The global emergence of K-pop has captured the dominant understanding of Korean music. And prior to this recent wave, perhaps niche, global audiences delved into traditional Korean music, such as minyo or court music. However, these two most prominent styles represent Korean music as a dichotomized, limited tradition. Indeed, Korea has a rapidly growing industry of pop music and a long history of traditional music, but what exists in between or perhaps outside?
Emerging from the peripheries is Jambinai (잠비나이). This quintet finds cross-cultural influences from traditional Korean music, post-rock, and atmospheric metal, but their ethos is certainly more complex than a forced fusion. Jambinai’s latest full-length ONDA (온다) reminds that Korean music is not just mass-mediated pop and underappreciated traditional music but also something diasporic and ever-evolving.
The founding members of Jambinai met while attending the Korea National University of Arts, a national university that is dedicated to preserving traditional Korean arts. Ilwoo Lee, Eun Youg Sim, and Bomi Kim entered the institution captivated by such tradition, but they also left consumed it. “When I played shows of [just] Korean traditional music, the audience was only my friends who majored in Korean traditional music and their families, or teachers and professors”, Lee tells The Quietus. Thus, Jambinai formed to reimagine the cultural and class limitations of these traditions.
Of course, Jambinai’s method for audience appeal is not about diluting traditional Korean music to adhere to Western ideals. In fact, ONDA maintains the traditional Korean ear for heterophony, that is the simultaneous performances of melodic variants. Often, when traditional Korean music is incorporated into the dominant sphere, heterophony is repressed, and the brashness of Korean instruments is softened. Such methods erase the very essence of traditional Korean music, merely manipulating Korean instruments to fit Western tropes. Jambinai rather embraces the sounds that assimilation silences.
“We actively utilize the noise we tried to hide in the Korean traditional music scene”, Lee tells Clash. And on “Small Consolation”, these noises echo unfettered. Even with the whispering vocals and gentle guitar strums, a haegeum, a fiddle-like instrument, shrills and embraces its tensive bows; a piri, a wooden flute, furiously enters with its own rising melody; and a geomungo, a zither-like instrument, thunderously plucks underneath it all. This is heterophony, a clash of melodies and textures that simultaneously maintains individuality and unison.
Even more, “In the Woods” truly demonstrates the heterophonic beauty of Jambinai’s reimagining of traditional Korean music. It begins with daunting guitars that echo over a droning geomungo. Then, the haegeum and piri take over the progression. They prance in succession, over the now plucked geomungo. Their tensive textures dance from and for each other, moving distinctly but still attuned. Suddenly, their frenetic chase ends as a flurry of screaming guitars and wailing drums begins to close the 13-minute centerpiece. In these moments, Jambinai’s influences do not join as simple fusions that mash traditional Korean music to post-rock to atmospheric metal. Rather, these influences thoughtfully interweave to express Jambinai’s progression of traditions, embracing a diasporic approach to Korean music.
The categories of fusion or hybrid, then, fail to express the layered, interweaving influences of ONDA. Certainly, on the closing title track, it is easy to notice the pairing of the guitar, bass, and drums with the piri, geomungo, and haegeum, and how these cross-cultural textures playfully bounce off each other until they fuse for a jarring crescendo. Then, it is even easier to label the album as a fusion of Korean folk with post-rock or atmospheric metal. Yet, these are obvious descriptions that easily fall into the cliché of east meets west, when ONDA is far more than a merging of hemispheres.
So many projects that are deemed traditional are inaccessible due to structural reasons, but sometimes, it is by choice. Too often, the aura of authenticity is dependent not on tradition but merely obscurity. In these cases, the idea of traditional music is defined and celebrated by the few, guarded by categories that are illegible to the majority. Of course, traditional music has no responsibility to appeal to the dominant culture, but it also has no obligation to remain separate from it. Traditional music is not a stagnant practice that is obstinately isolated from the masses, only disseminated amongst fellow performers, niche audiences, and scholars.
Certainly, Jambinai aimed to move on from these misconceptions, to rather “communicate with the ordinary person who doesn’t listen to Korean traditional music”, as Lee proposes. ONDA approaches traditional Korean music as an ever-evolving culture, thoughtfully maintaining its essence while also introducing new influences. The result is a project that interweaves diasporic influences just as heterophony interweaves distinct melodies.