Global appeal of gugak generates opportunities: Musicians who play traditional instruments find success overseas

Home > Entertainment > Music & Performance

print dictionary print

Global appeal of gugak generates opportunities: Musicians who play traditional instruments find success overseas


Jambinai’s music is based on gugak, traditional Korean music. The five-member group plays traditional instruments such as piri (Korean style flute) and haegeum (Korean zither), but its music sounds a lot like heavy metal. The globe-trotting group performs in more than 30 countries every year. [THE TELL-TALE HEART]

Five female musicians took the stage earlier this month inside the Jeongdong Theater, located in Jung District, central Seoul. With them, they had traditional Korean instruments such as janggu (hourglass-shaped drum), haegeum (Korean zither) and piri (Korean style flute).

At the sight of the instruments, they undoubtedly looked like a group of musicians doing traditional music, but once the music started, all expectations were shattered. The voice of the singer was close to that of a heavy metal vocalist, but it blended well with the lyrical notes of the keyboard and the sounds of a kkwaenggwari (small gong) from time to time. Kkwaenggwari is widely used in nongak, or traditional Korean music performed by farmers.

The music was hard to define as it walked a fine line between gugak, traditional Korean music, and jazz. The music even sounded like Gypsy music at one point, but its ambiguous identity didn’t matter because it surely energized the nearly 20 foreign visitors in the venue that day.

The audience enjoyed the performance as they swayed seorihwa, white flowers often used in gut or shamanistic rituals, as if the flowers were light sticks that are often used at K-pop concerts.

The small concert was an introduction of Korean musician The Tune to foreigners working in entertainment as part of a project called “Journey to Korean Music,” organized by the Korea Arts Management Service.

“Journey to Korean Music” is a program devised to promote and distribute the music of qualified local artists abroad. The program selects a list of musicians who are based in gugak each year. This year, The Tune secured one of the spots.

The program chooses musicians of the year through auditions and helps the musicians find places to play their music by hosting a series of events such as showcases, seminars and networking parties by inviting officials working for theaters and music festivals around the world.

While The Tune may not ring a bell to many Koreans, their music is well received overseas. They are even set to perform at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York on Nov. 7.

Hicham Bahou, the director of the Moroccan music festival Le Boulevard said, “The strength [of The Tune] is that it has characteristics of Asian music, but their music is universal at the same time.”

Bahou invited The Tune to perform in Morocco.

Having roots in gugak, many Korean musicians get experimental by adding new elements and creating new versions of the traditional sound. The trend has been ongoing for decades.

Japan-born Korean musician Yang Bang-ean’s “Frontier!” is credited for generating a significant buzz about crossover gugak in 2002.

Composed by Yang, “Frontier!” uses some traditional Korean instruments to produce modern melodies. It was used as a theme song for the 2002 Asian Games held in Busan. Since then, crossover gugak has remained popular largely thanks to festivals like the Yeowoorak Festival hosted by National Theater of Korea.

The annual music festival is dedicated to musicians who are based in gugak yet attempt to merge it with other genres of music.

Crossover gugak has been around for more than two decades and it has been making inroads into the global market in recent years.


Musician Lee Hee-moon creates music based on Gyeonggi minyo, or folk songs from Gyeonggi. [SHIN IN-SEOP]

Local musicians like Jambinai and Lee Hee-moon are some of the beneficiaries of the latest trend of gugak going global.

They went a step further from gugak and created music of their own which has gotten recognition from overseas.

Having studied under the master of Gyeonggi minyo, or Korean folk songs from Gyeonggi, which has been designated as the No. 57 Important Intangible Cultural Properties of Korea, Lee began his career by singing Korean folk songs, but he changed his career path after landing a role in “Princess Bari,” by famed choreographer Ahn Eun-mi.

Since then, Lee has been trying his hand at combining Gyeonggi minyo with other musical genres.

Some of the crossover projects Lee has been doing include “A Korean Man,” in which Lee mixes Gyeonggi minyo with jazz; “Ssingssing” where the Gyeonggi minyo is blended with rock music; and “Nal,” a project using rhythm instruments with Korean folk songs.

Lee’s minyo rock band Ssingssing, now defunct, was the first Korean act to be featured on NPR Music’s Tiny Desk Concert in 2017. NPR Music is part of National Public Radio in the United States.

