Students performing their passionYONGIN, Gyeonggi ― While many amateur groups perform at the nation’s colleges, two groups at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies are gaining attention because of the high caliber of their performances and their growing public exposure.
Jasmine comprises six young women from the department of Arabic language who perform belly dances, a popular type of dance in the Arab world.
Twimbo is a group of 12 men and women from the department of African language, who perform songs in Swahili.
“They are so good that you cannot tell whether they are students learning or professional performers,” says Ahn Byong-man, president of the university.
The groups appeared in the school’s biennial ethnic music festival earlier this month. While the event is usually held on campus, this year it moved to Everland, Korea‘s largest amusement park, in Gyeonggi province.
While Jasmine says it enjoys its activity, the group is concerned about accepting all the offers it gets from outside the school. The members want to focus on their role as students studying Arabic culture.
Twimbo has already agreed to perform publicly later this month. The reason for the group’s existence, members say, is to let the public know about the unfamiliar culture of Africa.
‘Enchanting’ Arabic dance
When the host of the show calls Jasmine’s name, the audience goes wild. Six rakkasahs, or female belly dancers, in long, red Bedleh dresses appear on the brightly illuminated stage.
Awwady, a type of improvised instrumental Arabic music, blares from the speakers, and the dancers begin with a “camel walk,” which involves sharp pelvic moves. The music picks up speed and so does the dancers’ shimmying, making the rows of coin decorations on their skirts jangle wildly.
After their seven-minute performance, they run from the stage, quickly removing their veils, and gulping in air. Without their veils they look quite young. A moment earlier, they appeared to be mature dancers staging a seductive display, but now they are just young women wiping sweat from their foreheads and giggling about their smeared makeup.
“We are all in our first or second year of college,” says Jung Ah-hyeon, a 20-year-old Arabic language major who is Jasmine’s leader.
Ms. Jung says the six students, all Arabic majors, had met every day after classes to practice belly dancing.
“I was so used to American pop culture before I entered college,” says Ms. Jung. “It was very shocking for me to hear a song from the Arab region. It was very enchanting.”
She says her studies may teach her to speak Arabic, but she wants to learn more about the culture itself. That's when she decided to lead a group in studying and performing its culture.
“There was already a belly dancing club in the school,” she says. But, in taking over the group this summer, she says, “I wanted the dances to be right, and to have it recognized that Arabic culture and its people are beautiful, not dangerous, as some people might think after the terrorist attacks.”
Ms. Jung says she and her teammates enrolled in an academy at their own expense to learn belly dancing from a professional instructor during the summer vacation.
Jasmine members also want to wear the proper attire. Kim Bo-hyoung, 19, says the group ordered its costumes from Egypt because not all parts of the costume are available in Korea.
Ms. Kim says people often misperceive belly dancing as a seductive act, or think that shaking your hips is all you need to do to be a good dancer.
“I used to be a swimmer and do ballet and aerobics, but belly dancing is one of the hardest sports,” Ms. Kim says, emphasizing that belly dancing is closer to a sport than to dancing.
Jasmine says it gets offers to perform outside the school at various events, but cannot perform at all of them. “A city government asked us to participate in its festival, but that fell during our midterm week,” Ms. Jung says. “It is important that we get good grades in Arabic language first.”
Choral songs from Africa
Like the other students waiting to perform, Lee Gyung-rock takes a seat in front of the stage, adjusting his leopard-patterned loincloth. But, unlike most of his teammates, who are stamping their feet and singing in groups of two or three to “practice one last time,” he quietly crouches over his ngoma, or drums in Swahili. He occasionally looks up, his eyes darting through the audience.
“This is my first time performing in public and I am pretty nervous,” says Mr. Lee, who stresses that he should be called “Gyung-rock,” rather than his original Korean name Gyung-rok. “It is because of my love for rock music that I want to be called that way. It’s cool, don't you think?”
At 19, he is the youngest member of Twimbo, a choral group of 12 students in the department of African languages. Twimbo means “let's sing together” in Swahili, a major language of East Africa.
Mr. Lee’s job, along with another drummer, is to create the right rhythm for the a cappella singing done by 10 female vocalists. The songs include “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” an old African melody repopularized in Walt Disney’s “Lion King.” Another popular song is “Malaika,” or angel, a sad song about a young man who cannot marry the girl he loves because he is too poor to pay the required brideprice.
While beating on ngomas for an African tribal chorus is not exactly the type of music the rock lover had imagined performing in college, Mr. Lee says, “It was my dream to perform like this. Besides we are the only group in Korea that sings in Swahili. I am proud of that.”
“A lot of people say that we are the best, but then there is no one else [singing in Swahili] in Korea for us to be compared to,” jokes Choi Seo-young, 20, the group’s leader. “We get invited to many festivals. People are curious about what we have to show.”
The group plans to perform this weekend at Seoul Land, an amusement park south of Seoul in Gyeonggi province.
“We don't get paid to do this, because we are doing it to promote African culture as amateurs learning about it,” Ms. Choi says. “But sometimes the organizers of the events pay us just enough for us to have a nice dinner after the show.”
None of the Twimbo members has been to Africa, nor did they ever have professional training to master performing in a language that they have been studying for two years at most. The performers are freshmen or sophomores; older students usually provide guidance after their official two-year term in Twimbo is over.
“We learn about African culture, language and politics in class from Korean and Tanzanian professors, but we thought that wasn't enough to fully enjoy what we are learning," says Ms. Choi in explaining why the group started in 1991.
by Lee Min-a
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