Underground music all over Seoul

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Underground music all over Seoul

They pop up in subway stations all over the city, these musicians engaged in impromptu performances, usually surrounded by a group of curious onlookers clapping or keeping time to the beat.
Ever wondered who they are and where they come from? Although some might be working solo, many subway musicians are part of a group called Rail Art. It all started four and a half years ago at Sadang station, with Park Jong-ho, his guitar and a harmonica.
“When I came back from a trip to England, I wondered why Korea didn’t have street performances. So I just gave it a shot,” said Mr. Park, now an organizer, representative and performer in the group.
He found that subway stations are the perfect place for performances. The 13 subway lines that crisscross Seoul provide hundreds of platforms, the vast majority of them sheltered from the weather.
At first, musicians joined the group via word of mouth. As Rail Art’s reputation grew, however, it started a Web site (www.railart.org) and a monthly magazine, attracting attention from performers and the public alike. A schedule is published each month in the magazine.
Rail Art is a non-profit organization, one that has made sure the shows have gone on for 237 weeks running. Thus the slogan, “Rain or Snow, the Show Goes On.”
Rail Art now has approximately 150 to 200 regular volunteers in Seoul and a total of 500 in five cities across the country ― Busan, Daegu, Jeonju, Wonju and Gwangju.
Rail Art counts many professionals in its member ranks as well. Glancing through past covers of the group’s magazine, you’ll find familiar names like ex-composer Kim Chun-gwang and top sword dancer Kim Eun-jeong.
Genres and performances vary from a 10-year-old piper to a traditional Latin-American music ensemble called Inca Empire, to a hip-hop dance group called B-boys.
When Mr. Park was asked how he put together this huge project alone, he replied, “I did not do it by myself. Many helped me a lot. I wouldn’t have started if I knew it would be big like this and take a lot of time and effort from me,” he said, laughing.
Last month Mr. Park began working on a new project, with the slogan, “Rails that Connect Culture and Relationships.”
“I think there are already enough performances in Seoul. What we have to do now is to find who needs us elsewhere and how we can reach them,” he said. Mr. Park wants to extend the group’s reach to schools, communities in rural areas and even to prisons.
“I was worried because we don’t even have a van to move around our instruments. But I knew what I had to do when someone asked me why I don’t start right now. I had nothing when I started Rail Art either,” he said.
Mr. Park, however, is struggling to raise funds for the second project but remains confident about its chances.
“I think we are like a street fighter fighting a boxing champion,” he said. “Who will win? I bet on the street fighter because he is used to any conditions while the champion is only good when he plays by the rules.”
He wishes Rail Art could have a budget like some broadcasting companies that spend millions of won on one concert. With that kind of money, he said Rail Art would do a far better job.
“We will find ways to get maximum efficiency with minimum labor, to show people what we can call a ‘real performance,’” he said. “We can do it because we are not a champion but a street fighter.”

by Song Hee-jung
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