The video clip of Ssingssing performing their Tiny Desk Concert attracted 4 million views on YouTube. The video clip even attracted the attention of actor Yoo Ah-in.

Impressed by Lee’s performance, Yoo suggested that he appear on his TV show “Do-ol Ah-in Going All Directions” on KBS earlier this year.

If Lee is a budding musician, Jambinai deserves to be dubbed the hottest, globe-trotting gugak musician. The group, which consists of members who have backgrounds in piri, haegeum, geomungo (six-stringed Korean zither), drum and bass guitar, presents an explosive sound that is equivalent to a heavy metal band with a sorrowful sentiment.

Jambinai tours around 30 countries every year to perform live shows.

Steve Lillywhite, the English record producer who previously worked with legends like U2 and The Rolling Stones, was once quoted as saying that “Jambinai doesn’t follow trends, they create them.”

Lillywhite is not the only person who has showered the group with praise.

“They Keep Silence,” a song by Jambinai, was listed as one of the top 100 songs of 2016 by NPR Music. The group’s album “A Hermitage” was included as 15 Great Albums You Didn’t Hear in 2016 by the monthly music magazine “Rolling Stone.”

Based on its huge success overseas, Jambinai was invited to perform at the closing ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics held in Pyeongchang, Gangwon a year after it held 50 concerts across 44 cities in 20 countries in 2017.

Jambinai is currently on its European tour, marking the release of its third album.

“Unlike the local music scene that is highly sensitive to passing trends, diverse genres are accepted overseas and we could gain a footing here for that reason,” the group said.

A variety of incubating programs are attributed to the rise of new gugak musicians.

One of them is the “21st Century Korean Music Project” launched in 2007 by Gugak FM, a radio station dedicated to gugak. Through the project, many stars were born over the past 13 years, including Bulsechul Ensemble, AUX and Coreyah.

“Sori Frontier,” organized by Jeonju International Sori Festival, has been discovering jewels in gugak such as Anaya and The Tune over the past decade. The program marked its 10th anniversary this month.

Jeongdong Theater’s “Young Artist in Full Bloom,” in its third year, and “Danjang,” co-hosted by the Seoul Metropolitan Government and Crown Haitai Confectionery Group launched last year, are some other similar programs designed to nurture gugak musician hopefuls.

Gugak group Hey String, which won the inaugural “Danjang,” is scheduled to perform at the Southbank Centre in London in November.

There are also a few international music fairs held in Seoul, such as the Seoul International Music Fair and Performing Arts Market in Seoul, which attract influential figures in the field, but only one serves gugak - “Journey to Korean Music.”

This year, the program invited 25 people working for Barbican Centre and Southbank Centre in England.

About 160 experts have visited Korea through “Journey to Korean Music” so far. As a result, about 67 percent of participants have had the chance to perform their music overseas.

New gugak groups are coming out one after another, but people who are in the know say there is no place for these musicians to succeed for a long time in Korea. This is one reason the musicians are trying to go abroad to find a breakthrough.

For example, Korean gugak musicians have participated in the World Music Expo, also known as WOMEX, held in Berlin since 2011, a feat that no other Asian country has achieved.

Kim Hee-seon, the team head at the gugak research team of the National Gugak Center, said “People tend to underestimate gugak as nothing special unless it has really brilliant ideas.

“Overseas, however, they are surprised to see that there are so many young musicians based in traditional music. They also find it interesting that we have many different genres of gugak and gugak groups with different characteristics. So we think there will be growing need for the musicians,” Kim added.

Kim continued, “People working in music around the world are eager to know more about Korean [gugak] artists and they ask for more information about them from us. Take Jambinai for example, they got a good grip on the overseas market and their understanding of the market created synergy with their original music.

“A middleman is needed for a good match between a market and an artist. Nurturing managers who can do the matching in between is another important task we have to tackle,” she added.


국악 크로스오버 바람…‘신한류’가 몰아친다

지난 10월 7일 정동극장 정동마루에서는 외국인 20여 명을 앞에 두고 5인의 여성 뮤지션들이 작은 공연을 펼쳤다. 장구·해금·피리 등 국악기 베이스지만 헤비메탈 음색의 보컬과 서정적인 키보드 선율, 농악판 상쇠의 꽹가리까지 뒤섞인다. 국악인지 재즈인지 집시음악인지 몰라도 사물놀이를 보듯 신명 난다. 외국인들도 굿판에서 쓰는 ‘서리화’를 응원봉처럼 흔들며 하나가 된다.

