took its grisly toll on him – brought to mind the Grateful Dead at their most vampy, with a biting gayageum solo. Byeongangsoe’s main theme, unsurprisingly, turned out to be a loopy march.

In her bright red dress, the singer held the crowd rapt. From a plaintive, understated, wordless lament, to throaty, shamanistic interludes where she turned loose a wide vibrato that approached diesel engine power and rumble, Lee spanned a range that even pansori singers seldom tackle. As the drama grew more grisly and the bodies piled up – this is a horror story of Gogolian proportions – the lighting went completely red several times, Lee scurrying furtively, then horrified, from one end of the stage to the other. A last-gasp attempt at an exorcism backfired spectacularly as the band played quasi trip-hop and then finally a dejected waltz. The audience sat stunned as the group let the music die away.

The performance was co-sponsored by the tireless folks at the Korean Cultural Service, who bring some amazing talent to this country: if only the US government advocated for American artists with a fraction of the Koreans’ tenacity! The next performance at the atrium space at Lincoln Center on Broadway just north of 62nd Street is tomorrow night, May 16 at 7:30 PM. an entertaining annual multimedia event featuring an allstar cast from film and tv reading provocative selections from Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.

Towering, Hypnotic, Psychedelic Korean Postrock Majesty from Black String at Lincoln Center

Korean postrock band Black String’s show at Lincoln Center last night seemed much more terse and minimalist than their feral set last year at Flushing Town Hall. Yet while the songs this time out seemed more focused and stripped-down, the music was no less psychedelic. There, bandleader Yoon Jeong Heo was all over the place on her geomungo bass zither, delivering every texture and timbre that can possibly be plucked – with a stick! – from that magical instrument. Here, she was more percussive, and in that sense, hypnotic, and the band followed suit.

At that Queens gig, guitarist Jean Oh let loose majestic, David Gilmour-esque flares and got lowdown with some gritty Marc Ribot skronk. Here, he played mostly big, icy, resonant block chords, adding contrasting delicate flavor via flickering electronics. Last night, it seemed more than ever that multi-reedman Aram Lee has become the group’s lead instrumentalist, switching between wood flutes of various sizes, running endless variations on simple pentatonic riffs, often with a bluesy majesty. Drummer Min Wang Hwang made the tricky time signatures and metric shifts look easy, whether adding marionettish cymbal accents, fullscale stomp on a couple of floor toms, or with the thump of his janggu barrel drum.

The enveloping, persistent unease brought to mind the insistent, grey grimness of Mogwai, Godspeed You Black Emperor at their most focused…or Jethro Tull playing a Glenn Branca symphony (that’s where the flute comes in). To max out the psychedelic factor, the band rode the sonic rollercoaster, often bringing the music down to a simple pairing of instruments: there seemed to be fewer moments when everyone was charging along in unison.

At one point, Heo marvelled that the ancient Korean folk themes which the group use as a stepping-off point seem absolutely avant garde today. She could just as easily have said no wave. Black String’s most hammeringly emphatic instrumentals would have been perfectly at home in the early 80s downtown scene.

The most poignant moment of the night was a gently imploring prayer of sorts wafting up from Lee’s flute: here as elsewhere, the electronics (when they were working) added subtle echo or sustain effects. The most explosive interlude was a ferocious geomungo-drum duel: it was astonishing to witness Heo snapping off so many volleys of notes against a single, pulsing low pedal tone.

They closed the set on an insistent, triumphant note with Song of the Sea, a mini-suite of ancient fishermen’s songs that Hwang delivered in his powerful pansori baritone, modulated with a wide-angle, Little Jimmy Scott-style vibrato.

What’s become most clear after seeing this band in two very different spaces – each with an excellent sound system – is that they need better gear. The guitar rig Oh was using delivered a cold, trebly, flat, transistor amp sound that died away too soon. And Heo needs some custom pickups for her geomungo. She was out of breath at the end of several numbers, yet there were too many places where her riffs got lost in the mix. A performer so mesmerizing to watch deserves to be heard.

