When music had a messageOn Saturday in Gwangwhamun, in central Seoul, tens of thousands of people gathered with candles in hand to protest the impeachment of President Roh Moo-hyun. They listened to speeches and sang songs, reading lyrics out of songbooks that organizers had distributed. But at least one song the crowd sang wasn’t in the book:
“From the East Sea where the sun rises, to the West Sea where the sun sets,
“From the hot southern country to the vast Manchurian field,
“Why should we feel poor? Why should we hesitate?”
Few in this crowd needed to be taught the words to this song, “In the Wilderness.” It was burned into the memory of everyone who remembered Korea’s pro-democracy protests in the 1980s.
Songs like “In the Wilderness” ― called minjung gayo, or “grassroots songs” ― were an indelible part of the activist movement during the struggles for democracy. Even for people who didn’t take part in the protests, these songs, when heard today, bring back those times. Mostly written by student activist singing groups, they were as much a part of the protests as tear gas and Molotov cocktails.
In the 1980s, college singing clubs served as bases for left-wing student activists ― some of whom formed a group called Saebyeok, or “the Dawn.” The military regimes forbade the writing or singing of minjung gayo, but the songs spread through underground activist circles nevertheless, recorded on cassette and passed around.
Saebyeok released an album, titled “Noraereul Chatneun Saramdeul” (People Searching for Songs). Soon some of its members started another group ― calling itself Nochatsa, an abbreviation of that album title ― and began to become famous.
Departing from the martial, aggressive style that was typical of minjung gayo, Nochatsa ― which had about 100 members ― wrote songs that were lyrical and poetic, touching on everyday life while still remaining protest music. They also went beyond the standard minjung gayo performance style, in which the singers were accompanied only by acoustic guitars.
“Back in those days, [activists] thought we had to be poor,” says Lee In-gyu, a former member of Nochatsa, who wrote songs for the group. “There was no argument about it. Having money, with us, was like a sin.
“Then we, Nochatsa, the symbol of student activism, performed with synthesizers and drums made in the U.S.A. Believe it or not, it led to a big controversy in activist circles. What can I say? [Activists] even forbade going out on dates. We wore plain clothes every day, even on stage.”
Nochatsa’s subtler approach to protest songs worked with the public. It also may have been what enabled them to get past government censors.
In 1985, the group released an album, with songs that the government had signed off on ― perhaps because they weren’t direct calls to arms. But listeners knew what the group was singing about. Their second album, in 1988, sold more than 800,000 copies.
Protest singers always had the authorities to worry about. Before joining Nochatsa, Mr. Lee used to perform at campuses under siege by the riot police. “One time, I was hiding on a campus for four days, and reached my limit,” he recalls. “But there were still riot police everywhere. So I asked a total stranger, a young woman, a student, to act like my girlfriend. Arm in arm, I could come out of the school, for the police knew student activists did not have boyfriends or girlfriends.”
In 1986, Mr. Lee was arrested for violating the National Security Law, and spent six months in jail. It’s the worst memory of his youth, he says. “I had to go through torture just for singing songs for democracy.”
When the military regimes vanished for good with the election of Kim Young-sam in 1993, it took away Nochatsa’s reason for being, and the group disbanded. But two years ago, Lee In-gyu decided they were needed again.
Like most of the group’s other members, he had long since settled down. He’d gotten married, and had a job as an art director for MBC-TV. But he’d always felt that something wasn’t right.
“Democracy seems to have come, on the surface,” Mr. Lee says, “but that’s only a formality. The truest democratic spirit has yet to come.”
He was also bothered by what had been happening in Korean music since the 1990s. “As pop songs that are made with computers gain popularity, people became less conscious about the lyrics, which brought along decadence and vulgarity,” he says. “The pop music scene was immersed in the culture industry, whose sole purpose is moneymaking.”
He was particularly appalled by the 2002 pop song “Seong-insik” (Coming-of-Age Ceremony), in which a young woman sings, “I’m grown up, take me now.” To Mr. Lee ― for whom music had once been so important that he pursued it under threat of torture ― Korean music seemed to have gone insane.
“Something was very wrong with the pop music scene,” he says. “Pop music is not all about vulgar love songs. I wanted to bring back the good old music that was about hope, peace and love.”
Mr. Lee quit his job at MBC-TV, which he’d held for seven years, and opened a small bar on Yeouido. He called the bar Freedom II and plastered the walls with posters of Karl Marx and Che Guevara. And he began contacting members of Nochatsa, trying to get them to reunite and record a new album.
This was more difficult than he’d thought it would be. Most members hadn’t kept in touch. The group’s main singer, Kim Sam-yeon, who now runs a venture capital company, balked at the idea. He told Mr. Kim he didn’t think he could get his voice back.
But Mr. Lee persuaded him. Other members ― some housewives, some office workers ― were equally reluctant, at first. “One thing was clear, though, “that everyone wanted to sing,” Mr. Lee says.
With about 10 singers ― most of them former members of Nochatsa, and a few of them formerly of Saebyeok ― he released an album March 19 under the name “Oraedoen Mirae” (Old Future), which he titled “Oneul” (Today). Alongside old Nochatsa songs like “My Friend, There Comes Liberation,” which couldn’t be recorded in the 1980s because of the censorship, it includes apolitical love songs with titles like “To My Beloved” and “My Love of the Younger Days.”
“If I’d known about the impeachment when I wrote the songs, I would have filled this album with instigating combat songs,” he says, smiling. “But I didn’t want to sound too serious. After all, times have changed.”
Mr. Lee plans to hold a concert under the Nochatsa name in April, commemorating the 20th anniversary of the group’s formation. He’s optimistic about the new album ― he received more than 1,800 advance online orders for it ― and since it came out, he says, he has heard from more members of Nochatsa.
He says there’ll be a second album. At Freedom II, he performs regularly with colleagues from the group. He had to move into a smaller apartment to pay to make “Oneul,” but it isn’t the first sacrifice he’s made for music.
“After 10 years, I understand that the disappearance of the military regimes does not mean the arrival of true democracy,” Mr. Lee says. “The future that we’ve been dreaming of is still far off. And that’s why we still need our music in this world.”
Songs of a movement
Excerpts from some of Nochatsa’s best-known minjung gayo (“grassroots songs”):
“Sora, Sora, Pureureun Sora” (Green Pine Tree)
In this divided world, there blows a fierce wind.
Mothers are crying and the tears touch the heart.
For the freedom of the true world, where the spirit of the people rules, we are going to row up the river.
(In the Wilderness)
There were bloody tears on this land that had once disappeared with the heart torn apart.
There is a stream of blood on white cloth that gushes out from the arms clutched together.
From the East Sea where the sun rises to the West Sea where the sun sets,
From the hot southern country to the vast Manchurian field,
Why should we feel poor? Why should we hesitate?
Standing again in the wilderness, grasping the hot earth.
“Beosiyeo Haebang-i Onda”
(My Friend, There Comes Liberation)
The day will come, living in the spirit of freedom.
My friend, farewell. I’ll follow you,
With your burning flame, with your rage,
Turning over the darkness of the treachery, opening a new day.
The day will come. Let’s go now, at the cost of our lives.
My friend, a new day is coming. My friend, there comes liberation.
by Chun Su-jin