지난주 열린 예술경영지원센터의 국악 뮤지션 해외유통 프로젝트 ‘저니투코리안뮤직’ 행사 중 창작음악그룹 ‘더튠’의 쇼케이스였다. 각국에서 모여든 월드뮤직 전문가들에게 우리 뮤지션을 선보이는 자리다. 올해 6대 1의 경쟁률을 뚫고 ‘저니투코리안뮤직’에 선정된 ‘더튠’은 우리에겐 낯선 이름이지만 뉴욕 링컨센터에 초청받을 정도로 해외 활동이 활발한 그룹이다. 모로코에 이들을 초청한 ‘르 블루바드(Le Boulevard)페스티벌’ 디렉터 히캄 바후는 “아시아 음악의 특징을 잘 담고 있으면서도 세계화에 손색없는 음악성을 갖춘 게 매력적”이라며 “우리 모로코 축제뿐 아니라 다른 축제에도 추천하고 싶다”고 말했다.

K팝 아이돌 못잖은 해외투어 성적

국악계에도 경계 없는 ‘크로스오버’ 음악이 열풍이다. 전통에 뿌리를 두되 과감한 실험으로 줄타기하며 한국적인 아우라를 발산하는 음악들이 ‘새로운 국악’으로 각광받고 있다. 갑자기 생긴 현상은 아니다. 2002 부산아시안게임 주제곡으로 재일한국인 뮤지션 양방언이 작곡한 ‘프런티어!’가 대중적인 선율에 국악기의 매력을 더해 대박을 터뜨린 이후 크로스오버 트렌드가 생겨났고, 자유로운 장르 충돌을 표방한 국립극장 여우락페스티벌 등을 통해 증폭되어 왔다.

20년 가까이 이어진 크로스오버 트렌드는 최근 국악의 세계화 움직임과 만나 해외무대로 이어지고 있다. 요즘 국악 스타들은 해외에서 먼저 주목받는다. 잠비나이, 이희문 등 ‘핫 플레이어’들은 국악의 틀을 벗어나 ‘세상에 없던’ 음악을 만들어 글로벌 스타로 먼저 떴다. ‘전통음악의 문화교류’ 차원을 넘어 매력적인 월드뮤직으로 해외진출에 성공한 새로운 한류 모델로, 국내에서도 역주행하고 있다.

‘국가무형문화재 제57호 경기민요 이수자’ 이희문은 “민요의 바운더리 안에선 진로 고민을 할 정도였다”고 털어놨다. 무용가 안은미를 만나 총체극 ‘프린세스 바리’ 주연으로 떴고, 이후 경기민요와 타장르의 적극적인 충돌을 실험해 갔다. 고정된 패턴이 아닌 재즈와 결합한 ‘한국남자’, 록과 결합한 ‘씽씽’, 드럼 등 리듬악기와 결합한 ‘날’ 등 다양한 프로젝트 위주로 활동한다. 지금은 해체됐지만 그가 주도한 민요록 밴드 ‘씽씽’은 2017년 미국 공영라디오 NPR의 대표 프로그램 ‘타이니 데스크 콘서트’에 한국인 최초로 출연한 영상이 유튜브 400만 뷰에 육박하는 인기를 누렸다. 그 영상에 반한 배우 유아인의 러브콜로 올해 KBS ‘도올아인 오방간다’에 고정출연하기도 했다.

잠비나이의 행보는 더 글로벌하다. 매년 30개국 이상 라이브 투어를 돌 정도로 가장 핫한 ‘국악한류’인 이들의 성공 요인도 ‘이제껏 못 들어본 음악’이다. 피리, 거문고, 해금 전공자를 중심으로 드럼과 베이스, 기타를 활용해 헤비메탈에 가까운 폭발적인 사운드에 국악 특유의 애절한 정서를 담아낸다. ‘U2’와 ‘롤링스톤스’의 프로듀서 스티브 릴리화이트가 “트렌드를 좇는 것이 아니라 트렌드를 주도하는 밴드”라고 극찬해 유명해졌고, 2016년 NPR 뮤직 ‘올해 최고 음악 100선’, ‘롤링스톤’의 ‘당신이 못 들어봤을 15개 대단한 앨범’에 선정되기도 했다. 2017년 ‘20개국 44개 도시 50회 공연’이라는 아이돌급 기록으로 화제가 되자 2018 평창겨울올림픽 폐회식에도 불려나갔다. 3집 앨범 발매기념으로 유럽투어 중인 이들은 “유행에 민감한 음악을 해야 하는 국내 시장에 비해 다양한 장르를 수용하는 해외 시장에서 발판을 다질 수 있었다”고 말했다.