The next free show at the atrium space at Lincoln Center on Broadway just north of 62nd St. is their more-or-less monthly salsa dance party. This time the featured band is oldschool Cuban-flavored charanga Son Sublime. Showtime is 7:30; the earlier you get there, the better the chances of getting in.

Trumpeter Ben Holmes Brings His Lyrical Brilliance and Distant Unease to Barbes This Weekend

According to Kate Attardo – the brilliant photographer who ran the music room at Barbes in recent years – trumpeter Ben Holmes and accordionist Patrick Farrell staged their ominous, cinematic Conqueror Worm Suite there three times. This blog was in the house for two of those rapturously haunting shows (here’s what it sounded like there back in September of 2016). Fortuitously, the suite is also available on album, and streaming at youtube complete with Natalie Sousa’s original concert visuals. Over the duo’s shapeshifting, often wildly eclectic backdrop, Holmes narrates Edgar Allen Poe’s grand guignol poem about a killer worm to rival all others.

The suite opens with Farrell’s moody, low solo accordion chords eventually joined by Holmes’ mournful theme; from there, the trumpeter picks up steam with lively flair, up to a sudden coda. Then the duo return with a variation that foreshadows the klezmer influence that grows more distinct as the suite goes on – which makes sense, considering that the two have shared membership in the Yiddish Art Trio.

“Mere puppets who go…who shift the scenery to and fro,” Holmes intones over Farrell’s creepy, carnivalesque oompah – did Poe have some foreknowledge of the plague of gentifiers who would imperil this city far more than any oversize, ravenous insect?

Whatever the case, the two build a march in the same vein as the first part of a hora, in this case hapless victims dreading their fate far more than any new bride required to dance and make nice with her mother-in-law. Then Poe’s “motley drama” in a “circle that ever returneth in” becomes “horror – the soul of the plot,” a brief moment of terror giving way to a strutting, catchy klezmer dance. Holmes’ melody bounces, blithe and surreal, over Farrell’s steady, rhythmic orchestration – as usual, he has a way of making the accordion sound like a whole reed section.

The oompahs grow more disquieting, as do the duo’s increasingly atonal harmonies, rising toward terror as the march continues toward an ineluctable conclusion.The ending is something of a surprise, yet a magnificent payoff in its own counterintuitive way. 

It was tempting to save this album in the stack waiting patiently for Halloween month this year – an annual tradition at this blog where there’s not only something new but also something macabre or monstrous every day. But that can wait – Holmes is playing this Saturday night, July 28 at 8 PM at Barbes, his usual haunt, with his latest trio project, Naked Lore which features Brad Shepik on guitar and Shane Shanahan on percussion along with frequent special guests. While their sound is completely different and a lot more improvisational than this masterpiece, there are plenty of moments of distant menace and frequent references to uneasy Middle Eastern and klezmer melodies. If you miss this weekend’s show, they’re back at Barbes again on Aug 24.

Black String Play a Riveting, Hauntingly Epic, Sold-Out Show in Queens

Last night at Flushing Town Hall, Seoul band Black String left a sold-out crowd awestruck and blown away with a vast, oceanic, often thunderingly intense set of darkly picturesque, suspensefully and often plaintively shifting themes that transcended any kind of label. The four-piece group improvise a lot, but they’re not a jamband, at least in the hippie sense of the word. They can rock as hard as any group alive, but they’re not a rock band per se. Although traditional Korean themes are central to much of their music, their striking riffs and hypnotically pulsing, kaleidoscopic waves of sound draw just as deeply on the blues, and possibly early heavy metal. They use folk instruments, but their themes evoke vast continental expanses far more than remote villages. In 2018, this band has a franchise on epic grandeur.

