Korean icon sings with a stinging edge

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Korean icon sings with a stinging edge


Jang Sa-ik at home in his garden. He is about to embark on a concert tour of the United States. By Lee Chan-won

Jang Sa-ik still remembers the peculiar fragrance of a flower he sniffed one spring while he was leaving his apartment block in Jamsil. He thought it was from a rose bush. But when he got closer, he found a wild rose, that had somehow bloomed between the cultivated flowers. It couldn’t stand up straight because it was crushed between the thick stems of the planted roses.
Jang suddenly broke down and cried. Seeing how small and helpless the rose was, he felt his life was in the same condition.
Wiping away his tears, he turned the moment into a song, Jjileggot (Wild Rose) which became the title track of his first album “The Way to the Sky.”
That was 12 years ago, when his life was still hovering between his job as an electronics salesman and his passion as an amateur instrumentalist.
In the song “Jjileggot”, he wrote, “A wild rose is as sad as a star,
A wild rose is as lonesome as the moon,The fragrance of a wild rose is so sad,
So I cried, I cried out loud.”Jang’s career has followed a long road. Before his debut as a singer-songwriter, he was a well-known taepyeongso (Korean flute) performer who made occasional appearances with his musician friends, who insisted that he become a full-time musician. Yet, until he turned 46, he says he never considered making music his career.
Perhaps he was too modest. His gift runs thick in his blood. His two sons are both instrumentalists with a gukak troupe, a traditional music orchestra. As in the old days, his children are asked to perform when guests come to their home for a visit.
“I still don’t think I would have had the courage to do this if my friends hadn’t pushed me,” he said.
On a recent weekday morning at his house, Jang was dressed in a loose pair of dark pants, a navy blue shirt and black rubber shoes. In his garden there are poles in the shape of geese with wind charms attached that he made out of broken metal tubes from his air-conditioner. Jang tells people to be gentle when they walk in his garden, so that they don’t hurt the grass.
He is a man one might expect to hear advance an eloquent argument about the state of the world.
He was never a vocal political activist, but he would occasionally be called upon to perform at special concerts with political significance, like the commemorative concert for Lee Su-hyeon, a young Korean who was killed in a subway station in Tokyo after saving a Japanese man from the tracks. And Jang was recently appointed as a special representative of the UNICEF Committee.
But when it comes to politics, he usually tries to change the subject.
“My role model is nature,” he says. “Nature is my teacher. I have no other social or political interests.”
Yet Jang is a gifted man. He has a strange ability to subvert politics into an authentic statement of human dignity.
When he sings “Arirang” for a friendly soccer match between North and South Korea, the subject of unification suddenly becomes a heartfelt theme instead of what could have been political grandstanding. When he sings during a candlelight vigil, the event becomes a call for freedom rather than a bitter outcry of angry protesters.
That’s an unusual talent for a man who has only produced five albums.
The critics rave about Jang’s music. It mixes pansori, a traditional form of Korean chanting, with the sounds of jazz and classical music. He has performed with some of the most avant-garde Korean musicians of his time in a band made up of classical pianists, guitarists and traditional percussionists.
His style when leading a team of instrumentalists is simple. He tells the group to listen to his song through to the end. Then he asks them to “enter” whenever they want, like in improvised jazz.
Then there are his lyrics, many based on poems by others, which are often so minimalist and intense that they sound like a person sobbing.
They are as raw as a piece of uncooked meat, piercing through the spirit of Korean sentiment, or han, in just a few verses ― this is one of the reasons why people say his music carries an element of gut, a traditional rite of exorcism.
“In Korea when a mother in-law dies the daughter in-law cries all night,” he says. “It’s curious that they cry, because the mother in-laws usually mistreat their daughter in-laws, but it’s a way for the surviving relative to cleanse their resentment toward the dead. It’s almost like a ritual, to send them away to heaven.”
His songs are richly saturated with a life of questions.
In “A Bundle of Hope,” for example, the narrator asks a vegetable vendor, “How much do you charge for a bundle of hope?” The 3-minute song is a repetition of the same verse, ending with the merchant’s simple answer, “Hope? I don’t know. Why don’t you take home a bundle of vegetables?”
Other than hope longing is a reoccurring theme in his songs. “Longing” is also the title of his upcoming concert tour in New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles. It was taken from a phrase in a song from his latest album about the connections between people in a countryside market.
In the song Jang borrowed a Korean poem about people from an isolated village who flock to a countryside market because they miss seeing other people. Jang feels the same way about modern life, of the alienation experienced by the Korean-American community and about Cho Seung-Hui, the young Korean who killed 32 people in a shooting spree at Virginia Tech last month.
“I think people are very lonely,” he says. “When they leave home, their longing doubles. When your friend is crying, you drink and cry together with him all night. I think my job is exactly that.”
His role as a therapist is evident in his style of singing. On stage he is often dressed in a white or black robe, not moving an inch away from his microphone. Then he sobs, hums and laughs with solemn stillness.
This latest U.S. tour is not the first. His hybrid rhythms often draw a substantial number of foreigners to his concerts, more than many other shows put on by Koreans.
Three years ago he performed in a concert hall at the George Washington University. The theater’s 1,500 seats were all occupied that night and 20 percent of the audience was American. He was deeply moved by the experience. For an upcoming tour he thought of singing a pop song, as a whimsical departure.
“But how would that be different from Eric Clapton singing ‘Arirang’ during a Korean concert,” he asks. “It would be curious to see, but what benefit would that bring?”
Instead, he will stick to tradition, which Jang says is made up of “the stinging edge” of Korean sounds that are reminiscent of “the taste of garlic and soybean paste.”
“That’s what we are going to show,” he says, smiling. “That’s all we need to do.”

Jang Sa-ik performs in New York City Center at 7:30 p.m., June 2; Auditorium Theater in Chicago at 7:30 p.m., June 9th; Washington D.C. at 7:30 p.m. at the Music Center for Strathmore June 17th, ending at Los Angeles’ Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Sunday at 7:30 p.m., June 24th.

By Park Soo-mee Staff Writer [myfeast@joongang.co.kr]
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