Mountain echo has not died outIn 1977, three young brothers unwittingly changed the way people listen to music in Korea. The brothers, Kim Chang-wan, Kim Chang-hoon and Kim Chang-ik, went to Seorabeol Records in late 1977 to remix and produce an album of songs they had written and recorded together. The next day they were contacted by a record company executive who wanted to release the album, which sold over 400,000 copies. Instantly the young trio ― Kim Chang-wan had just left university and his two younger brothers were still at university ― became a beacon for a generation of music fans. They called themselves Sanwoolim, which means ‘mountain echo.’
In Korea, the popular music of the late 1970s was predominantly trot-style songs, mostly catering to those over 30. With the stagnation of the folk music scene in Korea after so many artists had been arrested for marijuana offences and with taboos on politically-charged songs, the young adults of the era were left listening to either American pop songs or classical music.
“Ahni Beolsseo (Already),” the band’s debut album and the title of their first single, was different from anything found on the music market at the time. Instead of the slick album covers produced for trot stars, the cover of Sanwoolim’s debut album was drawn with crayons. Their straight-forward lyrics and guitar licks, amateur-sounding, shaky vocals, and catchy, rock-inspired melodies gave young Korean music fans a fresh new alternative to trot music.
The three continued to pour out songs and released five albums during the space of one year, from 1977 to late 1978. However, even with a record numbers of hits and album sales, the band broke-up in 1983 because they could not support themselves by making and playing music following a series of problems they experienced with their album royalties. The band says that their contracts were drawn up poorly.
Since the band broke up, Kim Chang-wan has been working as a radio DJ and actor while the other two brothers became involved with businesses in Canada and the United States. “Although I enjoy my job in the entertainment field, in the end, I want to make the money that will allow me to make more music,” said Kim Chang-wan.
In 1996, Sanwoolim’s royal fan club members proposed a reunion and with their support in organizing venues and ticket sales for concerts, the band was able to release their 13th album “Rainbow” and perform in live venues. Eight years later, in 2005, the band held a big concert in Jangchung Gymnasium in Seoul and this year, their 30th anniversary, the three plan to reunite again on Dec. 29 and 31 in Seoul and Busan. The band also had a 30th anniversary concert in July at the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts.
When a band gathers to perform after 30 or 40 years, often the set list consists of nostalgic hit medleys and safe song selections, but Samwoolim is not like that. Then again, their whole career as musicians has been filled with gutsy forays into different genres and styles, from psychedelic and punk to children’s songs. Kim Chang-wan, with his boyish face and amiable smile, has played the role of nice next-door neighbor for many years in television. Meeting him face to face however, he was full of surprises and contrasting images, with ideas constantly pouring from his mouth. On the day of the interview, he wore a Harley Davidson t-shirt and a black leather jacket. “I’ve been motor biking for a year now. It’s exciting,” he said.
“I don’t like to be remembered for the one style of song that people think is the quintessential Sanwoolim sound. I want to keep breaking the mold of myself to make creative, forward-looking music,” said Kim Chang-wan.
“For a while now, I’ve been wanting to create music that doesn’t stop at expressing one’s own emotional take on a phenomenon but actually delivers the phenomenon in a purer state,” he said. “So, for example, if we see a building fall down in front of our eyes, we don’t need to sing ‘I’m scared. This is scary.’ (playing air guitar and humming). I’m trying to think of a way to express the phenomenon in a more direct format.”
The group plans to end their 30th anniversary this month with a bang. The two younger brothers will join their older brother in Korea soon and celebrate the band’s past while introducing new songs that will signal their furture musical direction.
by Cho Jae-eun