Guitarist Jean Oh’s Telecaster sent an icy shimmer wafting through his vintage Fender amp, then bandleader Yoon Jeong Heo responded with an offhandedly savage flicker from the strings of her low-register geomungo lute, and then they were off. Throughout several long interludes, including the night’s opening number, Aram Lee breathed and vocalized through his daegeum flute, adding another layer of surrealism to the mix. Drummer Min Wang Hwang began with washes of cymbals contrasting with a couple of booming floor toms, later in the set switching to doublebarreled janggu drum, then coloring a couple of the quieter numbers with sepulchrally dancing accents on a couple of small hand-held gongs.

Yet for all the band’s titanic sound, their riffs are catchy and anthemic to the point of minimalism. Oh’s majestically sustained flares. awash in digital reverb and delay, often brought to mind Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour. Otherwise, he built dense atmospheric clouds, with a couple of vividly furtive detours into Marc Ribot-ish skronk.

Hwang drove the music from ominous valleys to majestic peaks with a dynamic attack that was more distant thunder than lightning directly overhead. He also turned out to be a powerful, charismatic singer, ranging from insistent and shamanistic, to angst-fueled, melismatic pansori drama on one of the night’s most fiery numbers.

Lee built mournfully expansive ambience with his solos on a couple of the quieter songs, including the aptly titled closing epic, Song of the Sea. With a steely focus, Heo displayed breathtaking speed on the strings, especially considering that the geomungo is plucked with a stick rather than fingerpicked, By the end of the show, she was drawing on all kinds of extended technique, evincing all kinds of ghostly overtones out of an instrument more commonly associated with magically warping low riffage. Throughout the set, she’d spar with the drums, or the guitar, when she wasn’t anchoring the long upward climbs with pulsing pedal notes or octaves.

The rhythms shifted as much as the music. The first number was in 7/8 time; a later song galloped along with a groove that almost could have been qawwali. Arguably, the high point of the night could have been a new, as-yet untitled number with savage salvos from flute and guitar. Black String have been making waves in this country; it seemed that the Korean expat contingent constituted only about a quarter of this crowd. Watch this space for at least one Manhattan appearance this summer. And you’ll find this show on the best concerts of 2018 page here at the end of the year, if we make it that far.

This is typical of the kind of show that you’ll see at Flushing Town Hall this year: their 2018 season is pretty amazing, Barbes/Jalopy/Lincoln Center-quality. The next concert there is on Feb 2 at 7:3 PM at with the Queens Symphony Orchestra playing works by Villa-Lobos, Tschaikovsky and the Beatles. What’s even better is that the show is free; if you’re going, get there early.

Poignant, Fascinating Korean Sounds in Queens Last Night

It would make sense to assume that a band who’d play a song called The Scream of the Sunflower would be more than a little psychedelic. Much as there were plenty of surreal moments in improbably named Korean chamber-folk group Fairy Tale’s North American debut last night at Flushing Town Hall, the show was more about elegance and poignancy.

“Legend” is probably a better English translation of what the sextet call themselves. Lyrics are very important to this group, especially to expressive frontwoman Myeongseo Jang, so she and her bandmates took turns introducing the songs in coyly fractured English. Their signature sound is piano-based parlor pop laced with terse, expertly played Korean folk riffs and playful trick endings. “Less is more” seems to be their mantra.

Their new album Land of the Poet features new songs with lyrics by Korean poets from across the years, and they played several of those, the most plaintive of them written under the Japanese occupation. The band’s not-so-secret weapon is haegeum (spike fiddle) player Yunjin Ko, whose eerie, slippery low-midrange glissandos and austere, overtone-spiced washes grounded the music in an austere rusticity. That effect was enhanced by the low-register geomungo lute of Juhee Kim, who played mostly low-key rock-style basslines, but tantalized the crowd with a couple of breathtakingly surreal, tone-warping solos. If there’s anybody in the band we need to hear more of, it’s her.

Drummer Kyuyeon Kim was a similarly understated presence: much of the time, purposefully emphatic pianist Youngjin Oh carried the rhythm. Daegeum (wood flute) player Youseok Seo traded brief contrapuntal passages with the haegeum and geomungo when he wasn’t adding precise flickers and flutters behind Jang’s nuanced vocals.

