From K-Pop to the Concert Hall

Traditional Korean music draws American audiences

07 Nov 2019 | 11:05

Traditional Korean music, with its colorful zithers, cymbals, powerful voice and drumming, is starting to invade the American music scene.

The Tune, an all-female band from Korea, continued a national tour at Lincoln Center’s David Rubenstein Atrium on Nov. 7, following a 30-day tour by Korean percussionist Kim So Ra that turned heads from New York to Indiana.

“Although Korean music has a broad spectrum of topics, melodies, and sounds, most American audience members may think only Korean pop as Korean music,” said Lee Soung Soon, a percussionist of The Tune. “Now, it’s our turn to show our diversified music.”

The Tune reinterprets traditional music to appeal to the U.S. market, said Lee, incorporating the sound of a modern keyboard instrument in tandem with traditional instruments – most typically a drum, stringed instruments like a zither and a variety of wind instruments.

The Tune also employs a traditional “call and response” technique, Gutgury, adopted in K-Pop in which performers establish a rhythm with instruments and voices, and draw audience members to respond to the beat with their own voices.

““We briefly introduce a few words, and people start to say those words following beats,” said Lee. "That is the part where our audiences get the most excited.”

Heart Beats

Cynthia Chen, like most Americans, had never heard Korean traditional music. But after her favorite Korean pop band BTS injected some traditional sounds and beats into a hit song, she was drawn to Kim’s New York concert. Now, she’s a devotee: “I can feel my heart beats with the music.”

“Until now, we just did not know how to step into the U.S. market,” said Kim. She emphasized that Korean music has a great weapon to grab American listeners: rhythm.

“Unlike melodies that your brain memorizes, beats are what your body directly feels,” she said. Korean music has distinctive and rare rhythm systems like a 48-beat system.

The Tune also strongly agreed that Korean traditional music has rhythm patterns that, in Lee’s words, “straightforwardly strikes into listeners’ hearts.”

Both Kim and The Tune bet that Korean music has great potential to attract an American audience. Shades Adeyemo, programming coordinator at the Atrium at Lincoln Center, apparently agreed, having booked The Tune soon thereafter.