Soulful duo contribute to each other’s musical growthBobby Kim and Jeon Jae-deok are among the few professionals on the Korean music scene who aspire to find the true rhythm of black soul. Coincidentally Jeon, a blind harmonica performer, and Kim, a hip-hop singer, underwent a significant change in their musical style for the release of their second album.
The two, who contributed to each other’s albums, recently met to talk about their visions of music and life. Their first topic was the death last month of James Brown, the “Godfather of Soul.”
“I still vividly remember the images of him singing and dancing wildly on stage,” said Kim. “He’s just had a tremendous influence on so many musicians.”
“There probably isn’t a single black musician who hasn’t been influenced by him, whether it be Michael Jackson or Stevie Wonder. He was an idol and a bible of black soul,” he said.
The recent collaboration between Kim and Jeon went beyond a symbolic gesture of musical friendship. Critics say that their musical connection through “black soul” embodies the true spirit of the genre while also expressing a Korean sound. The connection is actually bigger than most people could have imagined.
The two still believe that the essence of the genre, which originated from the music sung by black slaves in American cotton fields, is evident in their music.
“I jumped out of my seat in shock when I first heard Jeon perform during a local music award ceremony,” Kim says.
“It was the first time since I heard my father play trumpet [Kim’s father is the trumpet player Kim Young-geun] that I encountered a sound straight out of someone’s heart,” he continued. I don’t open my mind to people so easily, but he moved my heart right there.”
Perhaps they saw talent in each other. Last fall, when they first met during a concert for “Heritage,” a black gospel group in Korea, they instantly became friends. They immediately asked each other to contribute on their upcoming albums.
“Bobby Kim is one of the only singers in Korea who is capable of singing traditional soul music,” Jeon says. “He doesn’t simply imitate the technique through his voice, but he really seems to express the spirit of soul with faith. I always wanted to work with him. Thank God the chance came early.”
“Follow Your Soul,” Kim’s second album, features Jeon’s harmonica performance on the opening track, “Blue Bird.” In “Two Stories” from Jeon’s latest album “What is Cool Change,” Kim’s vocal enriches the harmonica performance.
The title of the song also refers to the musical union of the two musicians.
“It delves into the process of how two musical strangers gradually get to share their intimate visions of music from their first meeting,” Jeon says. “I wrote the song with Bobby Kim in mind.”
In fact the two musicians, who shared their musical interests in “Two Stories,” seem to have completely merged into a powerful unit by the time they recorded Bobby Kim’s “Blue Bird.” The song conveys a feeling of “spiritual connection” through the music that has a subtle acoustic sound in the style of soul. The boundary of the song formed by the harmonica performance is so subtle that it’s almost non-existent.
“I instantly got what Bobby Kim was trying to say when I first heard the song,” Jeon says. “We finished the recording in half an hour.”
“Everyone compliments the harmonica performance,” he said, happily. “They don’t say a word about my singing. Others joke that the song sounded as if I was a guest singer on Jeon’s song.”
“Blue Bird” might come across as a conventional love song, but it actually describes some unsettling years when Kim was about to give up his musical career.
Jeon, who developed a “hybrid soul” through a mix of acoustic and electronic sounds for his new album, features various harmonica experiments.
“Folk songs in Korea, too, possess the deep sound of sadness,” he says. “It’s a sound of desperation created by people who have to fight through life. The sound of soul might have loosened up as the times changed, but the spirit of soul will last forever as long as there are people who feel the sadness of our time.”
He believes the idea of soul is to share sadness and find hope.
“I think of soul more as an internal rhythm than a musical genre,” says Jeon. “It’s really about sharing sadness with people and melting that sentiment into music.”
by Jung Hyun-mok