The night’s most arresting song was Dear Boy, a brooding lament with a lyric from the Japanese occupation years, bringing to mind early Genesis with its intricate, tantalizingly brief interplay between geomumgo and piano on the intro and outro. Most of the songs built momentum over an allusive triplet groove fueled by Oh’s steely lefthand. One of the early numbers came across as a mashup of Korean folk and Springsteen stadium rock; a later tune bounced along on a catchy, circling new wave piano riff.

The rest of the set edged toward both darkness and drama but seldom went all the way there, tension and suspense lurking but never showing themselves. A moody strut driven by a downward piano progression had echoes of Tom Waits. It wasn’t until the encore, a blazing sunset tableau, that Jang finally cut loose with a full-throttle wail at the very end.

Fairy Tale’s first tour outside of Korea continues tonight, Dec 2 at 6  PM at the Korean Community Center, 100 Grove St. in Tenafly, NJ. Flushing Town Hall continues to program some of the most exciting global sounds coming through New York outside of the usual Barbes-Drom-Lincoln Center pipeline. One especially intriguing upcoming concert here is on January 26 at 8 PM with another genre-defying Korean band, Black String, who blend edgy guitar improvisation with classic geomungo and flute sounds. Tickets go onsale on December 11, and as with all Flushing Town Hall events, ages 13-19 with school ID get in free.

A Whale of a New York Debut by Stunningly Individualistic Korean Art-Folk Band Coreyah

Last night at Flushing Town Hall, psychedelic Korean art-folk band Coreyah were three elegantly shapeshifting rainy-day songs into their New York debut when Halee Jeong launched into an ominous, misterioso,, tone-warping intro on her geomungo lute – a large, low-register instrument played with a stick – with an unhinged savagery. Overtones and wildly bent notes flew from the strings, to the point that it looked like she was going to break the thing. Was this a sign of things to come? Absolutely. By the end of about an hour onstage, people were dancing in the aisles and calling the band back for an encore with a series of standing ovations.

Bands whose sound is defined by epic grandeur tend to be on the serious side, and Coreyah have plenty of gravitas. But they’re also hilarious. Early in the set, multi-flutist Dong-Kun Kim opened a song with a coyly spaced birdsong riff, echoed on the song’s playful chorus with chirpy charm and matching hand signals by frontwoman Ashin Kweon. Later on, multi-percussionist Cho-Rong Kim switched places with drummer Kyungyi and machinegunned through an endlessly droll series of woodblock hits balanced on the low end by a relentless “whoomp whoomp” as the flute player led the group through the call-and-response of a completely over-the-top rap. And throughout the show, Kyungyi’s deadpan sense of humor kept the audience chuckling. Essentially, his message was “If you don’t like what you hear, just chill: we’ll eventually get to something that’s up your alley. We have mad flavors.” He wasn’t kidding.

They followed that crazy rap with the night’s gentlest song, guitarist Samgheum Park bringing to mind a similarly polystylistic Asian-born player, Rez Abbasi, with a pensively exploratory blend of judicious jangle, jazz erudition and unleashed skronk. The band’s sound would have been even more epic had he been given an amp, rather than running through his stompboxes, directly into the PA.

Kweon is a force of nature, a sometimes terrifyingly brilliant singer. She majored in pansori as an undergraduate, but the concert’s program notes made more than clear that she refuses to be identified by any one style of music. She induced plenty of goosebumps with her shivery melismatics on the set’s dramatic closing ballad, but she also aired out her mighty low register on a broodingly vampy, propulsive, distantly Arabic-tinged anthem, shades of Grace Slick. And while she sang exclusively in Korean, Kweon transcends the limits of language. The plaintiveness and anguish she channeled, reaching to the stratospheric heights of what seemed like a four-octava range during the night’s darkest and most intensely crescendoing anthem, was impossible to turn away from. But her wistfulness early in the set, as well as her wry good cheer as the night went on, came across just as evocatively.

