The spirit moves themItaewon is no live-music mecca. In fact, think “Itaewon and live music,” and you’ll probably think of two things, one divine and one infernal: J.C. Clark playing at All That Jazz, and those Christians in front of Baskin Robbins with their amps and smiles turned up to 11.
And if you’re making your own music in Itaewon, be careful ― it can be dangerous. If you don’t believe us, just go ask a member of the black-and-blue Irishmen’s choir.
Lately, though, a little bit of live-music heaven has touched the neighborhood, in the form of an American soldier with a guitar and some songs and two Korean angels singing backup.
John Murphy, hailing from New Jersey and stationed at the Yongsan army base, has been playing low-profile acoustic sets at local bars for a few years now. After stints at the Seoul Pub and Nickleby’s, he’s now playing at Spy Club and the Loft, aptly covering classics like Neil Young’s “Old Man” and the Rolling Stones’s “Wild Horses.”
Mr. Murphy is a good enough performer on his own. He has an excellent voice and a friendly, easygoing stage presence, and puts deft, personal touches on songs. Over the past couple of months, though, he has had performing along with him two other very gifted voices: Shin Hye-kyoung, an aspiring actress, and Lee Eun-young, a student who specializes in the traditional opera form pansori.
If you know anything about pansori, you know that to do it you need a superhuman voice and a shamanistic spirit. You need to be possessed by something profound, primitive and awe-inspiring.
Now, you might not think a down-to-earth Tom Petty tune would mix well with the otherworldly power of pansori, in the same way that you can’t really see shag carpeting in Gyeongbok Palace. But Mr. Murphy and Ms. Lee, helped along by Ms. Shin, make it work. Granted, they’re still getting to know each other musically. But when it does work, the results are amazing.
While Ms. Shin sings solid backup, Ms. Lee is more apt to break out in free-form wails that have you grabbing for your hat. They start soft and sweet, like a summer sea breeze, then build and build until they hit you like a hurricane.
Ms. Lee’s favorite song seems to be the Bob Dylan classic “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” When Mr. Murphy sings the first verse, she’ll sway gently, waiting for the transition from verse to chorus. Then ― moved by the spirit ― she’ll crank it up to heavenly howls.
So what does an English-challenged pansori artist think of when wailing along to Dylan?
We asked our Itaewon Wanderings pansori expert just that, and he gave us this rough idea: “Up on Lotus Peak, though they are aching sore, my finger joints are rapping upon Haneul’s gate.”
Rest assured, he says: It sounds better in the Korean.
The best bet to see Mr. Murphy and his angelic backups is on Wednesday nights at the Spy Club, where the management lets Ms. Lee bust loose with her traditional drums and her puppy.
Which can also get dangerous.
by Mike Ferrin
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