해외시장은 국악의 다양성에 주목

‘듣도보도 못했던 새로운 국악’은 다양한 창작국악 인큐베이팅 프로그램들을 통해 탄생하고 있다. 2007년 시작된 국악방송의 ‘21세기 한국음악 프로젝트’는 13년간 불세출, 정민아, AUX, 고래야 등 많은 스타를 배출해 왔다. 올해 10주년을 맞은 전주세계소리축제의 ‘소리프론티어’도 영화 ‘워낭소리’의 OST로 유명한 밴드 ‘아나야’를 시작으로 더튠, 소나기프로젝트, 오감도, 악단광칠, 타니모션 등을 배출했다. 정동극장도 청년 국악 인큐베이팅 사업 ‘청춘만발’을 3회째 진행하고 있고, 서울시와 크라운해태가 지난해 시작한 남산국악당의 국악오디션 ‘단장’도 폭넓은 리쿠르팅과 체계적인 인큐베이팅으로 주목받고 있다. 지난해 우승한 ‘헤이스트링’은 11월 런던 사우스뱅크 센터에서 유럽 데뷔한다.

‘새로운 국악’이 봇물 터지고 있지만 국내에는 설 자리가 좁다. 세계무대에서 살 길을 찾아야 하는 이유다. 김희선 국립국악원 국악연구실장은 “국내에서는 웬만큼 획기적인 아이디어가 아니면 국악을 식상하게 여긴다”면서 “해외시장에서는 전통음악계에 젊은 아티스트들이 포진해있다는 점에 놀라고 있고, 국악의 장르 다양성과 아티스트그룹의 다양성에도 주목하고 있기에 수요는 꾸준히 증가할 것”이라고 전망했다.

서울아트마켓 팸스초이스, 서울국제뮤직페어(뮤콘), 아시아태평양국제뮤직마켓(에이팜) 등 해외 유력 마케터들이 찾는 공연예술 견본시장이 여럿 있지만, 국악에 특화된 해외진출 플랫폼은 예술경영지원센터가 2008년부터 지속해온 ‘저니투코리안뮤직’이 유일하다. 공모를 통해 아티스트를 선발하고, 해외 유명 극장, 축제 관계자들을 초청해 쇼케이스, 한국음악이론 세미나, 네트워킹 파티 등 다양한 프로그램을 열어 아티스트와 매칭을 돕는다.

지금까지 ‘저니투코리안뮤직’을 통해 전 세계 월드뮤직 전문가 160여명이 한국을 찾았고, 참여 아티스트의 67%가 해외무대로 진출했다. 올해도 영국 바비컨센터, 사우스뱅크센터 등에서 관계자 25명을 초청했다. 잠비나이와 이희문을 비롯해 공명·비빙·바람곶·블랙스트링 등 세계를 무대로 활약하는 창작그룹들은 모두 저니투코리안뮤직을 통했다. 유럽 최대 월드뮤직마켓인 워맥스(WOMAX)에 아시아에서 유일하게 한국단체가 8년 연속 선정된 것도 그 성과다.

김희선 연구실장은 “해외에서 한국 아티스트에 대한 관심이 높아지고 있고, 관련 정보도 요구하고 있다. 잠비나이 등은 아티스트의 창의력과 예술성이 시장에 대한 이해와 잘 결합된 예시”라면서 “아티스트와 시장이 잘 만나려면 매개역할이 필요하다. 해외교류 매개 인력을 위한 기획자양성도 중요한 과제”라고 지적했다.

유주현 기자
Log in to Twitter or Facebook account to connect
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
help-image Social comment?
lock icon

To write comments, please log in to one of the accounts.

Standards Board Policy (0/250자)