Beyond the musicians’ sizzling chops, what’s most inteesting about this band is how subtly they weave classic Korean folk themes into a rock framework. The use of geomungo instead of bass resulted in more interplay and tradeoffs that most rock bands have between bassist and guitarists. And the twin-percussion team seamlessly blended rhythms as diverse as bossa nova and qawwali into the mix. They ended the night with a big singalong anthem: it helps if you speak Korean, because that way you get all of their jokes, but this indelibly New York, multicultural crowd found themselves drawn into the music all the same.

Fun fact: depending on how you transliterate it, Coreyah is Korean for either “inheritance” or “whale.” The group consider that mighty, endangered cetacean to be their spirit animal.

Flushing Town Hall is sort of the Joe’s Pub of Queens…but infinitely better. Tickets are cheaper, there’s no annoying drink minimum and booking is even more adventurous. This Sunday there’s a Diwali festival with Indian music and dance to celebrate the holiday; the next cnncert with global reach cheduled here after that is dazzlingly eclectic string quartet Brooklyn Rider on Dec 2 at 7:30 PM; tix are $25/$15 stud/srs.

Jeong Ga Ak Hoe Bring Their Intense, Hypnotic, Fascinating Korean Sound to NYC

In the sense that there’s not much in English about Korean ensemble Jeong Ga Ak Hoe, they’re quite the mystery band. Their sound is based in traditional Korean music, notably the mystically crescendoing, emotive pansori style, but they’ve also done frequent collaborations with flamenco groups. The five rather epic tracks streaming at Storyamp (you can also check the single video at their youtube channel, or their Sonicbids page) offer plenty of enticement. If you like the otherworldly beauty, delicate textures and mind-warping tonalities of Korean traditional and classical music but need an additional jolt of improvisational fun, this group will do the trick. They’re playing tomorrow night, March 16 at 7 PM at Elebash Hall, at CUNY, 365 5th Ave. just north of 34th St. Cover is $25.

The first of the five is a stately, spare, hypnotic waltz,  frontwoman/gayageum lute player Jiae Lee soaring with her melismatic vocals over spare lute, slinky wood flute, quavering fiddle and clip-clop percussion. The second track is a real trip. It’s a regal fanfare of sorts, but through a funhouse mirror. The way the group builds echo effects between all the instruments is very clever….and then they pull together and morph the piece into a rhythmically tricky, stately march.

Track three is a similarly hypnotic march, a slow build from just spare wood flute and drums that eventually grows more ornate as the other instruments slip into the mix. Track four is the most epic, a vocal number that rises from a seemingly imploring intro sung by Lee, into a shamanistic chorus, then an energetic drum interlude that may be a backdrop for a dance piece (as in many other cultures, music and dance together are part and parcel of Korean traditional music). Lee’s long, achingly insistent vocal interlude over the relentless thump is viscerally thrilling, eventually joined by mesmerzing multi-voice counterpoint, up to an explosive ending.

The final number, titled Bumpi, is the most dramatic, operatic and colorfully amusing, a combative dialogue between man and woman with all kinds of ups and downs; it’s here that Lee’s tone-bending gayageum finally gets some prime time in the spotlight. Moments like this jar you out of your reverie with a smile, just when you’re getting lost in the music.

Riveting, State-of-the-Art New and Antique Korean Sounds from Kyungso Park at Barbes

Kyungso Park‘s axe is the gaegeum, the magically tone-bending Korean zither that sometimes sounds like a harp and sometimes like a cross between an oud and a theremin. Or something that might be heard in Jabba the Hut’s space lounge, if that place ever had acoustic music. This past evening at Barbes, she treated a rapt crowd to a wide swath of music for the instrument, both cutting-edge original compositions and traditional numbers.

As serious and meticulous a composer and player as she is, she’s also a very funny, engaging performer, her stern gaze while she played evaporating into an animated grin between songs as she entertained the audience. She’d brought two different instruments, one a large, contemporary model and the other a smaller traditional version. She wryly explained its origins in a medieval dictator’s desire for indigenous instruments and music with a distinct regional character rather than one that looked to China for inspiration. She also took care to explain that her styles, both as a musician and tunesmith, are “very, very different” from traditional repertoire and technique.

