A rousing, brash sound that echoes in the streetsYou can’t hear these songs on television or the radio. But they are familiar to the ordinary folks who grew up with this kind of boisterous, rhythmic music. This is “street” music in Korea, a synthesis mostly of 1970s Korean rock and traditional folk songs.
Some people may regard the sound as “low class” music and some may see it as reflecting the sorrows of working class people. Whether you like the music or not, whether you respect it or denigrate it, you have heard it played on the streets at least once. Street music is an integral part of our society and life. And to a certain few, it beats Mozart or Seo Taeji.
Nowadays, street music is usually heard at highway rest stops. Lee Yeong-ji, 43, who was browsing through old records and tapes sold in a music store on the highway near Umseong, North Chungcheong province, says, “The music is fun and rambunctious, so it sure helps get rid of sleepiness when one is behind the wheel and on the road.”
Bus drivers concur. “Can’t leave home without it,” says truck driver Kim Yong-yeol, who fights drowsiness with the music’s clamorous sound.
The animated and boisterous sound of street music rumbles through the flea market in Hwanghak-dong, Seoul, causing people to gather around its source.
Jeong Won-yong, 35, the DJ of this mix of oldies, owns a cafe near Hongik University by day. But on this Sunday afternoon, Mr. Jeong is bringing music to the streets.
An avid collector of oldies discs, Mr. Jeong has assembled more than 10,000 LPs (long-playing records), and often comes to Hwanghak-dong to look for rare records. Every Sunday for the past year, he has been coming to the area to play street music for the public. Along with the music, he serves rice cakes and crude rice wine in his stall.
“To make this sound lofty, what I’m doing is giving back to society,” Mr. Jeong says. “I am giving back to Hwanghak-dong all the good things that I have gotten here.”
The highlight of his two- to three-hour concert is the “trot medley,” a series of traditional Korean pop songs with a sprightly rhythm. People who have gathered around Mr. Jeong’s table shake their bodies in time to the tunes and share a drink or two. Some are even dancing near the stall. This is a scene that was popular in the 1970s and ’80s, but is being revived on the streets of Hwanghak-dong.
Street music is not confined to highway rest areas or to Hwanghak-dong. Tapes and LPs of this music can be found in large discount stores such as E-mart, Hanamro and Homeplus. Kim Hong-dae, president of Misung Records, says, “About 60 percent of our sales go to discount retailers.”
Street music albums sell particularly well during the Lunar New Year or other public holidays, when people travel all over the country to see their families and relatives. The Lotte Mart at Seoul Station has a special corner for street music tapes and CDs. The price is 7,000 won ($6.80) for two CDs.
The titles are eye-catching, ranging from “Awesome Trot Music,” to “Good Luck Disco Medley.” In line with the health craze that has hit the nation, some record titles bear the name “Well-being Trot All-in.”
Kim Yeong-cheon, 42, is an unknown singer who is the face behind street music. He is what people refer to as a “wedding singer,” crooning sappy tunes at weddings, birthday parties and outdoor events to earn a living. But in months when there are few bookings, such as January, February, July and August, he records street music.
There are about 100 street music singers in the country who produce records. Mr. Kim says, “About 95 percent of the singers who record street music incur losses from the venture. However, it is better to have a record to one’s name in order to get more gigs in the future.”
Recording is a swift process for street music singers. In order to save money when using a recording studio, they can record about 20 songs in a matter of six hours. Street music records usually contain remakes of hit oldies as well as new songs. It is relatively cheap to pay royalty rights for oldies, compared to the new songs that are sung by Tae Jin-a or Sul Woon-do, for example.
Baek Seung-tae, 55, known as the “emperor of cabaret songs” among disco goers, can sing up to 100 songs per day. Mr. Baek is a one-man-band, playing the electronic organ while performing his cabaret songs. He says, “Because of the multi-tasking I have to do, I have to be extra careful about my health and my vocal chords.”
