[Viewpoint] The musical paradise of NakwonIf you ask most expats in Seoul - many native residents, too - what their favorite parts of the city are, the list usually comes out pretty much the same. Cheonggye Stream, Samcheong-dong, Gyeongbok Palace, Itaewon, Insa-dong, Apgujeong, Hongdae and Yeouido Park. Basically, everything you’d find in a typical guidebook.
But for me, my favorite part of Seoul is a poorly marked, dirty, grungy, four-story old beat-up building downtown. And no, it’s nothing illicit, illegal or shady. I’m referring to Nakwon Market, where a veritable wonderland of musical instruments are for sale right in the center of Seoul.
I actually found Nakwon by accident. I was trying to go see a movie and was following a trail of movie posters. (Nakwon is actually adjacent to the Hollywood movie theater, which shows only art films.) When I saw that all of the films were in Korean, I realized that was not going to help me much. But then I went up the stairs, turned a corner and voila! Instruments everywhere - pianos back to back and side by side in every hallway, and beyond them, hundreds of stalls, with guitars, amps, basses, even mandolins, violins, banjos, ukuleles and more. Everything from crappy knock-off copies to high-end original brands. It’s the Namdaemun of music.
While I may work in public relations, it wasn’t my first job choice when I was 14. The job I wanted then was lead guitarist for a really cool art rock band, like Yes or Rush, or maybe even a more straight-up rock band like Van Halen or The Who. Either way, I decided I would have to get really, really good, so I practiced a lot and read every music magazine I could to improve my technique. And, of course, I hung out in a lot of music stores, where I would walk around for hours looking at stuff and trying things out.
The rock career never fully got off the ground. I played in a number of local bands in high school, college and beyond, with my high point being when I made $100 plus pizza and beer for a show at Washington’s famous 9:30 Club. Still, I really enjoyed it. And while I moved on to other things in my professional life, in my personal life I never lost my love for the tools and toys of music.
I call Nakwon my “happy place” - I just like walking around and seeing what’s there. Much like some people with malls, I don’t actually have to have a reason to go look around. I just like to stroll the dingy corridors, poking my head in here or there, seeing what new instrument or effect or accessory is for sale.
What’s also great about Nakwon is that all the stores are in one place. For Americans, this makes no sense - we are raised on market principles that tell us it’s better for business to go to another neighborhood rather than directly compete in the same space. But I like it - it’s great for comparison shopping, and if you treat Nakwon like one giant store, it’s better than any American music store I’ve ever seen. Grand pianos, recording software, accordions, guitars and more are all under one roof. Just a bit more walking and work to look around and find what you want. And fortunately, even though my Korean isn’t that great, most of the words I need to use are English. (“Uh, sequencer ee-soh-yo?”)
I’ve found amazing things there. A perfect replica of Eric Clapton’s psychedelic rainbow guitar from when he was in the band Cream. State-of-the-art Roland electronic drums. The latest recording software, including pitch- transposing miracle Melodyne. Harps! Violins. Cellos. Chimes. Harmonicas. Anything, really.
There are also some truly scary things as well. Hideously ugly instruments and guitar straps. Gigantic karaoke and music sequencing machines from the 1980s, horribly outdated and completely useless thanks to computers and software, sitting around almost daring people to try and buy them. Terribly made guitar copies, including one by a company named Phil (I probably have to buy it one of these days just for the name).
But I do more than just window shop. I bought my piano there - a beautiful Yamaha Upright with a perfectly clear, warm sound. It’s one of my favorite things about my apartment (I’m not sure my neighbors would say the same thing). I also talk to the store owners about what’s new. I make friends with other musicians, both expats and Koreans, who seem to wander the hallways with that same lazy sense of semipurpose, relaxed but always keeping an eye out for some effect pedal, drumstick, sale model, music stand.
I guess I will always enjoy poking around music stores, no matter where I am in life. And so I’m really grateful a place like Nakwon is in Seoul and even close to my office. Sure, it’s old, dirty and dilapidated, but it’s still my favorite place.
Which reminds me ... I think I need to go get some guitar strings.
*The writer is former head of Burson-Marsteller Korea.
By Phillip Raskin