Her own compositions are very terse, even minimalistic, sometimes employing circular motives and subtle variations on them, in a vein that resembles western indie classical music more than it does much of anything from Asia. Likewise, she eschewed traditional Asian scales in favor of more western tonalities: the evening’s most sparse composition relied strictly on open strings without any of the woozy bends and otherworldly glissandos typically associated with the classical or folk repertoire.

The traditional material was every bit as interesting as the originals. These included a rather jaunty diptych from a sort of Korean counterpart to Romeo and Juliet, along with a tensely crescendoing, rather epic number that resembled an Indian raga but without the reverberating, twangy strings. Park sang elegantly on a couple of songs, narrated another, then right before the end of the show did a thoughtful and remarkably tuneful improvisation with a french horn player that juxtaposed his misty long-tone lines against her steady, bucolic, distantly bittersweet plucked phrasing. Park ended the show with an original composition employing the kind of extended technique that she’s often drawn to, bowing the high strings at the back of the bridge for a rhythmic, feral shriek and squall. Considering how meticulously and dynamically she’d played all night, it was probably the last thing anybody in the crowd expected, a fearlessly energetic way to wrap up one of the most fascinating performances in any New York venue this year. Park is reprising it at 6 PM tomorrow night, August 30 at Pioneer Works at 159 Pioneer St in Red Hook in the middle of an intriguing triplebill starting at 6 PM with bassist Ethan Jodziewicz and Appalachian fiddler Tatiana Hargreaves, and then Ethiopiques funk band Nikhil P. Yerawadekar & Low Mentality headlining at 8 or so. Cover is $10.

Norian Maro’s Deliriously Entertaining Korean Harvest Spectacle Keeps the Crowd on Their Feet

You might think that a drum-and-dance troupe performing an ancient Korean peasants’ nongak harvest festival celebration would draw a mostly Korean audience, right? Friday night at Flushing Town Hall in Queens, Korean ensemble Norian Maro (whose name translates roughly as “Premier Performance”) had an unmistakably multi-ethnic, sold-out New York crowd, ranging from in age from kids to their grandparents, on their feet, cheering and stomping along with the irresistibly kinetic performance onstage.

The show reached a peak and then stayed there for its final twenty minutes or so, the performers clad in bright costumes and wearing caps topped with streamers on a swivel. The group members charged with the task – pretty much everybody – first spun their heads in a semicircle to activate the swivel and get the streamers flying in big arcs behind them, all the while spinning around the stage, and also playing intricate polyrhythms on a diverse collection of drums at the same time. And nobody onstage could resist a grin as they worked an ecstatic call-and-response with the crowd – and made it all look easy. How they managed to do that without losing their balance, or the beat, or a lot more, was mind-boggling. As a display of sheer athletic grace combined with musical prowess, it’s hard to imagine witnessing anything more impressive in this city in the past several months.

Norian Maro premiered the piece, titled Leodo: Paradise Lost, at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last fall. It’s a metaphorical tale of the cycle of renewal, personified by a lithe dancer who gets caught in an ocean undertow and then comes face to face with the sea gods, among them a strikingly decorated dragon figure requiring two group members to keep him on his feet. After some very vigorous resuscitation, she’s transported to a magical isle where she comes to life again. One of the women in the group sang the narrative in Korean, in low, mysterious, otherworldly microtones, a revealing glimpse of the ancient, mysterious roots of dramatic Korean pansori singing.