In recent times, “erotic songs” have also gained popularity. Even though they are not sold in respectable record stores, among street music one can find such titles as “Viagra Ballad,” “The Male Relationships of Ms. Lee” and “What Are We to Do at Motels?”
They first emerged four years ago, with both explicit and suggestive lyrics. Jeong Hee-ra, 46, a female singer of these “erotic songs,” says, “I don’t care if people think these songs are vulgar. The truth is, these songs, along with trot medley songs, are necessary to bolster people’s spirits.”
‘Street’ music singers develop unique styles
Kim Ran-yeong’s name and face are unknown to the public, but many people recognize her voice as a singer primarily of remakes of past hits. “Not many recognize me on the streets, but seldom are there people who have not heard my music driving on the highway,” Ms. Kim says. Her albums can be found in record stalls at highway rest areas, along with other street music records.
She began her solo career in 1988 by producing an album consisting of “slow medley” songs from the 1970s. Since then, Ms. Kim, 46, has produced nearly 50 albums. “I don’t know the exact number, but I believe roughly 10 million albums have been sold so far,” says Ms. Kim, taking great pride in what she does, despite her lack of celebrity status in the mainstream media.
Ms. Kim made her singing debut in 1973, when she won first prize in the Yeosu MBC New Artist Song Festival. Later, when she was playing acoustic guitar and singing, mostly in underground clubs, a songwriter asked her to do a medley of past hits.
At first, she did not think about producing a medley album, but when a recording company compiled her album, it became a hit. Then more such albums followed, leading to her current status as the “Queen of Medleys.”
Since then, she has sung medleys of the hits of Na Hoon-a, Sul Woon-do and Park Kang-sung, and even of the new generation pop singers such as Wax. Her fans say no one can get bored with her medleys because the songs are familiar to people of all ages.
“I’ve been told that my albums sell well, that there’s not a single express bus on the highway that doesn’t have my music on, but there were times when I felt so discouraged,” Ms. Kim says. “Like anyone else, I wanted to become a major star, seeing my name on the pop charts on television, having my face well known to the public and so forth. Many times I’ve shed tears when someone said, ‘Why do you keep on singing songs belonging to someone else?’”
About five years ago, Ms. Kim began to establish herself with a career as a singer of remake medleys. She has developed a solid fan base composed of people mostly of her generation, and she finds joy when bus drivers tell her that they enjoy driving because of her exuberant music.
Now, she says, “I’m just grateful that people enjoy my music.”
The musical genre has evolved in various forms over 20 years
It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that “trot medleys,” “highway medleys” and other forms of street music became a genre of its own in South Korea.
The first generation of medley music singers includes Oh Gi-taek, Kim Yeon-ja and Baek Seung-taek, among others. The “Duet Party” album series by singer Ju Hyun-mi became a major hit when it was produced in 1984, and so far, genuine and pirated copies of the album series have sold more than 10 million copies.
There was even a saying that no car in Korea left home without the “Duet Party” album, which made Ms. Ju a star in the mainstream media in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
She has an unusual background, being ethnically Chinese and a former pharmacist. Her chirpy voice became a trademark, and she was called the “Queen of Trot,” along with such veteran singers as Lee Mi-ja and Sim Soo-bong.
But Ms. Ju never expected to be a major star. When the famous singer Jo Mi-mi pulled out of doing the “Duet Party” album at the last minute, Ms. Ju was brought in as a substitute, and the rest, as they say, is history.
In the late 1980s, Kim Ran-yeong came up with a cafe music series by adding a twist to the street music scene. She sang hit songs from the 1970s and 1980s in a style that mixed ballads and soul, which differentiated her work from the boisterous street music of the past. From then on, ballads became more popular.
In the mid-1990s, street music took another turn when a singer called “Dr. Lee,” whose real name is Lee Yong-seok, came on the scene singing trot songs in a funky manner. Dr. Lee was previously a tour guide, and he was known to sing and dance on his tour bus. His rave and funky style mixed with street music led to a new form called “techno trot.” His music even gained a large fan base in Japan in the mid-1990s.
by Choi Min-woo
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
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