ARTicle Magazine

Five days in Seoul

14 December 2016

The Jac member Jake Baxendale's South Korean diary takes us behind the scenes of an exciting international music project destined for the 2017 Wellington Jazz Festival.

Meet the band

Meet the band: Left to right, Yoon-jeong Heo, Aram Lee, Min Wang Hwang, Jake Baxendale, Jean Oh and Callum Allardice.

Forget Christmas, here at ARTicle Magazine we're counting the sleeps until the next Wellington Jazz Festival, 7–11 June 2017, with an exciting international project already under way. 

Jake Baxendale and Callum Allardice of Tui Award-winning New Zealand jazz ensemble The Jac have just returned from Seoul, where they were working with South Korean quartet Black String

Their innovative collaboration, made possible with support from Creative New Zealand, will have its world premiere performance at the Wellington Jazz Festival in June. Later that year it will feature at the 2017 Jarasum International Jazz Festival, which regularly draws crowds of 200,000 people plus.

Friday 2 December, Day One: Got into Seoul two days before rehearsals. Hit the Nakwon Music Mall, the biggest collection of music stores I’ve ever seen, and did some pure holidaying in the suburb of Itaewon. Many pubs were visited. Golmok Vinyl & Pub was a highlight, with a DJ spinning an eclectic mix from the records lining the walls. 

Music Mall

Nakwon Music Mall — the stores went on and on and on...

Saturday 3 December, Day Two: Visited Gyeongbokgung Palace, site of repeated burnings, demolitions and assassinations by various Japanese occupiers — a bit of an insight into the colonial past, for sure. The National Folk Museum gave us a look into Korean history. Particularly interesting is the juxtaposition of a very ancient culture, going back thousands of years, with the recent alphabet, created in 1443, and even more recent independent nationhood.


Some of the decorations in the restored Gyeongbokgung Palace — the painting at the rear was always behind the seated noble, but the dragons on the roof were my favourites.

Checked out the EungMin Cho Quartet at popular venue All That Jazz (points for programme, vibe and service, $1000 fine for the name). The band (which was killing) played the kind of hard-hitting NYC-esque modern originals and interpretations of standards that have informed a lot of our own music. Yet another example of the universality of jazz.

All That Jazz band

The EungMin Cho Quartet at All That Jazz.

Would've loved to catch any of the band playing again during the trip but they all told us a little sheepishly they weren't gigging again until the new year — sounds like the struggle is just as real in Seoul as anywhere else.

Sunday 4 December, Day Three: Flea market in Dongmyo. Claustrophobia started setting in a bit, with stalls going literally for miles. Finally got to meet Black String this evening. Had some trouble finding the studio — we discovered Google is not much of a thing here; turns out they use another search engine called Neighbour in Korea. Eventually picked up by Jean Oh (guitarist) and Min Wang Hwang (percussionist and vocalist) and driven to Jean's studio, which is VERY slick.

We were introduced to Yoon-jeong Heo (geomungo — a traditional bass-like instrument) and Aram Lee (daegum and danso, bamboo flutes, and yanggeum, a hammer dulcimer). They were very generous in showing us their recordings, the conventions of Korean traditional music, their instruments and the capabilities of them.

The instruments are totally fascinating. The geomungo has six strings stretched across large raised frets: three strings create a drone, another provides extra bass and percussive attack, and two more are for playing melodies and adornments.

The daegum and danso flutes are each tuned to a different pentatonic scale. A strip of paper over an open tone hole adds an intriguing reediness to the sound, and the flexibility and control of tone and pitch and colour Aram has on these is breathtaking.

The janggu is a drum played with a mallet in one hand and a flattish stick in the other. It is the mainstay of the changdan, traditional Korean rhythmic patterns on which the group improvise. Jean is also an electronic music producer and often creates soundscapes and textures as well as playing the melodies and changdan. His custom pedal board had Callum frothing.

Monday 5 December, Day Four: Had the great pleasure of being shown around by Jarasum festival director Seung Yeon, or Marie as she is also known. Went to the famous North Seoul tower for the best views in Seoul … on the day of the worst smog of the year. Typical. We went back to Itaewon for more coffee. I got my first long black of the trip and literally swooned. Hit the pubs  we missed last time we were there too — the craft beer scene in Seoul is amazing.


Us with Marie at the pagoda near North Seoul tower — Callum is not exactly a selfie master.

We were then treated to an insane amount of Korean barbecue with Seung Yeon, assistant festival director Viktor and the band, and got to try soju, a Korean clear spirit. We learned cheers in Korean: "Geonbae!"

At the studio, had the opportunity to play some of the music of Black String, much of which is featured on their album released this year, Mask Dance. This was an incredibly challenging, rewarding experience. The group plays so beautifully and intuitively together, and it was difficult not only to keep up but also to not just sit and listen the entire time.

Sat down after to talk about how we would go about collaborating between the two bands. I don't think without meeting the band, and learning a little of the people and the country, we could've got the tools together to get inside the music. Feeling very grateful for the opportunity.

Tuesday 6 December, Day Five: Half a day left before flying out, went to another palace, Gyeongbokgung. The palaces are definitely the most serene places in the city. The grounds are also home to the Museum of Modern Art, which was showing a full gallery exhibition of Yoo Youngkuk, a pioneer of abstract art in Korea. The exhibition showed examples of his work from 1935 to 1999, a staggering number of mostly bold, colourful paintings. A great way to round out the trip and a wonderful showcase of Korean culture and art, from ancient to modern – much like Black String themselves.

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