As meticulously choreographed and spectacularly athletic as the dancing was, the stars of the show were the drummers, on a series of janggu drums ranging from a big, boomy tom, to a metal gong, to smaller metal hand drums that provided both clanging and mutedly shimmering tones. The star among all the players was a petite woman with a double-headed drum slung over her shoulder that was almost as big as she was, which she played in two separate time signatures at once, at one point firing off long volleys with a single mallet on both drum heads. Of all the players onstage, including Jong Suk Ki, Jung Hyeon Yung, Min Kyoung Ha, Sungjin Choi and Yoo Jeong Oh, she seemed to be having the most fun. Although one of the guys in the group had an equally good time with a tassel that he swung about fifty feet into the crowd, then later spun and spun until he had it flying from the roof to the floor of the stage, practically cartwheeling to keep it in motion.

The Korean Cultural Service, who staged this show, have a series of enticing concerts and spectacles coming up here. The next one is by Korean classical pianist Eunbi Kim playing works by Debussy, Fred Hersch, Daniel Bernard Roumain and others at 7 PM on Feb 26. Admission is free, but you have to RSVP, the sooner the better: and make sure to get to Flushing Town Hall’s historic Gilded Age auditorium, about five blocks from the last stop on the 7 train, at least a half hour early in order to claim your seats.

An Exhilarating Celebration of Ancient Yet Avant Garde Korean Sounds at Symphony Space

Saturday night’s celebration of traditional Korean music and dance staged by Sue Yeon Park of the Korean Performing Arts Center  at Symphony Space featured sounds that were as cutting-edge as they were rustic. Korean pansori singing, and much of Korean singing in general, employs microtones and trills and downwardly bent notes that would baffle an awful lot of western musicians. In her gritty, expressive contralto, like something of a Korean mountain-music counterpart to Tina Turner, iconic pansori chanteuse Shin Young-Hee made it look easy throughout a rather macabre-tinged excerpt from the 19th century love epic Chunhyung-ga. Famous Korean percussionist Lee Kwang-Soo – a gregarious and engaging guy with an edgy sense of humor – led a drum troupe through a thunderously hypnotic, subtly polyrhythmic benediction of sorts. Virtuoso Gee-Sook Baek teamed up with drummer Soung-Jae Cho, who spurred her on through a rivetingly spacious, suspenseful performance on the gayageum, a twelve-string lute that throws off otherworldly tremoloing tones and seems like it could be a predecessor of the sitar. Meanwhile, the night’s emcee, a musicologist from Seoul, reminded the crowd that all this music dated from an era when there was no distinction between performer and audience: participation is pretty much mandatory. All this did nothing to discourage the commonly held notion that Koreans are the 24-hour party people of Asia.

There was plenty of drumming, notably a skull-pounding interlude to open the second half of the concert by the Rutgers Korean Cultural Group, to rival the kind of explosively shamanistic Brazilian sounds produced by BatalaNYC. There was also dancing, lots of it. Park herself took a solo, a graceful number that saw her practically disappear into the stage, facedown, at the end, the folds of her silken costume edging closer and closer downward. It’s one thing to do the splits, Chuck Berry style – it’s another to hold that position in place. Park was doing that twenty years ago and clearly hasn’t lost any athleticism in the ensuing two decades, no small achievement.

A bevy of women swayed and gently exchanged places throughout a stately fan dance, serenaded by the band offstage. Several of the drummers wore ribbons on a swivel affixed to the rear of their uniform helmets, which they spun by moving their heads quickly, side to side – how they managed to keep their footing, keep the ribbons swirling, and keep time, without losing their balance or running headfirst into the the back wall of the stage, was impressive, to say the least. One of them finally made a circle of the stage, spinning faster and faster, leaning in toward the center in a more explosive take on what Turkish dervishes will do at the peak of a musical number. The night’s final performances brought a full musical ensemble together with the dance/drumming contingent (there was a lot of overlap among them, the night’s organizer included); tersely intense geomungo (six-string zither) player Mi Jin Park being a standout among them.

The Korean Peforming Arts Center and their house ensemble, Sounds of Korea, stage frequent outdoor concerts during the warmer months, from Lincoln Center to Little Korea just south of 34th Street and points further south as well; bookmark their webpage if sounds as sophisticated yet ancient as these are your thing.