The geomungo is 6 foot- long, 11-string zither instrument from Korea which is played by one or more people sitting on the floor striking the strings with a short stick. It is often accompanied by a janggo, also called a “slim-waist drum”, an hourglass-shaped horizontal drum with two heads made from animal skins tuned to produce sounds of different pitch and timbre believed to represent the harmony of man and woman.
The music these instruments make is atonal and their rhythms are far from the 4/4 and 6/8 beats we love to dance to. So the last place you would expect to see a geomungo or a janggo is paired with a jazz piano or a Mexican rock/cumbia band, but that is exactly what I saw Friday at the Korean Cultural Center in LA’s Koreatown. And it really, really worked.
Suk-jon Lee playing the janggoThe event was the “The Seoul of LA”, sponsored by the Korean government and the Getty Foundation as part of its LA/LA Project. It showcased the Geomungo Jazz Trio with Korean geomungo master Ik-So Heo, a senior member of the Gyeonggi Provincial Traditional Music Orchestra eo, Korean janggo master Suk-jon Lee, and Professor Severin Behnen of LA Valley College who composed the music and played the piano. The Korean Cultural Center is a three story complex on Wilshire Blvd down the street from one of LA’s premier rock venues, the El Ray, and a few blocks from the headquarters of SAG-AFTRA union headquarters. The Center has a music venue on the third floor, complete with stage, lights, PA system and about 100 very comfortable seats.
Those seats were filled on Friday with Korean extended families, including grandparents. The evening began with traditional Korean music on the geomungo and the janggo. Ik-soo is renowned for unparalleled skill and dedication to traditional music, as well as to fusing traditional songs with jazz and other western music forms. He and Suk-jon Lee took us through traditional pieces and then Severin Behnen came out and things changed. Behnen warned us to prepare ourselves for something different. The Korean grandmothers took note.
The something different was Severin Benhnen’s launching into jazz and blues songs on the piano, accompanied by Michael Saucier on standup bass and Ik-Soo and Suk-jong Lee, delivering jazz as good as anything you would hear on the circuit in LA or New York. Then things rally changed. The theater went dark, a screen behind them lit up with swirling psychedelic images and Craig Shields, the cajon player from Cuñao, came out and joined the two Korean musicians in a rhythm journey that rocked the house.
And it didn’t stop there. The full Cuñao band mounted stage, Behnen moved out from behind the piano and picked up an accordion, and the group launched into “Gnossienne”, starting slow and increasing speed to full Latin tempo with Ik-Soo and Suk-jong backing the beat. Cuñao and the Koreans played three more songs, “Sana”, Gaitan” and “El Llano” which brought everyone out on stage for a rousing dance number that had the Korean grandmothers standing and shaking their hips.
Julio Montero, leader of Cuñao told me afterward that they had been rehearsing and exploring with the Korean players for over a week, starting with understanding the music notation system and the rhythms. The Korean players did the same and it came together in fits and starts, but ultimately the two thousand year-old music tradition from Korea meshed perfectly with modern jazz and Latin/cumbia. But that is no surprise; music is the universal language and we saw that in action Friday night.